FBS commissioners are considering the expansion of the number of teams that would qualify for the college football playoffs. This is a good idea! The creation of a four-team playoff was considered by many to be a lean-and-mean compromise at the time. Too often there was at least another team that had a credible argument to be considered to be chosen by the Bowl Championship Series to be one of the two teams to play for the National Championship. Added a semifinal playoff round of four teams addressed that issue without creating a large bracket akin to March Madness. But the new system has instead entrenched a hierarchy of the have and the have-nots. In the eight years with a four-team playoff, only eleven college football programs have competed in the event. Only four programs have won a national championship. The structure is not working to create and maintain fan interest.
The powers-that-be should expand the college football playoff to 12 teams. The top four seeds should get byes into the quarterfinals. Here’s why:
(1) More football games with high stakes are good! For those of us in the sports gambling industry, this would be a boon. The more high-profile games, the better, at least until the product becomes oversaturated. With interest beginning to wane as the same three to four teams compete in the playoff, the problem is not the oversaturation of college football, but the predominance of the same teams getting the opportunity.
(2) Upsets will happen! College football may be the only sporting event where the avenues to be rewarded for midseason improvement are foreclosed. The best NFL team over the last 20 years has been the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick has a long history of his teams playing poorly in September before finding the groove later in the season. Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl run this season was propelled by their playing their best football starting in December. Is midseason improvement simply limited to the professionals? Of course not. One of the fascinating elements of March Madness is observing the improvement in the play of college basketball teams benefiting from months of practice, coaching, and competition. How many college football teams peaked late in the season over the years that would have proven to be the best team in the nation if only given the opportunity? The notion that the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world would continue to blow teams out like we have seen recently in the semifinals is remarkably naive. Sure, some blowouts will happen, but so too will the upsets. Even if you do not think that the improving teams will challenge the traditional powerhouses when playing on a neutral field under the pressure of a single-elimination tournament, the law of probability indicates that it will be more difficult for favorites with an expected win probability of, say, 75% or better to win more games.
(3) Changes to the current system can only disrupt the Alabama/Clemson dominance. Arguments that expanding the playoff will only help the programs currently thriving in the four-team playoff miss the point. Save for granting Alabama and Clemson an automatic bid into the semifinals, the current system could not benefit these two programs more, as is. As recent history attests, Alabama and Clemson can both lose a regular-season game and still be tapped to playing in the semifinals because they remain entrenched as the first two teams on the list of the next group of teams with the fewest losses. This gives Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney tremendous advantages. Expanding the playoff structure opens up these benefits to other programs. Don’t underestimate the impact this has on recruiting. If 12 teams make the playoff, Saban and Swinney can no longer pitch recruits that if they want the national spotlight of playing in the college football playoffs, then they better commit to their school.
(4) Arguments against expansion misidentify the problem. Admittedly, there are concerns with asking college football players to play a longer season. More games mean a higher risk of injury. More games mean less time in the classroom. But these are arguments against a playoff, in general. It is disingenuous to only begin expressing concerns about injury and the sanctity of the student-athlete after a four-team playoff is in place. The genie is out of the bottle. Instead, the legitimate concerns about player safety and classroom time should be redirected to the higher ambition of finally getting the players paid for the efforts. Pay the players! This is a topic worthy of another discussion, but paying the players resolves most of the rationalizations to not expand the playoffs.
Best of luck — Frank.