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CFB Playoff expansion would increase fan interest, but at what cost?

Craig Lawson

It wasn’t too long ago that CFB playoff expansion seemed like a forgone conclusion. Then Greg Sankey got into a pissing contest with the other P5 conference commissioners over automatic bids and other such logistical bullshit, and the power struggle that ensued put a pin in the entire conversation… for now. These are big money decisions and expanding the playoff means more eyes on television screens and more money for everyone. Expansionist revolutionaries will argue that more teams in the playoff is better for college football because more fans will have a vested interest in their mediocre teams later into the season. It seems like an obvious point, and I wouldn’t presume to dispute it. But is there trade-off? What are we giving up in order to expand fan interest? The expansionists roll their eyes when traditionalists talk about valuing the regular season, but is that a real concern?

Let’s take the 2021 season as an example. Under the current, four team format there were really only four teams that had anything to lose (or gain) heading into their conference championship games. Georgia wasn't one of them because they were making the playoff regardless of the outcome in Atlanta. However, Georgia's opponent, Alabama, would have had a much tougher case for the playoff had they taken on a second loss. Never write off Bama privilege, but there was a one loss Notre Dame waiting in the wings, and the big money Irish have their own track record of privilege that seems immune to the two decades of postseason, seal clubbings they've endured. Then there was Michigan and Cincinnati. Both of their conference championship opponents (Iowa and Houston) knew they had a shot to play spoiler, but not much else as their resumes to that point had all but excluded them from top 4 consideration. So we had Alabama, Michigan and Cincinnati. The fourth team with a shot at making the field was Oklahoma State. Coming off a major win against rival Oklahoma (whose coach was already making plans to move to Los Angeles) the Cowboys had a shot at finishing as a one loss Big 12 champion. Had they pulled it off, Cincinnati would have been sweating bullets over perhaps losing the 4 seed's honor of getting domed by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. But it turns out, Okie St had blown their load in Bedlam as they proceeded to fall just short against Baylor in the conference championship game.

Conference championship games aside there were some highly relevant regular season matchups in the weeks leading up to playoff selection. There was the aforementioned Bedlam game. Michigan/Ohio State had serious playoff implications for both participants, as did Ohio State/Michigan State the week prior. Oklahoma entered November undefeated, but had acquired two L's before mom's around the country had time to wash the Black Friday stink off their Lululemon battle gear. So the field of 4 was set, only two of the four teams had an actual shot of winning the title, but let's humor the expansionist crowd here. How would things have played out in a 12 team playoff?

These were the top 20 CFP rankings headed into bowl season:

1. Alabama
2. Michigan
3. Georgia
4. Cincinnati
5. Notre Dame
6. Ohio State
7. Baylor
8. Ole Miss
9. Oklahoma State
10. Michigan State
11. Utah
12. Pittsburgh
13. BYU
14. Oregon
15. Iowa
16. Oklahoma
17. Wake Forest
18. NC State
19. Clemson
20. Houston

It's undeniable that several late season match ups would've added some serious juice with a potential top 12 playoff berth on the line. Even absent automatic bids for conference champs, suddenly Cincinnati vs Houston in the AAC championship matters for both teams. Houston could easily have jumped into the top 12 with a win. Wake Forest had back to back games with NC State and Clemson in November leading up to the ACC Championship match up with Pittsburgh. Cousin Clem would have had a tough time making the top 12 but the Deacs, Wolfpack and Panthers would have all been in the hunt. The same goes for Iowa in the Big Ten Championship, Oregon and Utah in the Pac 12 title game, hell even the Egg Bowl would have mattered for Ole Miss. The BYU faithful may have considered reaching for their first ever pack of Marlboros to calm their nerves during that four point win at USC to close out the season. It's possible I missed a few, but you get the idea. There is a clear broader appeal with an expanded playoff.

It's clear that there is a lot to gain, but is there a cost? On the flip side of the scenario above, suddenly the Big 10, Big 12 and AAC championships are a lot less interesting. Well, unless you're Iowa, Baylor or Houston IE the three lower ranked teams. Michigan, Oklahoma State and Cincinnati are likely to make it in regardless of the outcome of those games. Certainly nothing is guaranteed with a committee involved, but all three of those programs were in the top 5 going into their conference title games. It would require quite a tumble for any of them to fall past 12. Which brings us to the SEC Championship Game. #1 undefeated Georgia vs #3 one loss Alabama. There is virtually no way that either program could have or would have fallen out of the top 12 no matter who won in Atlanta. That being the case, and given the preference of some who would eschew the unique regional appeal of college football in exchange for a watered down NFL model I ask, for what reason would Kirby Smart or Nick Saban play their starters in the championship game? Seeding? Perhaps, but if you're all but guaranteed to choose your destination anyway is it really worth risking the health of your best players? It's not like playing a home game is on the line because the name of the game is bowl venues with corporate sponsorship. To put it another way, with seeding on the line do you think Saban would rather risk losing Bryce Young or Will Anderson (Or Jameson Williams or John Metchie) in a meaningless game, or risk a flight to Miami as opposed to the slightly preferable Dallas? I don't think that's much of a decision. Maybe the fact that the top 4 seeds get first round byes entices the coaches to take it seriously, but Georgia was ranked #1 before the 2021 SECCG and only fell to #3 after a convincing loss to Alabama. That means they were getting a bye either way. It's not a forgone conclusion that any CFP program with a guaranteed playoff spot would bench starters to prepare for the playoff, but I don't believe it's out of the question. There are also less obvious ways of making it happen like pulling a kid early because of an "injury" or switching out your playbook for a spring game vanilla version.  

As we see within the nationally palatable NFL model, once a team has solidified their playoff position, resting players has become the norm. Some of you are reading this thinking "bUt tHe nFl oNlY hAs 32 tEaMs and cFb hAs 131." True, but CFB doesn't have 131 teams who can actually win a title in a given year. First, there are only 69 (noice!) Power 5 Programs. No disrespect to the Group of 5, but there is a reason any G5 team will jump ship to a P5 conference at a moments notice, and that reason is playoff access (and money). Of those 69 (noice) P5 schools there are rarely more than 3 teams with legitimate championship caliber rosters, and there have been years where there was clearly only one (2019 LSU anyone?). There has been a year or two during the CFB Playoff era it could be argued that 4, maybe 5 teams had a shot to win a title, but even then a 12 team playoff is still including more than double the amount of teams with the ability to win it all. The NFL has a 12 team playoff and all 12 participants actually have a shot to win. The NFL also has a draft and a hard salary cap that allows for parity. College football has an 85 scholarship limit, and recently a no holds barred payment option. This means Kirby Smart is free to sign 85 future 1st round NFL draft picks if he can convince them to come to Georgia. See the difference? There have been 6 Wild Card teams to win the Super Bowl. Granted the Super Bowl has been around for over half a century and we haven't even had the CFP Playoff for a full decade, but so far no college football team with an inverse blue chip ratio (more 2-3 star recruits than 4-5 star recruits) has ever won a CFP Championship.

So there you have it folks. Would an expanded CFB playoff broaden the appeal of college football? Almost certainly yes, but in doing so we would see the significance stripped from the late season match ups between the highest ranked teams and redistributed to games involving lesser (mid asf) programs. Imagine a scenario where an undefeated #1 Auburn is facing an undefeated #2 Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The winner has to go play Georgia in the SEC Championship game, and the loser gets to rest for a week before they begin prepping for their first round playoff opponent. Let's say the loser also loses a first round bye, and will face Oklahoma State in their first playoff game, but they also get to duck playing an 11-1 Georgia team IN ATLANTA who narrowly lost to Auburn earlier in the year on a controversial call. Which would you prefer?

Edited by Craig Lawson

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