The College Football Playoff doesn’t need to grow just yet

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

On Dec. 1, a hotel meeting room in Dallas was prepared for an announcement that the College Football Playoff had agreed to expand. That declaration never came. On Friday, the CFP announced its field will remain at four until its contract with ESPN lapses after the 2025 season.

The folks who run big-time college football – none of whom work for the NCAA, which oversees championships in every sport except big-time football – have met and talked and talked and met, and nothing has been decided. This should come as no shock. The folks who run big-time college football have, shall we say, diverging agendas.

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On Jan. 14, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips told reporters: “We have significant concerns surrounding a proposed expansion model, though we’d be supportive of future expansion once and if these concerns are addressed.”

The ACC’s issues involve the health and safety of the athletes. For once, this isn’t empty talk. The favored expansion format has 12 teams being chosen, the top four receiving a bye. For a team seeded five through 12 to become the national champion, it would need to win four playoff games. Tack that onto a 12-game regular season and a conference-title tilt, and you’d get a 17-game workload for amateur players. (Although amateur players can now accept NIL money.)

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On Valentine’s Day, American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco posted a lengthy “Open Letter to College Football.” Aresco dismissed the ACC’s “concerns” rather airily, writing: “If 12-team playoff is a likely outcome anyway and there is unanimity in favoring expansion down the road, why not try to implement an expanded playoff sooner than later in order to afford deserving teams and their student-athletes the opportunity to play for a national championship? For many, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why delay it or, worst case, jeopardize it?”

Loose translation: “I’ve got Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida in my league. I’m sick of the selection committee underrating our teams just because we’re not a Power 5 conference.”

The almighty SEC favors expansion, though non-SEC interests live in fear of a 12-team playoff with nearly half its field coming from you know where. On the day that two SEC teams met for the national title in Indianapolis, commissioner Greg Sankey emerged from another meeting to tell reporters, “Those who asked (to expand) are not ready to act. It’s in my best interest to leave it at four.”

Said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, speaking that same day: “There’s more parochiality than there needs to be.”

This is where a governing body might come in handy. Alas, there isn’t one. The NCAA has nothing to do with the CFP. The CFP conferences have no problem with that. The Power 5 likes being, er, powerful. Four of the Power 5 consider the SEC too powerful.

Though tabling a decision for four seasons will require a long table, this pause might be beneficial to all concerned. The playoff has been in place eight years. Only three of 16 semifinals have been decided by a one-score margin. Last month, Nick Saban was asked if expansion might yield more exciting games. His response: “If this is the best four teams and they played each other, I don’t see the logic that if we had more teams, they would be better games. I don’t see how that adds up.”

As Saban predicted, the playoff has reduced non-playoff bowls to afterthoughts. A 12-team field would require eight more games, the first four being staged at the home of the better seed. Welcome to the Notre Dame Bowl, as played in mid-December at Notre Dame Stadium in scenic South Bend, Ind.

Wrote Aresco: “In the most likely annual scenario, a team that reaches the national championship game will likely be a top-four team with a bye and will only play one more game than in the current playoff structure.”

Aresco believes the playoff must grow to give more teams a chance. He also believes only a team among the top four is apt to play for the title. And a 12-team field is needed … why?

Over eight years, the CFP’s 32 berths have been filled by 13 schools. Only six have won a playoff game. Only five have won a title. Five of the eight championships were taken by the SEC. The problem isn’t that there’s too much parity in college football. The problem – though it’s not problematic for the few on top – is that there’s almost no parity. There’s Alabama, and for a while there was Clemson, and now there’s Georgia.

The CFP doesn’t need eight more teams. Truth to tell, it could make do with two fewer.