Four-Gone Conclusion: College Football Playoff Needs A Re-Boot
Less than a month before the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinals are played, years after the concept of whittling the season down to a favored Final Four was introduced, there finally seems to be some movement toward making the system more inclusive.
For too long, there has been an assumption only programs from what’s called the Power 5 – Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 – had the chance to be invited. And the assumption has proven to be correct. Never in the history of the CFP has a program not a Power 5 constituent played a Final Four game.
None Of It Makes Sense
There is so much wrong with this philosophy it’s hard to know where to begin. It smacks of discrimination. What other conclusion could be made about a system apparently set up to service only those considered the biggest, richest, most politically connection football programs in the nation.
Consider for a moment if the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were designed this way. Imagine a men’s tournament in which Gonzaga, George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth were excluded. Imagine a women’s tournament where UConn, perennial national champions, perhaps the most accomplished program in NCAA Division I history, didn’t have a chance.
The NCAA Basketball Tournament Understands
That the NCAA basketball tournaments are broad, consisting of 64 teams, doesn’t make the point less pertinent. You get the feeling if the decision makes could include only Power 5 schools, who generate the most cash, whose fans travel the best, they would do it.
So it’s refreshing to hear common sense may finally be close to getting a few snaps. While it doesn’t make sense to expand the CFP to as many as 16 teams – football is brutal sport and the schedule would have to be expanded an extra round – it makes perfect sense to double it to eight.
Fans And Alumni Have Spoken
Since the inception of the CFP four seasons ago, there has been a long and urgent outcry from fans and alumni to expand the playoff system. Just look at what’s happened in 2018 after Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma were slotted as the top four seeds.
The debate began immediately about whether Georgia, the SEC finalist, and Ohio State, the Big Ten champ, were more deserving than Oklahoma, the Big 12 winner. But it didn’t end there. The fans and administrators from Central Florida, a two-time, unbeaten champion of the American Athletic Conference, were angered about again being ignored.
Central Florida: Central Figure
So angry was Central Florida about last year’s snub, it actually declared itself the national champion after its 34-27 win over SEC power Auburn in the Peach Bowl, which completed a 13-0 season and catapulted its coach, Scott Frost, to Nebraska.
The Knights athletic director, Danny White, has obviously been distressed about this. He has taken a very vocal approach, assailing the system that has excluded his program as often as he can find a microphone. In 2018, the Knights outscored Memphis 35-3 in the second half to win another American title. The 56-41 win closed out a 12-0 season.
Scott Was Frosted
After UCF’s 2017 team (13-0) was excluded from the CFB, and ranked No. 12 among the candidates, Knights coach Scott Frost, now at Nebraska, went off the hook about it. He said there was a “concerted effort” made to keep his out of the top four.
“I didn’t want to talk about it during the season,” said Frost. “But I know a lot of people in our program, myself included, felt insulted.” UCF led the country in scoring. The problem was, UCF didn’t play a ranked team until Nov. 24 when it beat No. 22 South Florida. Not enough, guys.”
Winning 25 Straight Not Enough
The reward for continuing the nation’s longest active winning streak (25) is an invitation to play No. 11 LSU (9-3) in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. Let’s speculate for a moment: If an eight-team tournament was already in the books, the eighth-seeded Knights would get top-seed Alabama in the quarterfinals.
The only difference this time around is the plight of teams like UCF, Washington, Ohio State and Georgia, left on the outside, has drawn the attention of some very powerful decision-makers in the sport. And over the last week, they have begun to forcefully speak out about correcting the obvious inequity.
The Procedure Is Too Confusing
One of the major points of confusion has been how exactly these decisions are made. The matrix used is extremely elaborate, a stew of numbers that deal with strength of schedule and how it can change every week. There is also supposed to be a heavy emphasis on winning conference titles.
But as you will see later, winning conference champions has been frequently dismissed the committee. In a lot of instances, especially this season, the choices are made on instinct, by eye-balling the teams, their successes and failures. Was Ohio State’s loss at Purdue this season crushing? We’d say yes.
The Athletic Casts Its Light
The bombshell was The Athletic’s comprehensive look at the system. In the story, many influential conference leaders went on the record supporting expansion of the system, even though the first four years of the format, have generally been classified a success by most observers, certainly in comparison to the former BCS system.
One of the biggest obstacles in making this eventually happen is trying to decide what to do about the CFP’s 12-year deal with its ESPN. That contract will not expire until 2026. “It’s an appropriate thing to being thinking about,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told The Athletic.
Too Few Conferences, Too Many Teams
The largest flaw in the system seems be how disproportionately teams from the SEC, ACC and Big 12 have dominated the tournament. There can be no argument that the Alabama and Clemson deserve to be seeded No. 1 and No. 2. They have dominated since season kicked off.
Notre Dame, which had an undefeated season, was also a natural choice for the third seed. But two of the three teams in contention for the fourth seed, Oklahoma and Georgia, are Big12 and SEC members. Is that what ultimately made them more attractive than the Buckeyes and Washington of the Pac-12?
The South Will Rise Again
If so, this is an injustice that no longer can be tolerated. The tournament should not be designed to be a playpen for only southern powerhouse, something those programs would naturally want. Apparently, when faced with the irrefutable evidence, conversations amongst decision-makers has begun to take place.
These are the facts: The Big Ten champion as not been invited to the Final Four for three straight years. Oregon is the only Pac-12 team that has participated. And yet, there is Alabama, which did not even win its division title in 2017, preparing to play in its fifth straight championship game.
History Tells The Story
The Ducks played Florida State and Ohio State took on Alabama in the first CFP in 2014. The following season, it was Clemson-Oklahoma and Alabama-Michigan State. The 2016 field featured Clemson-Ohio State and Alabama- Washington. Last season, it was Georgia-Oklahoma and Alabama-Clemson. Now its Alabama-Oklahoma and Notre Dame-Clemson.
So here is how it breaks down: The SEC has placed six teams. The ACC has five. The Big Ten and Big 12 have three. The Pac-12 has two and the Irish are the only independent. In 2016, Penn State (Big 10 champ) was excluded as was Ohio State the last two years.
The Bowls Are Divas
Along with the inequity of the competition, the system is influenced by the lobbying of the six major bowl games – Orange, Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta and Peach. There is an understanding that the two semifinals and championship game will be rotated during the course of the ESPN contract, giving each – and its sponsor – its spotlight moments.
This season, the Orange Bowl (Oklahoma-Alabama) and Cotton Bowl (Notre Dame-Clemson) are in the semifinal rotation. In 2017, it was the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. In 2010, the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl get the games. This is also a huge hurdle.
Rose Bowl Was A Thorn
You might recall how difficult it even was for the CFB to even get the Rose Bowl to chill out enough to participate in the rotation. It was infatuated with the tradition of the Pac-10 (as it was then known) and the Big Ten meeting up on New Year’s Day. It was about traditional and normalcy.
Even now it makes Rose Bowl committee uneasy. It passed on bidding for the 2020 championship games. Cities now must bid for the College Football Playoff championship game and the host city has to come up with between $13 and $20 million to underwrite the bid.
Maybe 2020 Is The Year
The feeling is once the bowls have been equally accommodated, the time to reconsider the format and the ESPN deal will be right. And that might be the 2020 season, the halfway point of the cable deal. When contacted by The Athletic, an ESPN spokesman said the network has no connection to how the playoff is designed.
“Everyone has the same feeling; expansion is inevitable,” said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, also it former football coach, who served the CFP from 2014-16. “I think we need to serve more people. I think four was the right way to get started.”
CFP Boss Says Forget It
Amid all of the anticipation, Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive direction, said there hadn’t been substantives discussions about expanding the playoffs, certainly nothing concrete enough to predict it would happen anytime soon. His point of view was that could come up near the end of the ESPN deal.
But according to The Athletic, Chuck Neinas, former commissioner of the Big 12, has worked on a plan he’s shared with colleagues, including Hancock. That effort is being characterized more as brainstorming than proposing an actual blueprint. But one thing is certain: Expanding outside the Power 5 will be a crucial element.
New Plan Seems Fair
Neinas’ plan seems to make too much sense be true. Filling the eight spots would be the champions of Power 5 conferences, the Group of 5 (American, Sun Belt, Conference USA, Mountain West and MAC) champ – which would have been UCF the last two seasons – and a pair of at-large teams.
The regular season would end the weekend after Thanksgiving. The quarterfinals would be played the following weekend on the campuses of the highest seeds. At that point, the current system, highlighting the bowl games, would pick up, as usual. How networks and cable would be involved is not known.
Student-Athletes Come First
Of course, adding another layer to the postseason would mean extending the season for the “student-athletes,” the favored euphemism NCAA administrators use to describe their players. That would mean more time on the practice field, less time in the classroom. At least, theoretically, that would be a bad look.
Quoting sources, the Orlando Sentinel reports there is currently no support for any change in the college postseason plan. One was particularly blunt: “I thought for sure we would hear calls for change when two SEC teams got into the playoff (Georgia and Alabama in 2017). But it just hasn’t happened.”
The SEC’s Always On The Take
And even though the new system seems eminently fairer, allowing more teams to play for a championship, the egos of the Power 5 schools might kick and scream about anything new that might lessen their impact on the national stage. As an AD said, “The sport doesn’t do logic well.”
The SEC made about $70 million from bowl games last season, a bounty it spreads evenly among its 14 teams. UCF’s Peach Bowl appearance earned only $4 million for the AAC and a share of the $81 million that was split among the Group of 5 conferences. Do the math.
Does Anyone Else Deserve The Top 25?
Why would the SEC favor change? There is no legitimate reason for it to. Their teams are beloved my national pollsters who believe the competition in the league is by far the best. That belief naturally skews the voting to favor their teams, which leads to better bowl placement, which leads to more money.
Look at the final Top 25 poll this season: Along with No. 1 Alabama, Georgia (6), Florida (10), LSU (11), Kentucky (16), Mississippi State (18), Texas A&M (21) and Missouri (24) were all ranked. That’s eight of its 14 teams. A monopoly, any way count it.
Independents Might Suffer
So it’s abundantly clear that the SEC, perhaps independents like Notre Dame, Army, BYU and New Mexico State – hey, you can always dream, right – might be adversely impacted by any moves away from the mainstream. Some people just don’t like change.
Look, the idea of the CFP did not sprout from anyone’s honest intention to serve the game. This was not a bold and noble gesture to develop a more benevolent way to determine a national champion. It was invented to make money. A lot of money. It was invented to enrich power teams and conferences with television and sponsorship money.
Stanford Gets No Respect
If you are looking for an example of how messed up this is, look at Stanford, a Pac-12 icon for decades, the home of players like John Elway and Jim Plunkett, Christian McCaffrey and Zach Ertz and coaches such as Pop Warner and Bill Walsh, Dennis Green and Jim Harbaugh. Impressive enough?
Obviously not. This season, the Cardinal lost four games, to No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 14 Washington State, No. 20 Utah and No. 9 Washington. Not only wasn’t Stanford in the Top 25, they were shoved aside by three four-loss SEC teams, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Missouri.
Big Meeting Coming
An important day to gauge the progress of the expansion may well be Jan. 7, the day of the National Championship game in Santa Clara, Calif, the home of the San Francisco 49ers. A meeting room somewhere will be filled with coffee, pastries and a group of university presidents who sit on the CFP’s board of managers.
Further crowding the room members of the management committee, 10 conference commissioners and the ever-present and highly influential Jack Swarbrick, the Fighting Irish AD. Who knows what momentum for change could come from that room. Perhaps white smoke will funnel from the chimney.
Gee-Whiz: Wouldn’t It Be Nice
West Virginia president Gordon Gee sounded almost apologetic. “I also want to be very clear: I think there’s arrogance of us not taking a look at someone like the University of Central Florida, just saying, ‘Well, they’re not worth it. Maybe they ae worthy of it, based upon a number of conversations that need to be taken into account.”
The point Gee makes touches. The current system is unfair, its pigskin stuffed with bias. Secondly, it’s unfair to the schools and conferences who have been historically excluded. Why shouldn’t the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC make a little more cash?
Even The Boss Is Doubtful
This resistance to change is not new and its even come from places you would not expect. Last year, Mike Aresco, the commissioner of the AAC, a person you would expect to advocate the UCF, admitted he wasn’t in favor it.
“I’m not there yet,” said Aresco. “I am open to the notion, but I’m not campaigning for it. The last thing I want to do is give anyone the impression I’m campaigning to expand it, because I’m not. I’m happy with the four.” If that’s the case, if someone who would benefit is uncertain, there might be no hope.
TV Executive Sees Bright Future
Then we hear something else that offers a totally different point of view. Last year, former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, in an interview with his CBS Sports, predicted the CFP system will eventually grow to eight teams before 2026 and be worth at least $10 billion to a network or cable company.
“I think, from a television point of view, any sports executive would tell you he would prefer a team from the different part of the country,” said Pilson, now a media consultant. “The best would be a Big Ten team in terms of the size of market.”
Limited Market Could Be A Problem
Pilson’s contention is a logical one and it was made on the eve of last season’s Georgia-Alabama national championship game. He thought an all-SEC game would limit the national interest in the game, make it into a more regional event that might lure only viewers from the southeast.
If such events produce lower viewership than the networks anticipate, that would cause a big problem with the advertisers paying rates based on a ratings Metrix. Low ratings means less advertising, which means the potential for network contracts with conferences to be scaled back. When faced with loss of income, people react.
You Want Billions? We’ve Got Billions
Pilson theorized the current 12-year, $7.2 billion deal with ESPN will eventually be revisited and the rights fee would grow to $10 billion if an agreement for a college playoff expansion could be reached. “If I were running ESPN – and I’m glad I’m not – I would be exploring the advantages of a larger playoff.”
“I’m sure they’ve looked at it. I think, from a competitive point of view, ESPN is going to focus on major packages,” Pilson said. “The most major of the ESPN packages is college football and the College Football Playoff. It would make sense for ESPN.”
ESPN Raked In Viewers
Problem was it didn’t work out that way. ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, which shared the telecast, overcame the ratings decline that characterized the 2017 NFL season, by attracting a 16.7 metered market result. The game offered a nine percent increase over the previous season’s Clemson-Alabama game.
That made it the second-best metered marker result for the network in the CFP era. The only game that drew a greater audience was the 2015 Oregon-Ohio State game, a 42-20 win for the Buckeyes. That tracked in with an 18.8 rating. The conclusion: If the game is compelling, college football fans will watch.
It’s Going To Take More Than Hope
What it ultimately will come down to is whether enough concessions, enough assurances and an appropriate guarantee of money for all parties involved can be reached. Above all, college football – professional and college sports, in general – are mostly about raking in cash to the conferences, schools and networks.
Idealists can dream all they want about a program like UCF or Memphis, Western Michigan or Miami (Ohio), Marshall or Southern Mississippi, bottling lightning in a season and earning a chance to play Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson or Notre Dame in the CFP. Dream on, as Aerosmith sang. Certainly no harm in that.
A Chance To Amend Denied
We all know expanding the CFP to eight, and facilitating change as soon as possible, would make the regular season even more exciting. Ohio State’s loss to Purdue might not have mattered. Georgia’s losses to LSU and Alabama likely wouldn’t have hurt it. UCF’s 25 straight wins would have exposed it to a national audience.
We also know that none of it matters. The haves will continue to have, the have nots will continue to stand on the street corners of their tiny college towns forever hoping what might be possible if someone let them play with the big boys.