After the whirlwind of controversy last week, many are saying they cannot wait until next year and the 12 team College Football Playoff expansion. A lot has been said that when the post-season is extended to include the top twelve teams (or top eleven plus one from the Group of 5), the controversy will end and the system will work itself out.
But will it?
The crowning of a national champion in college football has a history of questionable decision making amidst a process that was sometimes arbitrary and often rewarded perception over play.
Will that change?
The blue bloods historically have had a distinct advantage over the “little guy,” especially recently.
Will that level out?
A significant criticism of the process is that it is influenced as much, if not more, by money and power.
How will that be any different?
While the expansion will put more deserving teams on the field to complete for the national championship, there are still issues that can and will cloud the process. The end result can be a much more legitimate champion, but it just might come at a significant expense to most of the Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
A History of Perception over Play
The history of FBS football (formerly Division 1A) has been riddled with egregious decisions when it comes to naming its national champion. Without any format for top teams to play each other, “mythical national champions” were declared based on season-ending polls.
As if winning a title by a vote isn’t bad enough, there wasn’t even a single consensus poll. Eleven times between 1954 and 2003, the writers of the AP poll named a different champ than the coaches of the UPI poll.
That is actually a low number. There should have been more split champions. Because of bowl tie-ins, teams were often prohibited from playing each other in the post season and it was not uncommon for the top two teams to finish undefeated without facing each other.
Because of this, and because national champions were voted on, there have been several unfortunate finishes to special seasons.
Penn State is a great example. The Nittany Lions have thirteen undefeated seasons in their history (five since 1947) but only two national championships. Some of their snubs were downright wrong. In 1969, President Nixon declared Texas as the top team in the country despite the Longhorns and Lions both finishing with unblemished records.
In 1994, Penn State powered through the Big Ten in their first year in the league, finishing undefeated and winning the Rose Bowl 38-20 over Oregon. However, the media latched on to the idea that Nebraska coach Tom Osborne was always the bridesmaid and never the bride, and a conspiracy theory also evolved that the midwestern voters had it in for the Pennsylvania school. Late in the season, the undefeated Huskers flipped in the rankings with the perfect Nittany Lions, paving the way for Osborne to finish atop the polls.
In both situations, Penn State should have at least been declared co-champs, but that did not happen in either case.
Enter the Bowl Championship series at the end of the 1998 season, which was supposed to fix this problem. The top two teams were finally arranged to square off annually in a major bowl game. While this was a step in the right direction, there was often controversy over selecting between the second and third ranked teams.
2004 was a prime example, as three Power 5 teams finished undefeated, but only two could play in the BCS title game. #1 USC beat #2 Oklahoma handily to with the BCS national championship, and #3 Auburn won its Sugar Bowl but had to settle for second in the final ranking.
The matter was worse when multiple one-loss teams were in the mix. In the 2000 season, Washington, Miami, and Florida State all finished with one loss. Earlier in the year, Washington beat Miami. The Hurricanes then defeated Florida State. However, it was the Seminoles who ended with the number two ranking and played undefeated Oklahoma in the BCS national championship game.
The four-team playoff was supposed to alleviate this problem. There was a little controversy sorting through the one-loss teams in the inaugural season of this new playoff, but for most of its ten years, the playoff committee has been pretty good in selecting the right teams.
This year, however, was the perfect storm when three Power 5 teams were undefeated, four others had only one loss, one of the undefeated teams had a significant injury at quarterback, and three of the top teams beat others in the top seven in head-to-head competition.
Florida State, that undefeated P5 champion who lost its quarterback, was the latest victim of perception over play in a long history of national championships being largely influenced by opinion instead of results on the field.
The Rich Will Get Richer
While the number of teams will change with next year’s College Football Expansion, the conferences that dominate it will not. The SEC and Big Ten will own the playoff pool, especially when they expand to 16 and 18 teams respectively next year.
With 34 teams in those two power conferences, they will easily put multiple schools in the playoff. It is very likely that at least half of the playoff field will be comprised of SEC and Big Ten schools, if not more.
Look at this season, it is a perfect example of what to expect. Considering the conference realignment that is set for 2024, eleven of the top twelve teams from this year will be in either the SEC or Big Ten next year (see Tweet below). The only other Power 5 school is Florida State, and Liberty would get the Group of 5 bid. So if this was next year’s final ranking, TEN of the twelve playoff spots would go to SEC or Big Ten schools.
Does that surprise anyone?
If it's not already clear where all this is headed, this is the 2024 conference affiliation for the Top 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Florida State is the only Power 2 exception and there is a good chance they won't be in the ACC in the near future pic.twitter.com/I3NvNro5AB
— Treadmill Horse (@treadmillhorse) December 4, 2023
What is scary is how this could lead to a further divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” We already know that the annual TV revenues for the SEC and Big Ten conferences are substantially higher than those of the other P5 conferences (that is why Florida State and Clemson want out of the ACC so badly!)
Factor in the payouts that will come from playoff appearances and these two conferences are going to take in the lion’s share of the playoff revenues, thus adding to the divide between the new Power 2 conferences and whoever is left (the Big 12, a fading ACC, and a PAC 12 that is really a PAC 2).
This year, conferences receive $6 million for each team in the playoff plus a few million to cover expenses. Using the scenario from the above tweet, the SEC and Big Ten would walk away with an additional $30 million each after expenses.
And that is with the current payout schedule. Those numbers are bound to rise with more teams and more made-for-television playoff games.
Let’s Call it For What it is – A Money and Power Grab
Initially, the SEC was content to leave the playoffs at four teams. Why? Perhaps they knew they would be represented every year (Insert Florida State conspiracy theories here).
But they are not complaining now, are they? With expansion officially taking place, it appears that we are that much closer to a two super-conference model. If the SEC and Big Ten do indeed take up a majority of the playoff berths, and monetary disparity continues to grow, how will the other conferences compete?
In addition to the financial disparity, there will likely be a talent disparity. Top talent will continue to use the transfer portal to find better programs, ones with better NIL opportunities and ones with more likelihood to reach the playoff (those two will be correlated soon enough if they aren’t there already). The “smaller” schools – the Kansas States, the Baylors, the Virginia Techs of the world – will struggle to retain their best talent in an environment like this.
The FBS is swimming in murky waters.
The ACC is headed for imminent demise. Florida State, who already wanted out, is only going to push that envelope harder after their recent playoff snub (insert more conspiracy theories here). The Pac 12 has been reduced to two teams that no other conference wants. And the Big Twelve is now essentially Conference USA 3.0 (if you recall, the original C-USA was made up of leftovers after the Big East formed for football, and its repeated reorganization stems from picking up more leftovers after they’ve been poached)
Can you feel the wave that is going to crash on the shores of the FBS?
Is a 17-Game Season Really Good for the Sport?
The thought of how long the season can last with an extended playoff is frightening. All teams play twelve games. Those who make the conference championship will play a thirteenth. Playoff teams seeded five through twelve then play a first-round game. Should any of those first-round conference championship finalists make it to the national championship game, they will have played seventeen games in a season.
The final game of next year’s inaugural 12 team College Football Playoff is scheduled for January 20. The following year it will be January 19.
Remember, these are college students. They still have to attend classes, submit homework and projects, take tests, and work in groups. Then they have to spend hours upon hours practicing, watching film, attending meetings, and hitting the weight room.
They spend their summers on campus, and they do not get to go home much, if at all, from August through December, even on holidays.
Should they really play seventeen games in a college football season?
If they do, rosters had better be deep, because the chances for injury will rise. And wouldn’t that be ironic if in game 16, Alabama lost their quarterback to injury but still won, heading to the national championship with their backup?
Do you know who else plays seventeen games? The NFL. Do you know who else has a two-division league with an expanded playoff? The NFL. Do you know who else pays their players to play? The NFL. Do you know who else has free agents who change teams regularly, especially for more pay? The NFL.
My former colleague Brian McLaughlin refers to the FBS as “JV NFL.” He’s not wrong.
Playing that many games in a season is going to be challenging for college student-athletes. However, because of the money from TV deals, there is no way the NCAA is going to reduce the number of regular season games. Going back to the previous section above, this is about money and power first. It remains to be seen if it is really good for the sport.
Final Thoughts on the Impending College Football Playoff Expansion
The greatest benefit of the expanded playoff format is obvious. For the first time in the history of the sport at the FBS level, the championship will unequivocally be determined on the field of play.
With twelve teams in the bracket, both the best AND most deserving will find their way in. Snubs like this year’s Florida State omission will not occur. And teams who are championship caliber but slipped up once will get a shot at redemption. No longer will one stumble cost the best Power 5 teams a shot at the national championship.
Yes, there will be disagreement on the back end of the seedings, and Group of 5 schools still have a stiff barrier toward inclusion. But in the sport of football, the better teams will win when playing multiple games over the course of one month. The best AND most deserving team will likely take home the hardware at the end of January.
But that is far too late for college kids to hang up the pads for the season. The extended season and the seemingly inevitable seismic shift to two super conferences will alter the landscape of college football in a way that the sport has never seen.
The potential for a Super-Two domination can wreak havoc on football programs who are not given a seat at the table. The Group of 5 and the rest of the former Power 5 schools who do not survive expansion could be left in an “FBS 1A” category without the money and opportunity of the “JV NFL” schools.
I am not against expansion, nor am I really against the Super-Two model (even if my alma mater is left out). However, I am concerned for those who do not make the cut in conference expansion. And I certainly do not have faith that the NCAA will consider those FBS schools when they are making decisions about playoffs and super conferences.
College Football Playoff Expansion is almost here, and it will open a Pandora’s box on the FBS. Who knows what to expect.
So perhaps we should just tune out all the noise and just enjoy the games because we are college football fans who love the sport. Despite all the change, in the end, that is one constant – these are kids playing for schools who are supported by students, alumni, and passionate fans.
I seriously doubt that will ever be lost no matter how hard the NCAA tries to take it away.
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