Atlanta — You were duly warned. You wanted a real playoff system — and by “you,” I mean a majority of college football fans — and after years of debate, you got it.
And it’s good, right? A four-team field has produced great games and epic championship clashes in five years. Good enough for me, good enough for many, never good enough for everyone.
These are the unintended consequences you were warned about, that the emphasis on the playoff would de-emphasize everything else, from the regular season to the non-playoff bowls. More and more players are sitting out bowls and it’s hard to blame them, although fans can be dismayed by the direction and the message.
Michigan (10-2) will be missing four starters — Devin Bush Jr., Rashan Gary, Karan Higdon and Juwann Bushell-Beatty — when it faces Florida (9-3) in the Peach Bowl Saturday. It’s a matchup of top-10 teams from Power Five conferences, but in the absence of major ramifications, the attention is muted. As if to emphasize the delineation, after Michigan-Florida ends, Notre Dame and Clemson will meet in one national semifinal Saturday, followed by Alabama and Oklahoma.
Listen, I’m not some nostalgic dope. I know bowls steadily lost luster, and then the BCS system confused everyone, which spawned the cry for the playoff. I get it. I like it more than I thought I would. But I also know the essential truth about the gluttonous nature of sports.
Given four teams, people would demand eight. Based on recent comments from leaders in the sport, an eight-team field is practically inevitable, although it will take time. Given eight, there’d be a demand for 16, the endless chase that comes with a cost, and wouldn’t necessarily improve anything.
CFP executive director Bill Hancock claims there’s no imminent push to expand the field, and TV contracts tie bowls to the current configuration until 2026. But the appetite is growing because, well, the appetite always grows with so much money involved. And I guarantee many people clamoring for a larger field are the same ones who decry that players are taken advantage of, pushed to their physical limits for no compensation (a convenient lie, considering the cost of scholarships and world-class training facilities).
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, whose conference has been shut out of the past two playoffs, has said he’s open to discussion about expansion, as have others. The theory is, the four-team field is too regionalized (read: SEC-dominated), and too many conferences and teams are marginalized (the Pac-12, unbeaten UCF).
I think they’re searching for solutions to problems that don’t exist. The sport is wildly popular, especially from a TV ratings standpoint, and early-season games matter nearly as much as late-season games, an urgency no other sport can match.
You want more post-season games to matter? Increasing the field to eight would only add two playoff games, and render every other bowl even less meaningful. It also could eliminate the popular conference championship games, which practically are playoff play-in games. If you think top players are reluctant to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl, imagine if every non-playoff bowl is a non-marquee bowl. Among many notables who opted to skip bowls to prepare for the NFL: West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, LSU cornerback Greedy Williams and Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker.
Jim Harbaugh has campaigned for a larger field, as many as 16 teams, and said Friday the issue of players sitting out hasn’t altered his opinion. But like any coach, he has to be conflicted by the trend.
“We respect that it’s their decision to make,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t push anybody in the back to go play football. I will say even further, I think I’ve grown in terms of respecting people when I don’t agree with what their decision is.”
Florida coach Dan Mullen, whose full roster is expected to play, isn’t looking for change.
“I love the bowl system kind of as it is,” he said. “The great thing about college football is, you kind of enter into the playoff in week one of the season, and you’ve got to perform from game one all the way through.”
The quest for the perfectly fair system is fruitless because it doesn’t exist. This is not like the tidy NFL, with 32 parity-tightened teams.
Bigger isn't better
With 129 FBS programs, there are massive inequities. In places like the SEC, soft non-league schedules get filled out with lesser FCS opponents. The SEC and ACC also play only eight conference games. The Big Ten plays nine, and the past two seasons, Ohio State was eliminated from the playoff by a crushing conference loss.
Almost every eight-team model would include each Power Five champion, plus the best team from the smaller Group of Five conferences and a couple wild-card teams. Again, sound in theory, but fraught with unintended consequences.
If four-loss Northwestern had beaten Ohio State, would it get in? While it’d be entertaining to see No. 7 Michigan face No. 2 Clemson in a quarterfinal playoff Saturday, that prospect would’ve greatly diminished the Michigan-Ohio State game. The Wolverines had a very good season, but should they slide into the playoff after a 62-39 loss?
Alabama has been in every playoff and won it twice, so naturally, Nick Saban likes it just the way it is. He wonders if non-playoff bowls would “sort of disintegrate” with expansion.
Nobody truly knows what’s best for the sport because there are so many conflicting interests. The bowls have been such a staple, they want to cling to their relevance. The playoff has been so successful, financially and otherwise, conference commissioners have to at least explore ways to take full advantage.
Debate is good, but I’m sorry, leaving out a two-loss Georgia, or Ohio State with a 49-20 loss to Purdue, isn’t enough to stir change. Neither is omitting 12-0 UCF, whose strength of schedule ranks 74th. For the most part, there has been minimal controversy in five years.
The playoff essentially begins in September, but it’s not single elimination. Michigan fell at Notre Dame in the opener but wasn’t eliminated until it lost to Ohio State in the finale. In the current format, you get wiggle room, but not too much to water it down.
I suppose the expanded playoff will be here eventually, and many will celebrate it as a cure-all and end-all. It’s just hard to see what it’ll fix, when you can’t even tell what’s broken.
Michigan vs. Florida
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Records: Michigan 10-2, Florida 9-3
Line: Michigan by 6