Playoff Needs Expansion, But Not to 8
The first College Football Playoff is rightly declared a success. After Ohio State's emphatic 42-20 victory over Oregon, we can finally proclaim a national champion in college football that's more substantial than mythical.
Well, almost. TCU is still out there and a legitimate argument can be made that it was unfairly excluded from the inaugural playoff. The Horned Frogs likely won't finish worse than third in the final AP Poll, maybe even getting a few votes for second.
That's why well before all the golden confetti streamed down from the rafters at Jerry Jones' football palace Monday night, there was already plenty of talk about expanding the playoff. We're only in the first year of a 12-year pact for a four-team playoff, but there's already clamoring for an eight-team playoff, or even a 16-team playoff.
It's not gonna happen. Not anytime soon. And probably not going to be eight teams and certainly never 16 teams.
College football's postseason attendance scheme is like moving small cities from place to place. Each major bowl game counts on travel and displacements of up to 50,000 people. And as this year's playoff has already proved, to make those same people take two trips are difficult and hence the empty seats at the playoff bowl games and low prices on the secondary ticket markets.
But that's not to say we'll never expand beyond four teams. In fact, there's a plausible scenario for expansion, even though it probably won't happen before the 2020 season, about halfway through the current contract.
A six-team playoff is imminently achievable and reasonable.
The biggest gripe against the current four-team playoff is that there are five power conferences. In this year's case, Big 12's co-champions TCU and Baylor were both left out. Another complaint is that within this scheme no team outside of the major conferences (and Notre Dame) would ever get a chance to play for the national title.
With six teams, all five major conference champions would be guaranteed a spot with room for one more deserving team, which could come out of the Group of Five conferences or be a non-champion of the Power Five. This would greatly reduce the burden on the selection committee as its main job becomes picking one team to add to the playoff field.
This arrangement would not dilute the meaning of the regular season but in fact enhance it. Teams would be encouraged to play tough non-conference opponents knowing that it won't hurt their chances of making the playoff as long as they win their conference. And in all probability the one at-large team in the playoff field would be one that's had a challenging schedule instead of one that's filled it with cream puffs.
As for the attendance issue, this could be easily remedied by playing the first two playoff games on campus sites, with the top two seeds earning a bye. These "quarterfinals" matching teams seeded third through sixth would be played on the Saturday after conference title games (now reserved for Army-Navy), with the winners advancing to the New Years' Six semifinal games and losers still earning a place in other NY6 bowl games.
Just as the BCS altered its format halfway through its 16-year existence by going to the double-host model that created the non-bowl championship game, the CFP can easily adopt the new six-team format without making many fundamental changes to its current scheme. Bowl pairings can still be announced on the first Sunday of December, with the New Years' Six lineup to be finalized a week later.
This idea should be embraced by the everyone in the industry. ESPN, after being astonished by the high ratings of this season's semifinal games, would love to add two more games. Bowl-game host committees can breathe easy as this doesn't further disrupt their system. University administrators probably won't have an issue with the opportunity to host an extra home game that's a guaranteed sellout.
So will the expansion happen? Yes, but it will take time. Unlike the NFL or any other professional sports leagues, college football is run by a large collection of people that includes school presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners and TV executives. New ideas are not going on the agenda tomorrow or in the immediate future.
The next two championship game sites have been selected so for certain nothing will change before the 2017 season. Also the power brokers will want to see how things shake out for awhile before signing off on any deviation from the original plan.
But change is coming, you just need to wait a few years. And remember, six should be the magic number.