Eight teams will not save you

People looking to fix college football are thinking too small

When Davis High was established in 1914, there were no grand plans.
The surrounding area was rural and sparsely populated. As the area grew into a sleeper community for Salt Lake City, the district added on a section here and there: a new fieldhouse, some extra classrooms. Eventually, nicer school buildings were built throughout the county, while the area’s first and largest high school fell into disrepair.
When I was growing up, I’d hear adults arguing about the fate of the old school, whether it ought to rebuilt or not. There was a sizable population that preferred the school as it was. However, the thing to remember is that Davis High wasn’t an architectural masterpiece worthy of preservation. It was a hunk of garbage to which some in the community had become emotionally attached.
They finally tore it down and rebuilt in 2004, right before I started attending. For all the arguments I’d overheard as a kid, but I haven’t heard a single person say that it was a mistake in retrospect.

College Football looks a lot like Davis High circa 2000.
Just look at Monday’s National Championship. Sure, Trevor Lawrence looked terrific. Of course, Clemson really did acquit itself. Clearly, Dabo Swinney will deliver an insufferable Hall of Fame induction speech at some point in the next 30 years.
However, the game did not deliver. It didn’t offer hype, excitement or an extended conversation. It’s been less than 48 hours, and the sports world has moved on.
If anything, the fourth straight year of an Alabama-Clemson championship only goes to show that the four-team playoff that had been desired and advocated for decades (even making a short appearance in Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign) is fatally flawed.
Very smart people believe that the problem would be fixed by expanding the playoffs to eight teams. They are wrong.

As always, let me preface everything with a few caveats:

  1. Nothing will change during this off-season. There hasn’t been any indication that the powers of College Football have any interest in fixing a flawed system until momentum has swung irrevocably against them. This is a century-long tradition.
  2. If the groundswell grows to the point of demanding change, these powers will only move one step at a time. The presidents, athletic directors, and bureaucrats that run the show are incrementalists by nature. They are the intellectual brothers of the people that swore that the individual mandate and “bending the cost-curve” would be the most popular parts of the ACA.

These are the reasons that college football, like the old Davis High, has been adding and patching for the past century. There was never a grand plan or master architect. It just sort of happened, and a lot of people got emotionally attached.

In the beginning, a few warm-weather cities held exhibition games over the holidays. These were not intended to be a traditional postseason. Through the 1960s, they took place AFTER the National Champion had been crowned. In 1964, Alabama finished number one in the polls, was awarded the trophy, then lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl.
Bowls were never a solution to the problem; they were a popular sideshow. Now, it is the system built around the sideshow, continually shrinking in importance and popularity, while growing in scope and time frame, that is keeping us in this limbo.

The old bowl system succeeded to an extent by being mostly ambivalent about who was the National Champion. The BCS was established to attempt to simultaneously change the concept of the postseason while keeping all the traditionalists happy. This is a strategy, whether in sports, politics or public high schools, that never works.

The Rose Bowl doesn’t matter, but it still exists. The Cheez-It Bowl never mattered, but it still exists. A champion is crowned every year, but it seems less relevant and interesting.

Writer Matt Zemek summed up the problem perfectly last week.

“The BCS had eroded the classic bowl traditions which made college football great… without delivering a manifestly improved national championship process.”

Swinney, with all the superiority that will inevitably make him a Republican congressman in the future, suggested this week that if people are unsatisfied with Alabama-Clemson matchup, they should embrace the old system. As Zemek said, there were some advantages to the broadly meaningless system, but its coexistence with a playoff cannot work.
The old system is utterly untenable in today’s world. We’ve seen an increase in healthy and semi-healthy players skipping bowl games to prepare for the NFL Draft. Without our modest playoff this year, we likely would have seen the same from a handful of marquee players from Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma.

What’s the outlook? To quote everyone’s favorite semi-fictional Scottish usurper:

“I am in blood stepp’d so far that, should I wade no more, returning is as tedious as go o’er.”

Here’s the crux: eight teams will not be enough to convert the postseason into something universally meaningful. The expansion will mean the permanent end of the identity of the major bowls, moving them to full-time quarterfinals or relegating them to lower status. The Cheez-It Bowl would still exist, along with a mess other meaningless games played in half-empty stadiums in the middle of the week.

For the playoff to work, they need to tear it all down and rebuild. The NCAA has to keep moving forward before uninteresting bowls and uninteresting playoffs conspire to widen the interest gap between the college football and its chief rival, the NFL.

Take the 24-team playoff used by the FCS. Copy it exactly.

  • The expanded playoff replaces the bowls entirely.

The FCS playoff includes a total of 23 games. That’s a cut from 41 bowl games, but the increased importance should counteract the loss in ratings. Addition by subtraction. Would you rather have 18 games between 6-6 and 5-7 teams or 23 games that might include four Alabama match-ups?
Furthermore, this would likely solve the problem of players skipping the postseason. Rather than a meaningless exhibition, every game counts. Playing in the tournament would be a chance to increase your draft stock, rather than merely being an extra opportunity to get hurt.
Think for a moment: who was the last basketball player to sit out the NCAA Tournament to keep his draft stock safe? Could Will Grier have tempted a team into making him a first-round pick by taking West Virginia on a surprise run? Ask Donte DiVincenzo.
The playoffs would own the month of December, a perfect time for college football to shine. The NFL would still be in the final weeks of its regular season, which usually is its most anticlimactic time.

  • It shifts the nexus of controversy.

There are always going to be arguments about who gets left out. There’s almost always one aggrieved team every year left out of the basketball tournament. But as soon as the games start, they drop away. Try to remember who the best team left out was last year? Unless it’s your alma mater or you’re a future jeopardy champion, I’ll bet you can’t. It was St. Mary’s, who was ranked 25th in the final AP Poll.
The reason is that the cut off for an at-large bid in the tournament is generally around the 12-seed. So the team that gets left out is somewhere around the 49th best team in the nation. At best, the argument is that the team was robbed of a chance to go on a surprise run to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, or maybe Final Four. Even when a team like St. Mary’s loses out, there is no countervailing argument that the outcome would have been wildly different if St. Mary’s had been given a 10-seed.
Look at college football. During the BCS era, there was almost always an aggrieved party: USC in 2003, Auburn and Utah in 2004, Oklahoma State and Stanford in 2011. The third and fourth place teams still have a reasonable claim that they could have won if given a chance.
Moving to four teams hasn’t really improved matters. TCU and Baylor were caught in the 5-6 spot in 2014. Ohio State was left out this year. There just isn’t enough space between the best team left out and the team that wins the championship.
Moving to eight teams walks the fault line down the polls, but again, only slightly. Assuming some system of automatic bids, Michigan, Florida and LSU would have all been left out. Could any of those teams have gone on a three-game run? Perhaps. It’s difficult to argue that they couldn’t.
The farther the nexus of controversy moves down the line, the more legitimate the eventual champion will seem.

  • 24 is close to the magic number.

What if I told you that, before the explosion of bowl games and the invention of television, society had decided how many college football teams were worth caring about? Let’s say, perhaps, a weekly issue from nationally credible wire services?
We’ve been ranking 25 teams since the Great Depression. It has been, apart from conference and national championships, the critical indicator of merit. Embracing a 24 team playoff, even perhaps with a play-in game, would embrace tradition rather than abandoning it. The season would still matter, which seems to be the chief concern of playoff doves.

  • It really wouldn’t require a longer season.

Clemson played 15 games this year. If the NCAA went back to an 11-game schedule, jettisoning meaningless games against FCS opponents, and did away with conference championship games, which would no longer be necessary to pad resumes, the eventual champion would play, at a maximum, 16 games.
Of course, that would only be true of two teams. More likely, the champion would tend to be one of the top eight teams who receive a first-round bye.
Are 16 games too much for college students? Just ask anyone at North Dakota State.

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