Analysis: Will a bigger College Football Playoff be better?
While enthusiastically announcing plans to expand the College Football Playoff, those in charge of the postseason system downplayed the revenue windfall that will come with tripling the number of participants and declined to speculate about whether a new format will tap the brakes on conference realignment.
Instead, they stuck to a strict script, touting how many more athletes will get to play games with national championship implications and how many more fans will get to root for playoff contenders.
“It will be a new day for college football,” Mississippi State President Mark Keenum said late last week after the announcement billed as “historic.”
Expanding the College Football Playoff from four to 12 teams will fundamentally change the sport on the field and off — for better or worse.
More regular-season games will have playoff implications, but the biggest games will no longer have winner-take-all tension.
The new format will break up a conference caste system fortified by the four-team model, but it won’t stop the growing gap between haves and have nots.
More teams will play in the championship tournament and bowl games that are suffering from player apathy will be replaced by playoff games.
But a larger field probably won’t increase the number of teams that have a realistic chance of winning the whole thing.
How soon expansion will come is still to be determined. As soon as 2024, but no later than 2026.
“Overall, it’s a day for celebration,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said.
The Game of the Century, that in-season matchup of highly ranked teams with seemingly everything on the line, has gone from being a staple of college football to an endangered species. The 12-team playoff will now make it extinct and redefine what it means to play an important regular-season game.
Let’s use last year’s Ohio State-Michigan game as an example. The Wolverines not only broke a long losing streak in the rivalry, but they eliminated the Buckeyes from both Big Ten and playoff contention.
Under a 12-team playoff, that game is for seeding and a first-round bye.
The flip side is that under the new format, any team that enters the final month of the season with a chance to win its conference is a playoff contender.
Think back to last Thanksgiving Day weekend, with Ohio State-Michigan and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State basically playing elimination games and Alabama facing Auburn with playoff hopes in peril.
That was pretty great.
Now what if Wisconsin-Minnesota, Michigan State-Penn State, Oregon-Oregon State and three different Atlantic Coast Conference games involving Clemson, Wake Forest and North Carolina State also had playoff implications?
For some fans, that sounds even better. For others, those teams are just watering down the field.
“What motivated the presidents and me as well was that we need to have an opportunity for more participation of teams in our nation’s national championship tournament,” Keenum said. “And having only four teams, we felt like that’s not fair to our student-athletes from a participation standpoint.”
Yes, it’s all about the student-athletes, who now will likely need to play 16 games — maybe even 17 — to win a national championship.
Combine that with what could very well be a $2 billion yearly payout to the major conferences for the media rights to the new playoff, and it is yet another step toward players being paid.
“We are just getting started on this, but I will tell you that the management committee and the board starting last fall were having significant conversations about some way to provide some benefits for the players,” Hancock said. “We don’t know what those will be yet. We just started on the path for this.”
The new format will take out some of the subjectivity over how the field is selected. The selection committee that currently chooses the so-called four best teams isn’t going away. But six spots in the 12-team field will be reserved for the best (as chosen by the selection committee) conference champions. There will be no distinction between the 10 FBS conferences. At least not officially.
“It is a merit-based format that recognizes the value of conference championships while simultaneously allowing at-large access for six deserving teams,” American Athletic Association Commissioner Mike Aresco said.
The Power Five and Group of Five monikers also appear to be going the way of the dinosaurs. But make no mistake, the power and the wealth in college football will continue to consolidate.
Massive TV deals for the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference are allowing the Super Two to separate from the rest of the Power Five as that revenue is converted into competitive advantages.
The new playoff format and the access it provides could help keep the Pac-12, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference alive, but there still isn’t a school in those leagues that wouldn’t jump to the Big Ten or SEC given the opportunity.
“I don’t know how this plays into the whole landscape of college athletics,” said Keenum, who heads the group of university leaders that oversees the playoff.
There is hope among some that increased playoff access could boost parity on the field as more schools are able to use playoff appearances to lure recruits.
That could help in the margins, but whether it closes the bigger-than-ever talent gap between a small number of elite teams such as Alabama and Georgia and the rest is iffy at best.
Early-round playoff games, some played on campus, should be far more entertaining than traditional marquee bowl games, which are now routinely skipped by top players prioritizing NFL draft preparation.
The entire postseason should be better, but the blowouts that have plagued the four-team playoff are still likely to happen, just in later rounds. And an expanded format only increases the chances of one of the super teams winning the title.
The College Football Playoff is getting bigger. Whether it is getting better is a matter for personal preference.
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