Right off the bat, I have to admit that I have a vested interest in the expansion of the college football playoffs. My Wisconsin Badgers, with their single loss this season in the conference championship game, will not make the 2017 College Football Playoffs. It’s a shame, because I think the goal of any league should be to give the best team an opportunity to win it, and it’s hard to say with any confidence that Wisconsin doesn’t belong on a stage with Clemson or Oklahoma, who are both also 12–1.
But this isn’t about Wisconsin. College football took a step in the right direction when it went to a playoff format to determine its champion, but there’s more work to do. For starters, we need to solve the issue of powerhouse schools, like Wisconsin, scheduling cupcake non-conference games. The incentive to do so is apparent, because more wins often means a greater chance of being one of the four teams selected for the College Football Playoff. Ohio State was kept out of this year’s playoff because they scheduled a game against Oklahoma, a tough non-conference opponent, and lost. Games between two high-powered teams like that are good for college football as a whole, but the Buckeyes have to be kicking themselves for scheduling that tough game in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
How do we incentivize teams to schedule games against tough non-conference opponents in the interest of finding a true national champion? Expand the playoff to eight teams—five automatic bids for the Power 5 conferences and three at-large teams. In this system, a team that loses a tough non-conference game still has a chance to lock up a guaranteed spot in the playoffs by winning the conference. The teams that don’t win the conference titles can make a strong case for one of the three at-large spots based on stronger non-conference games.
The at-large bids are there for the smaller teams, as well. The current system has written off all non-Power-five conference teams from the start of the season. How would you like to be a MAC team, knowing in training camp you are already eliminated from the national title race by virtue of the conference your school signed up for?
Let’s take UCF, for example. At the start of the season, the team should be allowed the reasonable expectation that it will have a chance to compete for a national championship and the title of the best team in college football if you do what you’re supposed to do. At 12-0, UCF has a legitimate argument for being in the playoffs, yet under the current format they’re an afterthought.
Additionally, having a regional representative from each part of the country and each Power Five conference would enrich the playoff and make every college football fan interested. This season, people from the Big Ten and the Pac 12 will have little incentive to tune in and cheer for a team.
This seems like a reasonable evolution of the playoff, but in the world of the NCAA, it’s radical thinking. That’s because the top priority of the decision-makers is not to have the best team win through a truly comprehensive process; the priority is getting paid (and not the players, of course). The systems are so good for the university, the coaches and the administrators, and they’re making so much money off the backs of unpaid athletes, there’s no incentive to change anything.
Yes, by expanding the college football playoff we’d be asking hundreds of college football players to risk their bodies for one more week without compensation. A solution would be allowing players to monetize their celebrity, something I’ve always believed college football players should have the opportunity to do. I don’t think college football players should be paid directly by their universities, but players should be compensated accordingly if their likeness is being used to advertise for the school. In addition, players should be allowed to set up shop at a mall and have fans pay for pictures with the stars.
On top of that, I think the ability to make some money to support family back home might also encourage the top echelon of players to come back and finish their degrees, enriching the college football product along the way.
If college football is really that concerned by adding a possible additional game, they can take it one step further by eliminating conference championship games altogether and allow the conferences pick a champion based on their own formula, giving that team an automatic playoff spot. I think some conferences are already regretting their conference championship game, because it is keeping a representative out of the playoff. If the Big Ten didn’t have a conference championship game, then Wisconsin would be in the playoff (and that’s obviously what’s really important here).
But the NCAA won’t consider changes like these because they’re busy justifying the status quo with hollow arguments about academic requirements. They’ll argue against adding one more game to the season for a handful of teams with all the old tropes. The season is long enough, they will say, and we have to remember, these are student athletes.
It’s the easy argument for college presidents, but if you actually look at the various sports, college football bleeds the least into class time. Games are on Saturday, so athletes leave Friday after class. Practices are at the end of the day, after classes. In contrast, the Wisconsin track and field team had meets throughout the week and all over the country—often, we’d leave town on a random Wednesday. If there was a really a concern, you could just cut down the non-conference schedule by one game.
Expanding the College Football Playoff to eight games can be done, and it should be done, but I’m not holding my breath.