Beware, College Football: Bigger Isn't Always Better

Each year, college football gets further away from its roots. The playoff isn’t the only reason, but the continued expansion of the game is making what used to matter now seem pointless.
By Michael Rosenberg ,

We are a country of 32–ounce sodas and two–foot chili dogs; a country that had a 64–team college basketball playoff and expanded it; that went west until we hit the ocean, then picked up Alaska and Hawaii; that manages to expand everything except the space between airline seats. So going from a four–team to eight–team college football playoff feels inevitable.

I understand. It’s what most people want.

This is about the price you will pay when you get it.

For most of its history, college football was a regional sport, driven by historical rivalries, and defined by the best regular season in sports. College football was quirky, it was different, and it wasn’t for everybody. But there were a lot of longtime fans who preferred it to every other sport largely because of those quirks.

The four–team playoff has fundamentally changed that. One loss does not mean nearly what it once did, especially if you lose to a good team. This means that the biggest, most anticipated games of the regular season are not as big anymore. The stakes are lower. Not low, but lower. There are no de facto elimination games between undefeated teams. Alabama knew for the last month of the regular season that it could lose and still win the national championship.

The playoff (and its antecedent, the Bowl Championship Series) was supposed to resolve arguments. In one big way, it obviously does—we do, after all, have a clearly designated national champion now. But there is actually a lot more arguing now than there was pre–BCS.

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Under the old bowl system, when conference champions went to pre-designated bowls, the argument mostly came after the season, when we debated who was No. 1. Now the argument is all season long. We have decided that all that matters is the playoff—that the regular season’s prime purpose is not really to decide anything, but to provide fuel and facts for the playoff discussion. Somehow, in going from the old bowl system to the Bowl Alliance to the Bowl Championship Series to the playoff, college football has managed to amplify the screaming matches.

The most recent example of this is a telling one: After the SEC championship game ended, there was a clamor in some quarters for Georgia to make the playoff because it played Alabama so close, and therefore must be one of the four best teams. Remember: these are the same people who screamed for years that the champion should be decided on the field. So why shouldn’t Georgia’s loss to Alabama decide the Bulldogs’ fate? Didn’t that happen on the field?

I think most people agree that Oklahoma was a better choice. But the Georgia conversation was part of a larger trend: the regular season is viewed largely as an audition for the playoff.

Well, that’s where we are. It’s a price most people seem happy to pay. But let’s look at what happens if the playoff expands to eight teams. The regular season would get diminished even more—every major–conference team would know that it could lose at least once, and some could lose twice. And this would fundamentally diminish what was always the best part of the sport, and at least to me, the most fun part of any sport: rivalry games on the last weekend of the regular season.

An eight–team playoff sounds juicy if you only look at the four quarterfinal matchups. But it would have sucked most of the drama out of USC’s near-upset of Notre Dame last month, because the Fighting Irish would know they were going to the playoff regardless. (They could have plausibly lost a chance to host a game, if an eight–team playoff featured games on campuses, but that’s not nearly the same as being eliminated from the title race.)

Ohio State’s win over Michigan would not have felt as important—both teams would have walked off the field thinking they might still be able to win a national title, and both would be right. (They are ranked sixth and seventh in the latest CFP rankings.) There is no way the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry would have been nearly as meaningful or memorable over the last century if the sport had an eight–team playoff that whole time. Not a chance.

Yes, of course: the payoff would be seven games to help determine a national champion. But playoff seeds are based purely on résumés, and matchups are intriguing only because of who happens to be really good this year. Longtime rivalries are a much smaller part of the equation. Alabama-Auburn football games will start to feel more like North Carolina-Duke basketball games: intense, but not as important as they were.

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If all you care about is watching the best eight teams determine a champion, then you probably don’t care. But the sport gets further away from its roots every year. The playoff is not the only reason, but it is one of them. The Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry produced some of the most legendary games in college football history. Now it doesn’t even exist. Texas-Texas A&M also disappeared because of conference switches and money grabs.

I have heard and read that an expanded playoff will bring in millions of dollars, and for the life of me, I cannot fathom why any fan or media person would care about that. We’ve seen where so much of the extra money goes: for $14 million buyouts for unethical coaches (hello, Bobby Petrino), and toward mini-golf courses for players and weight rooms decorated like gaudy palaces, so schools can fool recruits into picking schools for the wrong reasons. Does anybody really watch college football these days and think the sport would be better if it only brought in more revenue?

The four–team playoff has diminished the bowls. You might not have sympathy for bowl directors in silly sportcoats, and I don’t either. But consider the fans (and teams) at Washington and Ohio State. It used to be that you played your schedule, and if you won your league, you went to the bowl where your league champion went. It was straightforward, and it was honest. If you applied that system this year, Ohio State and Washington fans would be a lot more excited about attending the Rose Bowl. That was their reward for winning the league. Now it’s just some consolation prize for not making a playoff.

If and when the playoff expands to eight teams, I don’t know if there would even be a Rose Bowl, or if there were, what the point would be. It would feel like the NIT championship game.

Some would call that progress. But if you loved the sport the way it was, you might wince sometimes at what it’s become … and what it inevitably will be. An eight-team playoff will make college football feel even more like the NFL. A long time ago, I knew a lot of college football fans who loved their sport largely because it wasn’t the NFL. Sometimes I wonder what happened to them.

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