In a three-part series covering Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, SEC Country will explore the feasibility of Fox Sports writer Stewart Mandel‘s ambitious and, dare-we-say, ‘crazy’ vision for college football — 10 years from now.
Mandel’s extravagant piece is a radical departure from SEC Country’s outside-the-box stab (from last December) at projecting the SEC’s 14 head coaches for the 2025 season. The one common thread: Both stories fully acknowledge that substantial changes are on the horizon for the nation’s premier conference.
First up, we’ll tackle the logistical likelihood of expanding college football’s current playoff system:
FOUR-TEAM PLAYOFF MODEL
Introduction: It’s mathematically implausible to squeeze the champions of each Power 5 conference into every four-team College Football Playoff; and yet, the coaches, athletic directors and presidents from the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 happily signed off on the deal a few years ago.
Why is that? Let’s break it down:
1) A four-team playoff keeps every conference on its toes throughout the season, knowing that multiple slip-ups could crush a league champion’s CFP chances.
Case in point: If Florida had knocked off Alabama in last December’s SEC championship, it would have missed out on the four-team Playoff anyway. The CFP rationale: The Gators already had two losses (before Alabama), including a 25-point home drubbing to Florida State.
Plus, a week after UF claimed the SEC East title in mid-November, the Gators barely pulled out an overtime victory over a two-win Florida Atlantic squad. ‘Style points’ are doled out in earnest to major programs every week.
The same indifference would have applied to Ole Miss last fall, if the Rebels had somehow won the SEC West tiebreaker over Alabama.
The Rebels (6-2 in SEC play), who beat the Crimson Tide in September, incurred decisive losses to Florida and Memphis in October … and then lost an overtime thriller to Arkansas in November. All told, the CFP committee would have eventually favored a two-loss Pac-12 champion (Stanford) over a so-so SEC champ (Ole Miss or Florida).
2) Mandel referenced the low ratings for the Rose and Fiesta bowls, and how these deflated TV numbers will ultimately motivate Power 5 officials to expand the playoff field.
Let’s inject some perspective into that rationale: If Ohio State (No. 7 overall) had finished higher than Iowa (No. 5) in the final College Football Playoff poll (Dec. 6), the Buckeyes would have been a more attractive TV draw for the Rose Bowl committee.
I’m not just saying this because every Iowa resident seemingly made the trek to southern California for the Rose Bowl, thus decreasing the Midwest TV ratings for the game. It also didn’t help, competition-wise, that Stanford (led by tailback Christian McCaffrey) owned a 35-0 lead at halftime.
The Fiesta Bowl had the bases covered with name-brand recognition, pitting Ohio State against Notre Dame. But that bowl also had plenty of competition on New Year’s Day: Viewers also had the option of watching either Michigan vs. Florida (Citrus Bowl) and Northwestern vs. Tennessee (Outback Bowl) for that 1 p.m. ET time slot.
For the sport of hockey, the NHL traditionally fares well with its ‘Winter Classic’ on New Year’s Day (played in classic outdoor venues for baseball or football).
Plus, it’s a little odd that a West Coast game (the Fiesta Bowl takes place in Glendale, Ariz.) would start at 1 p.m. ET — or 10 a.m. Pacific time.
In other words, let’s not overreact to one round of middling TV ratings for New Year’s Day.
3) In this age of inclusion, the Power 5 czars could never have launched a playoff system that starts with six or eight teams … and then miraculously dropped to two or four participants.
The Playoff has only existed for two seasons, but it’s already difficult to imagine a non-champion from a Power 5 school breaking into the semifinals. And that doesn’t even include the consideration for an undefeated or mega one-loss Notre Dame. (The CFP committee has an established protocol for selecting the four finalists.)
Is this right? Maybe. But it also ignores the possibility that a conference could easily produce the nation’s best two teams — similar to LSU and Alabama from the 2011 season.
SIX-TEAM PLAYOFF MODEL
Introduction: For this proposal, we’ll presume the CFP committee sticks with the principles of the existing format — in terms of favoring Power 5 conference champions over other secondary programs.
1) In a perfect world, the Playoff would feature all five conference champions and then a wild-team — either Notre Dame (undefeated or one loss), a non-champion dynamo from the Power 5 or the best team from the Group Of Five.
(Last year’s Houston Cougars, the American Athletic Conference champs who fleeced Florida State in the Peach Bowl, would have nicely filled that sixth vacancy.)
2) Within this system, the CFP poll’s two highest-ranked teams would be rewarded with “byes” into the semifinal round, leaving two play-in matchups — No. 3 vs. 6 … and No. 4 vs. 5.
3) In the current “New Year’s Six” system, college football has four major non-Playoff bowls (2016 season: Cotton, Sugar, Orange, Rose) and two Playoff bowls (Peach, Fiesta). With a CFP expansion to six teams, we’d only have two major non-playoff bowls in subsequent seasons.
1) A conference champion in for the six-team Playoff could conceivably play 16 games in a full season: 12 during the regular season, a league title clash and three Playoff outings (play-in matchup, semifinals, final). That’s an extreme workload for still-developing college kids.
2) For most years, a six-team Playoff also wouldn’t settle the national outrage of a deserved school not reaching college football’s ultimate tournament. In fact, it would open up a new debate of quantifying every non-champion from a Power 5 conference.
In the current model, the pundits are ostensibly required to debate/lament/promote the merits of the five conference champions … and every now and then, Notre Dame.
EIGHT-TEAM PLAYOFF MODEL
Introduction: For the record, I’m not opposed to this expanded format, under the following conditions:
1) The quarterfinal matchups would occur in the home stadium/regional neighborhood of the top four seeds
Using last year’s final CFP poll as an example, Clemson (home venue or Bank Of America Stadium in nearby Charlotte, N.C.), Alabama (home venue or the Georgia Dome in Atlanta), Michigan State (home venue or Detroit’s Ford Field) and Oklahoma (home venue or AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas) would have enjoyed home-area advantages against seeds 5 through 8.
The matchups would have been: Clemson vs. Notre Dame, Alabama vs. Ohio State, Michigan State vs. Stanford and Oklahoma vs. Iowa.
The pressing need for this change would be twofold:
a) The higher seeds should be rewarded with the notion of playing close to home in the quarterfinal round, similar to the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
b) Locally-based fans of higher seeds wouldn’t be taxed financially, in terms of trekking across the country — over three consecutive weekends — to follow their teams.
One negative consequence would arise: With regional-based quarterfinals, it’d be impossible for every ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl to maintain its “major” standing every year.
But there’s a way around this so-called problem: Simply rotate the semifinal locales on a once-every-three-years basis among the six major bowls; and then, per usual, solicit separate big-money bids from major cities interested in hosting the national championship game.
2) The nation’s best Group of Five program should qualify for an eight-team playoff, if it owned a top-10 ranking in the final CFP poll
In this scenario, Houston would bump No. 8 Notre Dame from the quarterfinal field. No political landmines with that decision, huh?
3) Every non-playoff bowl game would conclude before the launch of the eight-team tournament
I understand that TV networks need inventory to fill the gaps between New Year’s Day and the national championship game. But for my own personal sanity, the non-major bowls would be treated with a lot more respect, if these preliminary matchups (often ‘throwaway’ games) genuinely served as appetizers to the College Football Playoff.
Is that too much to ask, wanting the final seven games of a college season to possess the greatest meaning? I think not.
It should be an integral part of streamlining college football’s exciting, but chaotic future.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.