I’m on record as saying that the four-team playoff situation is a flawed solution to the problem college football fans everywhere are clamoring to have solved. That isn’t to say that the national championship game played last Monday night didn’t match up the two best teams in the land.
It most assuredly did (and what a great game it was).
The problem is that by going the route of choosing the “best” four teams instead of the four “most deserving” teams, there is a severe bias in the selection process favoring the teams that recruit the most talent. Alabama may as well write their ticket into football’s final four in perpetuity no matter who they schedule or how few SEC championships they actually win.
As strongly as I would argue that the final four really ought to be about the four teams that did the most to earn the trip (and, yes, that could be a relative assessment for those of you who think UCF should have been in and deserve recognition as the “true” national champs), I do understand the counter point. For every argument that I make about meritocracy, I could understand the counterargument for aristocracy.
Some people would argue that the clearest solution to this befuddling problem is an expansion of the College Football Playoff to eight teams.
There is some sound reasoning supporting this notion. First of all, there is precedent. The FCS already has an expanded playoff format. They actually send 24 teams to the playoffs every year and it seems to work just fine.
Eight teams would also afford us the end of this “meritocracy” vs “aristocracy” argument. You’d be able to support the both the “best teams” based on the committee’s eyeball test and the ones that actually won their divisions and earned it on the field. The flawed notion that a team could simultaneously lose its own conference but somehow still win the national title would cease being an issue in such a format.
So, what’s the problem? College Football power brokers have already shown a willingness to mess with the whole national championship procedure before. Why not do it again and finally get it right?
The answer to that question is a familiar refrain that, in fact, is the answer to many questions in life: Time and Money.
To understand why we don’t currently have and won’t soon have an eight team playoff, we must first dispense with the intellectually pure arguments around finding the “true national champion”. That romantic notion does not exist and won’t soon be born. Feel good stories like UCF this past season, Western Michigan the year previous or any group of five before that have no place in this conversation. They are as irrelevant now as they were when we had the BCS.
With that established, the first thing that we have to understand is the concept of inertia. There are many, many hungry mouths sitting at the College Football table, all of whom are starving, have a stake in the meal being served and want their food prepared in a way that suits their tastes. Whether we are talking about the public schools, the private institutions, the media executives, the athletic directors, the advocates for the players or the ticket-buying fans, everybody has an opinion. Identifying those opinions, getting them out in the open and then cultivating a solution that works for them is a lot of work.
The kind of work that takes both time and, you guessed it, money. There are few entities that I can identify who are willing to expend much of either to fix a system that, in the long view of things, just got launched and appears to be doing well.
Let’s pretend for a moment that we could get past that inertia and motivate the stakeholders to all start working towards a new solution. The question then becomes focused on what the parameters of that solution might look like.
Practically speaking, the implementation of an eight-team playoff would have to involve some trade-offs. One of those big trade-offs will have to deal with the length of the season.
The college football season is already too long for most interested parties. The season begins during the summer break for most schools - a time of year when fan interest is divided among other summer interests - and stretches out beyond the conclusion of most fall terms. Simply expanding out the season in order to accommodate an extra round of playoffs either on the front end or the back end is not really all that practical. There isn’t enough time.
Some might argue that you could simply bump or re-purpose the bowl games that might be squeezed by an extra week of playoffs. That sounds great on paper except for the fact that you’d be pushing out a cohort of teams who would otherwise be entitled to play in those bowl games in order to accommodate the expanded number of playoff teams. For most fans, that isn’t a problem. We are not watching those low level bowl games anyhow.
But the schools and coaches who play in those games pay a huge price for that kind of decision. There is big money at stake for both the schools and the conferences that populate those bowl games. Those stakeholders aren’t about to agree to walk away from those bowl game without some kind of compensation.
The other solution you could implement would be a reduction of the number of games on the schedule. Everybody likes to cite the FCS model when talking about expanded playoffs, but nobody seems to mention that those schools only play 11-game seasons. This works for them because each individual football game doesn’t drive the kind of economics that FBS schools garner from the games they play in..
Try to imagine FBS with an 11 game schedule. Conference championships would certainly be gone (which has its own economic implications) and teams would likely have to shrink each of their schedules by one OOC game and one in-conference game.
I’m guessing there wouldn’t be too many fans in favor of that proposal.
I can already tell that some of you are sitting there thinking “well, screw it. Just play an extra week even if it goes a week later into the winter”. That’s easy to say, but the NCAA isn’t really keen on that kind of decision without a full understanding of the player health consequences. It isn’t all about altruism, either. The NCAA is currently dealing with more than 40 lawsuits related to football related injuries (most of them concussion oriented) right now. They aren’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to add more games to their slate without understanding the risk/reward.
So, as you can see, it is already getting to be a convoluted problem. And we’ve not even yet addressed the four-letter elephant in the room:
The world-wide leader not only benefits from broadcasting the college football playoff, it is a major stakeholder in all of college football broadcasting. They own almost every bowl that is out there in addition to having ownership in most conference networks and / or broadcasting rights across those that they do not own.
If the calculus experts at ESPN had figured out a way to parlay an expanded playoff into either a) slowing down the rapid rate of subscriber losses that they are suffering or b) making more money, I’m guessing that we might have heard about it by now. As it is, I don’t see ESPN racing to cut new deals with the NCAA that might open the door for them to make even greater payouts in the event a playoff expansion were to occur.
The money, at least for now, just doesn’t seem to be there. No matter how badly you may argue to the contrary, ESPN’s own behavior would seem to indicate that such a bet wouldn’t pay back.
Time and money. It’s what it is all about in life and it is why we will not be seeing an eight team college football playoff anytime soon.