One of the things being thrown out is eliminating Conference Champ. Games. I don't think that is necessary, if you eliminate non-league matchups. No conference wants to lose that ad-revenue giant of a CCG, so you can't eliminate it if you want 8 teams. You DEMAND that schools open for playoff consideration are not allowed to schedule FCS schools.
The first four years of the College Football Playoff were considered a success. The four-team format has been more universally accepted than the old BCS system, and it has kept fans engaged throughout the country. But ahead of Year 5’s national semifinals featuring Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, there is a sense of growing discontent with certain aspects of the CFP system, including the selection committee’s deference to the SEC and what some consider unfair treatment of UCF.
Now, a number of influential voices in college football are calling for a serious look at expansion.
There is a groundswell of support to expedite expansion before the end of the CFP’s initial 12-year contract with ESPN in 2026, with many telling The Athletic they support an eight-team format.
“It’s an appropriate thing to begin thinking about,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told The Athletic this week.
There have been a number of informal conversations involving college football’s most important power brokers in recent weeks and months. The growing concern is that a system designed to nationalize the sport of college football — including a championship game that is played at different venues and will be held in the Bay Area for the first time this season — is being undermined and regionalized with teams from the Southeast regularly playing each other.
“Everyone has the same feeling; expansion is inevitable,” said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who served on the CFP’s selection committee from 2014-2016. “When you can do it, and I think we need to serve more people. I think four was the right way to get started. In my opinion, we need to take a look of adding more teams into the Playoff, giving more opportunities. …
“I don’t know whether we’re serving all of our people now, when you have some leagues — our league (the Big Ten) as an example. Two years in a row, we don’t have anyone represented. The Big 12’s been the same way. The Pac-12’s been the same way.”
The Big Ten champion has been left out of the four-team Playoff each of the past three seasons, and the Pac-12 has missed three of the past four fields. Alabama has participated in each of the five Playoffs, including last year when the Crimson Tide did not win their division.
Some people with direct knowledge of the conversations involving commissioners, athletic directors and presidents declined to speak on the record because they feel they need to publicly support the current four-team model. Others feel they need to speak out in support of expansion to get the ball rolling. The midway point of the Playoff contract with ESPN — the 2020 season — is fast approaching. It would make sense to expand then, after the six semifinal bowls have all hosted an equal number of times.
“Twelve years is a good run if everything was working well,” West Virginia president Gordon Gee told The Athletic. “But it’s always good to take a look at it. We now have five years’ worth of experience. There’s nothing wrong with hitting the button and saying, let’s take a look at what’s working and what’s not working, and we don’t need to wait for another six years to make sure that we live out a contract.”
In a statement to The Athletic on Tuesday, an ESPN spokesperson said, “We have no involvement in the competitive makeup of the CFP.”
Alvarez said the criteria for selection has been confusing, with the weight carried by conference championships and strength of schedule varying year to year or even week to week. The three leagues that have missed the Playoff multiple times all play nine-game conference schedules. Even the rankings have irked those keeping tabs on strength of schedule; Florida finished No. 10, earning a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl, with two of the Gators’ wins this season coming against FCS opponents.
CFP executive director Bill Hancock said Tuesday that “there have not been any conversations in our meetings with commissioners or presidents about expanding or starting to think about a new format. There will come a time for that at some point, as we get toward the end of the 12-year contract.”
For some, that time is now.
An eight-team format with a designated Group of 5 spot also would quell the chorus of those who believe it’s unfair that a team like UCF — with two consecutive undefeated seasons and limited opportunities to schedule Power 5 opponents on an annual basis — does not get a shot at playing for a national championship. The highest the Knights have been ranked in the CFP selection committee’s Top 25 has been No. 8, nowhere near close enough to get consideration for a top-four spot.
“I also want to be very clear: I think that there’s arrogance of us not taking a look at someone like the University of Central Florida, just saying, ‘Well, they’re not worthy of it,’ ” Gee said. “Maybe they are worthy of it based upon a number of considerations that need to be taken into account.”
Said Alvarez: “UCF should have that opportunity.”
Chuck Neinas, a former Big 12 commissioner, has sketched out his preferred plan for an eight-team Playoff. He’s given it to Alvarez, Bowlsby, Hancock and other influential figures in the sport, initially to stoke conversation. Now those conversations are happening.
“The Playoff enjoys a level of support that I think is rather extraordinary,” Bowlsby said. “Would that (approval rating) go up if there are more teams involved? Probably. Does that mean it would avoid controversies? No, because you’ll always have arguments about the ninth and 10th spots. …
“Then, there’s the matter of how you do it. The devil’s always in the details.”
Neinas’ eight-team model would include the five Power 5 conference champions, the top Group of 5 champion and two at-large spots. Conference championship games would be eliminated. The regular season would end the weekend after Thanksgiving, with quarterfinal games played on campuses the following weekend. Winners would advance to New Year’s Six semifinal games at that year’s designated bowl sites, as usual.
Here is how this year’s field would have looked, with conference championship games not included:
“We need to maintain interest in the regular season,” Neinas said. “If you knew that your conference champion in the Pac-12 was going to get into the Playoff, that manages to propel continued interest throughout the season.”
Using Neinas’ preferred template, players on teams that reach the national championship would still play the same number of games in a season that they do now, and the season would end at the same time, on a Monday night about a week into January. There are other proposals and tweaks that could be worth discussing, too, multiple sources said; this is a relatively simple format that can serve as a jumping-off point.
“I do notice, though, that playoffs, generally, in other sports, in the professional sports, are determined on the field, and this is different than that,” Ohio State president Michael Drake told The Athletic.
As one Power 5 athletic director put it, an eight-team Playoff format is not rocket science. It makes sense for many parties. “This sport doesn’t do logical well,” he said.
For expansion to work, compromise would be required, much like it was when the four-team model was created.
The SEC is arguably the conference with the most to lose if a new system abolished conference championship games. It boasts the gold standard for conference championship games in terms of interest.
The SEC also has been the only one of the five power conferences to send multiple teams to the CFP, as it did last year with Alabama and Georgia. The SEC likes the status quo, even though expansion could allow for more than two SEC teams to make the Playoff field.
“(When) people talk about let’s do this and let’s do that as far as a bracket size, you have to remember a few things,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told reporters before the SEC title game. “One, this is Year 5, and I think the first four years have worked remarkably well. … I think four is healthy. I think the debate is healthy. And I think the debate is an important part for all of us who are thoughtful looking at our future, without any prediction of outcomes. …
“Would it benefit us (to expand)? This is a year for us that’s been different as far as the high-end success and then the depth of success. I think it looks to the future in a way that creates expectations for this to repeat, but I don’t know that that means we’d be 1, 4, 6. The history indicates there’s others who have a little bit more access than we might in a larger bracket. But I haven’t looked at it that way.”
A number of athletic directors and commissioners of other conferences have a different perspective. They feel that the system is designed to benefit the SEC, and they point to examples from this year’s final rankings as evidence: Florida at No. 10, despite the two FCS games; LSU hovering at No. 7 after its blowout loss to Alabama; the Gators and Tigers making New Year’s Six bowl games ahead of Penn State and Washington State, which both played nine conference games; and a two-loss, non-champion Georgia slotted ahead of Ohio State, a one-loss conference champion.
“It’s very confusing, and you have different explanations and you have 13 different people taking a look and evaluating and then expressing their opinion, then you’re voting,” Alvarez said. “Then, one person has to explain why you came to the conclusion, and I think it’s very inconsistent and confusing.”
The 13-member selection committee works hard and can figure out a way justify the order it comes up with each December — but that doesn’t convince the skeptics who believe that SEC teams get more credit and higher standing in this system than others from other leagues with comparable résumés. For example, Stanford’s four losses this year all came against ranked opponents, but the four-loss Cardinal were not ranked in the final CFP Top 25. Three four-loss SEC teams were, with two in the top 20.
Though coaches are not directly involved in the process, a number have spoken up about the need for change or, at the very least, clearer protocol and principles moving forward. Penn State coach James Franklin spoke just last week about the need for standardization across the board, in terms of strength of scheduling and in measuring the value of a conference champion.
“Either everybody is playing a conference championship or everybody is not,” Franklin said. “Everybody is playing the same number of conference games. You can’t have one team that’s not in a conference and everybody else is in a conference. It’s all gotta be the same. … Everybody either plays I-AA opponents or nobody plays I-AA opponents. I think it starts there. Everybody has divisions or everybody plays round-robin. …
“When one conference who is playing less conference games than we are and has been playing I-AA opponents for a long time, when there’s been discussion the last couple years of them possibly getting two teams in the Playoff and us have been left out the last three years, I think it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to not at least have the discussion. Not to get defensive, not any of those things, just, hey, it’s at least worth a discussion.”
As one Power 5 athletic director said, “Sometimes it feels like they’re deciding based on recruiting rankings and not the games actually played on the field.”
This season’s national championship game will take place Jan. 7, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. That morning, the 11 university presidents and chancellors who make up the CFP’s Board of Managers will meet. The Management Committee, which includes the 10 commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, also will meet with them that day.
Changes could come from either committee. The commissioners could make a recommendation, or the board could direct them. The board is specifically tasked with developing, reviewing and approving annual budgets, policies and operating guidelines. According to the CFP, it has authority over all aspects of the company’s operations.
Expanding the Playoff would protect conference champions from being disadvantaged by differences in scheduling, and it would guarantee access for teams like UCF to a system that has been built to exclude them.
And support is growing for expansion to happen sooner than many think.
“If you’re going to expand, you go to eight,” Alvarez said. “I initially thought six just as a compromise, and it would be better than four. But the more I think about it, I think eight is probably the answer. You would have opportunities now for everyone to be represented.”