Bill Hancock’s disingenuousness aside, we all know why we’re getting playoff expansion. And I think most people expect we’ll see expansion of that expansion in the not too distant future. What I’m curious about is whether we’re on the cusp of seeing another fault line exposed, over the matter of player safety. I don’t mean that in the Bielema sense, either. I’m talking about asking players to fight through fifteen, sixteen or seventeen games in a year to win a national title.
While head coaches strike me as control freaks (comes with the territory, to some extent), for the most part, none strike me as being willingly ignorant of the toll a college football season takes on a student-athlete physically. That’s led me to wonder if any of them have thought about what happens when those two issues intersect. I got some answers last week.
“I would hope that if it expands beyond this, we gotta look at the regular season,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said as SEC media days concluded Thursday. “I think you have to reduce the regular [season]. A lot of people may not agree with that.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze agreed with Richt, saying college football would have to cut into the regular season for the well-being of the student-athletes participating. Alabama’s Nick Saban didn’t exactly take a side on the matter, but he did say that if expansion comes, the sport should consider the toll more games would put on players.
“Not having thought much about it, I do think that for college players, with their age, with their responsibility to academics and the things they have to do that we’re pretty much closing in on the limit of how many games they should be playing and how we can still fit them in,” Saban said. “In our league, you’d have to win 15 games to win [the national championship in a playoff]. If you expand the playoff, you’d have to win more than that.”
Under the current format, four teams will compete in the College Football Playoff, meaning there will be two semifinal games before a national championship game. That’s after Power Five conferences like the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 have their conference championship games following the regular season. The Big 12 no longer has a conference championship game.
“I have always been concerned with the length of the season,” Freeze said. “But it’s so financially profitable that I’m not sure that there would be any interest [in shortening the regular season]. If you end up going to a longer playoff, there has to be talk of cutting the season back a game, at least.
“The workload that would be on these young men, I would think you’d have to look at shortening the season some if the playoff is expanding.”
Wow, I had no idea there was a college football topic Nick Saban hadn’t given much thought to, but there you go.
Seriously, the common theme there is awkward. These coaches may have legitimate concerns about how their kids hold up as a season grows ever longer, but they all report to athletic directors who answer to school presidents who have other concerns they consider more legitimate. You’ve seen enough goings on over the past ten years, so you tell me – whose concerns are likely to be given greater weight?
The other part of the equation to keep in mind here are that priorities can change over time, if the guys running the show lose track of their calibrations.
While Freeze suggested cutting the regular season by a game, Richt didn’t have a specific number for the regular season. Saban, however, threw out the idea of eliminating conference championship games in order to make room for an expanded playoff and cut down the burden of an extra game between the regular season and the playoffs.
It’s hard to see either of those options being attractive to Mike Slive, who’s trying to build a broadcast network asset while maintaining the value of a crown jewel conference championship game that’s been enormously successful for over two decades. Also, judging by the current debate over the size of the conference schedule, lopping off a regular season game can’t be something any SEC athletic director wants to consider as an option.
But who’s to say how those things look to those folks a few years down the road? Before you argue it wouldn’t matter, because no school or conference is voluntarily relinquishing any of that sweet money, don’t forget to factor what a future players union may have to say into the equation. Life is full of tough choices; it’s just that guys like Slive have been able to dodge most of ‘em over the last decade. We’ll see how long his luck (or that of his successor) holds up.