If you had 5 years in your office pool until the college football playoff expansion talk really started heating up please collect your prize now. The discussions have intensified this month with a handful of college leaders (most importantly conference commissioners) weighing in on expansion thus sending the media and college football fans abuzz. This topic now includes Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly who says he is in favor of an 8-team playoff system.
Here are my hot takes on playoff expansion:
Harder to Win
We can admit that if there’s an expansion (especially to 8 teams) there will be some programs who will be happy just to make the playoffs. Coaches will activate healthy bonuses and fans will be excited to brag about making the tournament where “anything can happen.” Take any non-blue blood program and just making it is the key for them, kind of similar to how these programs would treat being placed in the Fiesta Bowl. Great to make it, winning the game really isn’t that important.
Expansion is likely bad news for Notre Dame if we’re concerned about winning. Too much of the talk over the past 5 years has surrounded Notre Dame being left out and not what expansion does to the Irish once they do get in the tournament. I read a few Notre Dame articles based on Kelly’s comments and every single one only discussed the implications of the Irish getting into the expanded playoff and how it’s a net positive since it will be easier to qualify.
This year is a crystal clear example of the challenge with an expanded field–would it be easier for Notre Dame to beat Ohio State, Clemson, and Alabama consecutively or just Clemson and Alabama? Sure, some seasons there might be a really easy 3 vs. 6 matchup or you’d pray Alabama gets knocked out early but more often than not it will be a very difficult first round game–which is partly why so many people don’t want to give teams 5 through 8 a chance!
Until Notre Dame proves it’s an elite program that would be favored against just about everyone then an expanded playoffs only makes it harder for the school to win a title.
I would also worry about the expanded playoffs moving the goal posts for what’s considered a truly successful season, especially at a place that is printing undefeated tee-shirts from the regular season for the second time in 6 seasons.
If this expanded system were in place in the past this would be Notre Dame’s 5th playoff appearance since 2005. That’s a good little run but an 8-team playoff really changes the dynamic where making that tournament in and of itself shouldn’t be that big of a deal. It’s really no different than the Irish making a major bowl game (also would be the 5th time since 2005) and what people should care about is winning those games, not just participating. Notre Dame has yet to win these games in recent history.
The FCS playoffs feature auto-bids from conference winners but it’s only 11 teams from a 24-team field which also includes byes for the top seeds. If the FBS expands to an 8-team playoff they cannot give auto-bids to the Power 5 conference winners, unless they make other drastic changes to the format.
We know that expansion is going to be driven largely by the conferences feeling jilted over the last 5 seasons. Notre Dame has already “stolen” a bid this year. Additionally, the Big Ten champion hasn’t made it 3 years in a row. The Big 12 has only 3 bids so far while the Pac-12 only has 2 bids with Oregon’s win over Florida State in the inaugural tournament the lone playoff win for both conferences. Selfishly, those leagues want more bids but the Power 5 automatically gobbling up nearly two-thirds of the bids is not good for the game.
Playoff expansion is the perfect time to achieve two things: One, devalue conferences (possibly forever!) and actually embrace the Group of 5 programs and the rest of the Football Bowl Division.
Giving auto-bids to the Power 5 programs would leave only 3 slots for G5 programs so that’s even worse off for them than the current system. You could give an auto-bid to the top G5 program but to me that’s asking for a lot of trouble, too.
The strongest argument against expanding the playoffs is that the powers-that-be will absolutely get this feature wrong. For them, this will be the opportunity to increase the value of the Power 5 conferences, which will lead to more conference expansion as the strong G5 programs scratch and claw for a chance to climb the mountain. That in turn will further dilute the Power 5 conferences and devalue winning their leagues even more.
Home Field Advantage
The top seeds absolutely have to host games on their campuses all the way until the National Championship. To me, this is the easiest way to off-set an 8-team playoff bringing less value to the regular season. Introducing byes should be on the table, as well.
Most seem to expect the first round of a 8-team playoff being held on campuses and this is good. Even if they continue making the semi-finals part of bowl games (as is the case now) over time the bowls will be crippled. Imagine for 2018, Fresno State replacing UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, Kentucky replacing Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Northwestern replacing Michigan in the Peach Bowl, and Penn State replacing Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Players sitting out of those exhibitions will just get worse and winning those games even more meaningless.
However, Lord help us all if they try and shoe-in the bowl games into the first round of the 8-team playoff. I bet that will be discussed.
Speaking of devaluing the regular season, I think we’ll be okay with 8 teams in the playoffs. Some years will be worse than others, some years the race to fill the 8 slots will be amazing and then we get to see 7 even more amazing football games in the playoffs.
That’s coming from someone who thinks the romanticism of the college football regular season has been overrated, though. The playoffs will make the rare titanic regular season matchups less important (if you’re lucky to get them any given year) in exchange for the tier below the titanic matchups being more important and getting titanic and semi-titanic matchups in the playoffs. I will take that trade-off.
— Brian Fremeau (@bcfremeau) December 12, 2018
In 2018, we had a fairly non-controversial top 4 and yet the regular season quietly sucked in terms of big, important games. We’re told we have the 4 teams in the playoff who proved they are the most deserving but the way things broke the regular season was about as forgettable as possible–and that’s with 3 major undefeated teams! Are we sure we can’t live with a 1-loss Clemson in a playoff because their undefeated regular season with tops wins against NC State, Texas A&M, and Syracuse is too sacred to mess with?
Too often we’re concerned more with “figuring out” the regular season that plays out before us and not whether that regular season was actually worthy of praise for being exciting and memorable. We know the playoffs will always give us big games yet we can’t always guarantee the regular season is entertaining and all its cracked up to be.
Who is Deserving?
I tend to look at college football more through the prism of entertainment more so than who we think is the best in the country based only on the regular season when sometimes the regular season can be super flawed and/or lacking in big games.
Again, look back at this past regular season. I am told Ohio State, Georgia, and UCF don’t deserve to get in or had their shot and failed. Maybe that’s true but I think there’s a lot of value for the sport to see these programs facing the top seeds in the playoffs.
Being forced to watch all of the top 8 teams playing each other after the regular season gave us so few ‘big’ games is a huge bonus–arguably a necessary bonus.
USC 1974, Notre Dame 1977, and Miami 1983 are a few examples from the 1970’s through the pre-BCS era of teams who were ranked outside the Top 4 at the end of the regular season and ended up winning National Championships (shared in USC’s, case but still) after bowl game chaos. Had the Irish won the 1991 Orange Bowl against Colorado they could’ve been another example of a #5 team winning a title, too.
The way 1977 Notre Dame is perceived back then versus how they would be today is interesting to me. That season, the Irish had 3 good wins (#8 Pitt, #13 USC, #19 Clemson), lost to a really bad Ole Miss team on the road, and the rest of the schedule was quite easy. As the #5 team they were lucky to get matched up with #1 Texas and lucky that the bowl games broke in such a way that a big win over the Longhorns convinced voters Notre Dame were National Champions.
Now, was that system the best way to do things? Absolutely not, I’ve always said the old bowl system was like having the illusion of a playoff system that abruptly stopped after the first round for voting. But, taking that ’77 Notre Dame team in today’s game–a team not unlike Ohio State this year–they’re automatically deemed unworthy of a title following the regular season. I’m not sure I like the way that diverges with the history of college football.
The game is absolutely littered with great teams having awful days and losing to average, even poor teams, and still winning National Championships.
It’s a game of young kids, with injuries, hostile environments, and chaos able to reign at any given moment. This is what makes college football special much more than adherence to the notion that the regular season is always a perfectly constructed road map for the entire country. Having the regular season be super important is crucial–and will remain so with an expanded playoff–but having one game be a death sentence, well, that’s far less important in my opinion.
Once you let that one-game destroyer or worlds mentality go in favor of possible entertaining playoff matchups and a wider spread of anarchy I think it’s really freeing. You still get chaos, it’s just a different chaos. Ohio State’s loss to Purdue may not have been as costly in a 8-team playoff but Washington State’s loss in the Apple Cup, or Florida’s loss to Kentucky, or LSU’s loss to Texas A&M, or Penn State’s loss to Michigan State, or West Virginia’s loss to Oklahoma State sure as heck would’ve been devastating for those programs.
To me, that’s the great debate and both sides of the argument make sense to me although I think I’m in favor of more big games coming from an expanded field to 8 teams even if ultimately that means it’s more difficult for the Fighting Irish to win a National Title. As a fan of college football I say bring on the competition and 7 playoff games.
The Best 8-Team System:
#8 UCF at #5 Georgia
#7 Michigan at #6 Ohio State
#5 Georgia at #4 Oklahoma
#6 Ohio State at #3 Notre Dame
#4 Oklahoma at #1 Alabama
#3 Notre Dame at #2 Clemson
Granted, this would suck for Ohio State who crushed Michigan in the regular season finale and then would have to play them again in the first round of the playoffs. Still, this is my preferred format with double byes for the top 2 seeds to retain more importance on the regular season. I may be convinced to allow conference auto-bids IF all of these games are played on campus and the committee continues their current ratings system. For 2018, that would mean Washington gets in over UCF or Michigan (dependent on a G5 auto-bid).
Last year the layout could’ve been #8 USC at #5 Ohio State and #7 Auburn at #6 Wisconsin with winners facing #3 Georgia and #4 Alabama. Clemson (#1) and Oklahoma (#2) pick up double-byes. All Power 5 champs would’ve made it and if you’re giving the G5 a spot undefeated UCF would’ve replaced 2-loss Auburn, a team the Knights beat in their bowl game anyway.
With this system, finishing 1st or 2nd after the regular season has a major advantage over the other playoff participants. It would force the lowest seeds to win 4 games while the top seeds would only have to win 2 games for a title. In the event that someone like 2018 Georgia were to win out in this scenario and beat Alabama in a re-match for the title sure that’s awful for the Tide after going 14-0. I’d think this long run of upsets would be pretty unlikely most years (and re-matches would happen sparingly) but if the Dawgs pulled it off I think you have to tip your hat and say it’s deserved.