I have to admit my favorite part of the ongoing debate here about the inevitable growth of the college football playoff — inevitable to me, at least — is the insistence by some that there is some unique natural barrier that exists to limit the size of the postseason field because… well, because college football.
Never mind the history of organized sports in this country, which clearly demonstrates that it is in their nature to grow their postseasons because it’s a money making choice. Never mind that the NFL above and the FCS below have both expanded their playoffs on several occasions, despite playing with smaller rosters.
And never mind the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, even though the same movers and shakers who have steadily pushed to enlarge it also direct the future of the CFP, because that’s basketball, and who in their right mind could possibly think that the one sport could be taken seriously as a template for the other?
Yet the shelf life of the championship game barely lasts much longer than basketball conference tournament title games leading into the NCAA Tournament pairings. For many people in the public, the football championship game is viewed now as another data point for playoff consideration, though CFP Selection Committee protocol does say conference championships should be considered when comparing similar teams.
“There’s no question football is becoming like basketball,” [Ohio State AD Gene] Smith said. “We’re all talking about who’s in the playoffs, and the kids have done this magnificent thing of running through the regular season and the championship, and we don’t put that on the pedestal.”
If you doubt the truth of that, all you have to do is circulate on the Internet today looking at reports about Washington’s win over Colorado last night and note how many more of the takes from that are about Washington clinching a spot in the national semi-finals than about winning the conference, which, historically speaking, was a big deal for the Huskies. That’s of a piece with the reaction to Auburn’s loss to Georgia, which ended the Tigers’ shot at the playoffs and somehow diminished the Iron Bowl in the eyes of many.
But it’s Smith’s conference that’s the real canary in the coal mine now. As I mentioned the other day, Jim Delany’s evolution on the playoff has been something to watch. As Big Ten Commissioner, he’s gone from vehemently opposing a college football playoff in any form, to opposing one that didn’t strictly exclude non-conference champions, to being reduced to a walking shrug on the issue.
And why not? Neither of the two schools playing for the Big Ten title today will make the CFP field, regardless of which wins. Meanwhile, Ohio State, which isn’t playing in it, is widely considered a shoo-in to make the national playoff and Michigan, which also isn’t in the championship game, still has a chance for the semis, too. So the logical question to ask after today is how much does a championship game matter, anyway? And you don’t have to look any farther than college basketball to answer that.
Thus, the follow up isn’t whether the national playoffs will expand to eight — the inevitable bickering that will result from whatever comes of today, along with the extra money from another round of games make that a when not if matter — but how long it takes for the people running the game to take the postseason field past eight.
That’s why you should read the rest of Solomon’s article. It seems likely that the eight-team playoff itself will have repercussions on how the conferences decide to manage their regular seasons in its wake and that the changes to come will further serve to weaken the regional bonds on college football that are the real source of its unique appeal. The more the game’s focus shifts to a national one, the easier it is to sell a larger postseason.
Again, don’t take my word on that. Just listen to what Gene Smith is saying and what every other postseason field has done. If you can.