When you build a house on a crooked foundation, the renovations ar e destined to be more difficult. And not always sensible, especially if the architect is worried more about the design than the residents.
So it is, again, with this latest fix that’s planned for the College Football Playoff, an expansion that’s long overdue — and surprisingly functional, if we're being honest — but certainly not without its flaws.
There’s more room in the latest proposal, so you have to start with that. There’s enough space to fit 12 teams under one postseason roof in this new proposal unveiled by a CFP subcommittee last week. Enough to give some of the perennial outsiders — the Group of Five schools, the Pac-12, maybe even Jim Harbaugh — a chance to see how the other side has been living all these years.
There are enough guarantees to keep the various conference landlords happy, too, with semi-automatic bids for the Power 5 champions, a legitimate chance for lesser leagues to make some noise — Cincinnati would’ve hosted Georgia in last year’s quarterfinals, while Coastal Carolina got a crack at Notre Dame — and enough at-large bids to shoehorn a handful of SEC teams into the playoff field if necessary.
There’s the obligatory nod to Notre Dame’s independent streak, with easier access in a 12-team format offset by eliminating the Fighting Irish from contention for a bye. (“I look forward to never hearing again about how we played one less game or don't have a conference championship,” said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, one of the CFP committee members.)
There’s probably more incentive for top players to stick around to the end instead of opting out to prepare for the NFL Draft as well. And above all else, there’s the huge financial windfall this would create, adding hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the bottom line for a business that's soon going to have to start sharing more of it with its employees.
But while the powers-that-be continue dragging their feet about fixing the underlying problems in major-college athletics — namely the athletes’ ability to make money off their own talents, as NIL legislation slowly emerges and Congress applies pressure — they’ve also fumbled the snap here with this playoff proposal.
It’s one that will be presented to the full CFP management committee this week in Chicago, and likely recommended to university presidents later this month in Dallas. But there's still time for tweaks and improvements. A final vote is expected sometime this fall, and CFP executive director Bill Hancock says the soonest we’d see the new format implemented would be 2023, though they could wait until the current TV deal with ESPN expires after the 2025 season.
The sooner, the better on that last step, though. Because the current four-team playoff arguably has done more harm than good since it took effect in 2014, widening the gap between a handful of elite programs and all the rest in college football.
The playoff has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, by and large. More than 70% of the playoff berths in the seven years of the CFP have gone to four teams: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. (Throw in Notre Dame’s two appearances and it’s nearly 80%.) And in four of the last five seasons, no team ranked lower than No. 7 in the initial CFP poll has ended up in the playoff. For much of college football, the drama is over not long after autumn officially begins.
But under the new format, "with four or five weeks to go in the season, there will be 25 or 30 teams that have a legitimate” shot at a playoff berth, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby insists. And he's probably right about that.
The plan for now is to award first-round byes to the four highest-ranked conference champs in the CFP poll at the end of the regular season. Then, after the other eight teams stage opening-round games at four campus sites, the remaining eight-team field will play out a three-round tournament at neutral-site venues.
No place like home
But that’s where the commissioners seem to have dropped the ball, settling on a plan that practically eliminates the best part about the sport: The fans, and the iconic campus stadiums they fill.
Because nothing speaks to the pageantry of college football quite like a game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, or State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, right? And besides, what would the sport have left if it didn’t continue to “honor the sanctity and the tradition of the bowl environment,” as Bowlsby put it.
Sorry, but you don’t need to outsource your ticket revenue to the “reassert ownership of New Year's Eve and New Year's Day in a really powerful way,” to use Swarbrick’s words. And when the Mountain West’s Craig Thompson talks about giving the bowl system “an opportunity to continue to be relevant,” what’s left unsaid is that it’s because they don’t have much choice, given the contractual obligations between conferences and bowls and TV partners. (Also unspoken is that the new plan — same as the old plan — allows the executives in the bright-colored sport coats an opportunity to keep the grift going, though I suppose those guys are as much a part of the sport as Bevo, really.)
Why not play the first two rounds at campus venues and then continue with the annual rotation of those New Year’s Six bowl games hosting the semifinals and finals? That would eliminate the folly of having the top four teams guaranteed not to have home-field advantage throughout the postseason. It'd make for a better atmosphere, both in person and for those watching on TV. And it would allow more fans — and students, remember them? — an easier road to attend some of those games.
Heck, it might force some of those southern schools to venture north and invest in some hand-warmers every once in a while. Back in 2015, Michigan State would've hosted Stanford or TCU in a quarterfinal game at Spartan Stadium.
“I'm not sure that playing in East Lansing, Michigan, on January 7th is a really good idea,” said Bowlsby, the former Iowa athletic director. “There are some practical aspects to it.”
Practically speaking, that’s a crock, since they’ve already proposed hosting games on campus — possibly even in East Lansing — in the opening round a week or two earlier.
Idealistically, it's even worse, though. Which is a shame, because for once it feels like the suits in charge really are on the right path with this latest playoff push.