Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany has been at the forefront of talks to bring a playoff of some sort to college football for quite some time now, but he doesn’t believe that teams that don’t win their division should be included in a four team playoff.
”I don’t have a lot of regard for that team. I certainly wouldn’t have as much regard for that team as I would for someone who played nine conference games in a tough conference and played a couple out-of-conference games on the road against really good opponents. If a poll doesn’t honor those teams and they’re conference champions, I do.” Delany told the Associated Press.
Delany thinks it’s “far too early” to talk about the potential for two Big Ten teams to make the Playoff.
“We have two years of experience, and I think champions have always been a powerful tiebreaker,” Delany told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. “For a non-champion to be included in the field, that non-champion would have to be unequivocally better. Which means, to me, that’s a very high bar. That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen.
“But with teams with similar records and similar resumes, a conference championship is the tiebreaker. Is it impossible? No, because we’re looking for the four best teams.”
Delany said that, during the creation of the Playoff model, it was always very important to stakeholders that a conference championship carry great weight.
“So a conference championship would win most tiebreakers — unless it’s crystal clear,” he said.
How does Delany square those remarks with Ohio State today? Delany said it’s up to the CFP Selection Committee to decide and he won’t say now or later if he thinks the Buckeyes deserve to go as a non-Big Ten champion.
“The debate was the four best teams without regard to anything else, or the four best champions,” Delany said. “Really, we ended up with a compromise — the four best teams but taking into consideration things like strength of schedule and conference championships won. The only way anybody goes as a non-champion or an independent is really if they do awfully well. We’ll see. There’s a lot of football left to be played.”
So, Delany reveals himself to be a full-fledged adherent of the Herbstreit Doctrine, which should come as no great surprise. It certainly doesn’t to me, anyway.
But it does serve as a good jumping off point to organize my thoughts on why I believe further postseason expansion for college football is inevitable, and that it’s highly unlikely the people running the sport will settle at eight teams for good. Here’s why:
- The history of collegiate and professional sports in America suggests one inexorable trend: playoffs always expand. That they do so isn’t due to some never-ending search to refine excellence. They grow because there’s more money to do so. They only stop growing when the money cuts off, as we saw when the NCAA sought to expand the men’s basketball tourney to 96 teams but couldn’t find a willing broadcast partner to foot the bill.
- College football has been unique for most of our lifetimes in resisting that path due to two historical anomalies, its strong regional appeal and the bowls. In its short existence, the four-team playoff has weakened the effect of both. Bowls are now clearly in a subservient position to the semi-finals and national championship game. The Big 12’s fumbling around with conference expansion and its clumsy adaptation of a championship game after a round-robin regular season is only the most obvious example of how the sport’s focus has shifted to a more national orientation. An eight-team playoff will likely deal a mortal blow to the big bowl games, especially if the move is made to play the quarterfinals on the campuses of the higher seeds, and accelerate the shift away from regionalism. As a result of that, going from eight to sixteen in the playoff field will turn out to be an easier move than going from four to eight.
- Also greasing the skids for expansion is college football’s playoff structure. Conference champions are decided on an objective basis. Win your division and you play for the conference title. However, the CFP field is filtered through a selection committee that, for all its highfalutin claims of following certain performance standards, acts in a subjective manner to determine the postseason participants. That’s not going to change, either, as Jim Delany’s evolving standards demonstrate. The power conference guys love subjectivity when it suits them. But they also hate it when they’re in the conference on the outside looking in. The solution to make them all happy is pretty obvious. It’s also easier when the standards are as amorphous as they are and will continue to be. After all, who among us doesn’t love a good number eight versus number nine debate on SportsCenter?
- Coaches aren’t going to complain about expansion, because in their hearts they know Jim Boeheim is right. Let’s face it — if we’d had a sixteen-team playoff for the past 20 years, Mark Richt would still be coaching in Athens today. A second reason coaches at the power schools won’t complain is because they’ll likely use expansion as an excuse to lobby for an increase in the number of scholarship players a program can enroll.
- Those of you who continue to insist that there’s some kind of natural barrier when college football hits an eight-team field are missing something. (NFL percentages? Really?) You don’t think the way the people running the sport think. Jim Delany is already used to advocating for expanded playoffs in other sports. He’s come on late to college football for one reason, and one reason only. Regular season broadcast revenue is the golden goose Delany and his peers don’t want to kill. Any future playoff growth will be done with an eye towards calibrating the sweet spot where the conferences maximize postseason revenue without harming what they’re already raking in during the regular season. That’s the only consideration that will be in play. I don’t know about you, but I take little comfort in those people being skilled enough to balance those interests. More likely is that they’ll cross a tipping point without realizing they’ve done so until it’s too late, and from there, it’ll be all about whatever the playoff market will bear.
I don’t write any of that with some savage hope of vindication in mind. Quite the contrary, I fervently wish to be wrong about all of it. But as someone who watched the NCAA steadily dilute the relevancy of the men’s college basketball regular season over the years by growing March Madness eight-fold, it’s impossible for me to discount the same people doing exactly the same thing with college football. Some people will no doubt welcome it. I mock brackets, but there’s no denying their popularity.
It won’t be a happy day for me, though. I feel more than ever that I’m living on borrowed time in my relationship with the sport I love. If I get five more good years out of it, I suppose I’ll take it gratefully.