- The Power 5 commissioners control the playoff structure, but as they should have realized earlier, they aren't all incentivized to support the four-team format.
The four-team version of the College Football Playoff’s “There is no spoon” moment came Wednesday when American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco broke rank and suggested that maybe, possibly, college football’s biggest money division should potentially, theoretically think about moving to a six- or eight-team playoff.
Aresco said this to ESPN’s Andrea Adelson and then repeated it to me on my SiriusXM show. After he said this, I asked Aresco why this epiphany just came to him now when anyone with common sense knew his league didn’t have a chance to make a playoff that doesn’t have at least eight teams. “It’s not so much an epiphany,” Aresco said. “I realized how difficult it is for our league to really have a realistic shot at it. I’m willing to look at it and be open to it and to think about it and perhaps conclude that we ought to take a serious look.”
He should have realized that when he and his fellow commissioners were setting up the playoff, but better late than never. But Aresco’s opinion by itself isn’t reason to wonder if change could be coming sooner than the end of the 12-year playoff television contract that doesn’t expire until the end of the 2026 season. Aresco’s vote doesn’t count as much as a vote from one of his Power 5 counterparts does. He and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson—who has wisely been pushing for an eight-team playoff since the days of the BCS—can’t force change. The key factor is Aresco’s realization that he isn’t doing his job properly if he doesn’t advocate for a larger playoff. He isn’t the only commissioner who should feel that way. Two of the commissioners—with a possible third on the way—in the Power 5 Old Boys Club also will be derelict in their duties if they don’t begin pushing for an expansion of the playoff. And if they flip…
Why did I refer to a spoon in the first sentence of this column? Because this feels like the moment in October 2011 when the Mountain West and Conference USA proposed a football merger. (The great Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports suggested the new name should be Conference WTF.) In announcing that merger—which never wound up happening—then Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky broke rank and made suggestion that most college football fans at the time hadn’t even considered: What if there was no Bowl Championship Series? What if there weren’t six BCS automatic qualifying conferences that ruled over the rest?
It was just like the scene in The Matrix where the bald kid tells Keanu Reeves that the only way to bend the spoon is to first understand that there is no spoon. In that world*, all solid matter was purely a mental construct. So changing one’s mind could change the matter. In our world, the rules governing how college football decided its champion were constructs that could be changed by changing a few minds.
*Sorry for the spoilers. The Matrix is 20 years old. You should have already seen it.
It took less than two months for Banowsky to be proven completely correct. The moment Alabama was placed at No. 2 in the final BCS rankings and slotted into the BCS title game against LSU, the wheels began to turn. A day after the BCS ranking that shunned 12–1 Oklahoma State in favor of 11–1 Alabama, the Big 12 flipped its support from the BCS to a four-team playoff. The SEC and ACC already wanted a four-team playoff. The Big East had been weakened so much by realignment that it was no longer viewed as an equal by the power conferences. Suddenly, the Big Ten and Pac-12 were outvoted.
The difference now is that the Power 5 commissioners are the machines that control the Matrix. They determine what we all see. And if all of them are fine with a four-team playoff, then the four-team playoff will remain. But all five aren’t incentivized to support the four-team playoff, which makes things much more interesting.
The Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby and the Pac-12’s Larry Scott aren’t doing their jobs if they’re fine with a four-team playoff. They are actively harming their leagues every second they stand behind a four-team playoff. Just as Aresco needed to be standing on the table screaming for an eight-teamer so an undefeated UCF might someday play for a title, Bowlsby and Scott should be educating their presidents as to why the four-team playoff is bad for the Big 12 and Pac-12 and needs to change. And if Georgia beats Alabama in the SEC title game and the Crimson Tide still make the playoff over the Big Ten champion, then Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany needs to join that group as well. If Aresco can come to this realization, perhaps the others can too.
“I think that kind of thought is percolating out there. I can’t prove it,” The American’s Aresco said Wednesday. “As P5 leagues potentially get left out—this year you could have a situation where three of them could be left out—as it becomes clear that it’s very, very difficult for even our undefeated teams to get a shot, you have to think about it a little more.”
I’ve long thought an eight-team playoff that included the five Power 5 champions, the highest ranked Group of Five champion and two wild cards would be the most satisfying way to determine a champion. Going to 16 truly would dent the drama of the regular season. But I have enjoyed the first five years of the four-team playoff because it makes so many people cry. In 2014, it was truly magnificent watching it dawn on the people who run the Power 5 conferences that they had created a system in which at least one of them would be excluded every year.
Then, last year, two of them got excluded. This year, if Notre Dame goes undefeated and Alabama loses to Georgia in Atlanta, three of them may get excluded. And the most delicious irony is that the two Power 5 leagues who will have never missed the playoff—the ACC and the SEC—are the two that originally wanted to scrap the BCS in favor of a playoff and the two that would be least resistant to an eight-team playoff. At a luncheon in Durham, N.C., in November 2014, before the first playoff had even been contested, ACC commissioner John Swofford said eight would be the “ideal” number. He may have gotten a few stern text messages from his fellow power brokers, but Swofford is a ninja and cares not for your disapproval.
So Swofford probably would be in. The SEC’s Greg Sankey has every reason to love the four-team model, but the prevailing opinion at his schools would be that an eight-team playoff means a better chance that eight SEC schools make the bracket. One or two more could tip the balance, and that’s where Bowlsby and Scott come in.
With Scott, it’s unclear how much he or the Pac-12’s presidents care that the league was left out of the playoff in 2015 and ’17. Washington State, the only one-loss team in the Pac-12 now, has virtually no chance to make the playoff without the kind of upsets that would make the earth spin off its axis. The league seems to fall farther behind every day, but there doesn’t seem to be as much angst over that as there does in the Big 12. Perhaps the Pac-12 really is more concerned about water polo national titles than football national titles. But if Scott and the presidents care at all about the biggest revenue generator, they probably should advocate for a system that guarantees the Pac-12’s inclusion.
Bowlsby’s Big 12, meanwhile, has missed the playoff in two of the four years it has been played (2014 and ’16). If the current rankings hold, the Big 12 would miss the playoff for a third time in five years. A 12–1 Oklahoma or 11–1 West Virginia could get in if Notre Dame loses a game or if Northwestern wins the Big Ten title game. Those teams also might be a coin flip against a 12–1 Ohio State if the Buckeyes win the Big Ten. But they wouldn’t get in over a 12–1 Michigan, and they’d likely stay behind an Alabama team that lost to Georgia in the SEC title game. Unlike the schools in the Pac-12, we know the schools in the Big 12 care deeply about whether one of their ranks makes the playoff. The Big 12 has commissioned studies to determine how it can best position its teams for the playoff. The Big 12 has considered expansion to bolster its playoff chances. The Big 12 reactivated its dormant conference championship game to give the playoff selection committee another top-tier matchup to consider when evaluating the Big 12 champion. The league spent all this time and energy trying to address a problem it could easily solve by helping create a system that guarantees its champ makes the playoff.
The Big Ten is a different animal. It has only missed the playoff once outright (2017), but its champion (Penn State) was left out in 2016 in favor of its East division runner-up (Ohio State), and that caused internal strife. As long as Michigan keeps winning, the Big Ten feels safely in, but that (fairly unlikely) Georgia-beats-Alabama scenario could change the math. Delany marches to his own drummer, so it’s difficult to predict how he’d handle this. The people at the Big Ten schools have always acted as if a trip to California’s San Gabriel Valley for New Year’s is the pinnacle of human existence, so perhaps they don’t really care if they make the playoff. But an eight-team format would mean quarterfinals would be played at campus sites*, and Delany might relish dragging an SEC team up to Columbus or Ann Arbor or Madison in the winter.
*In an eight-team format, semifinals also should be played on campus. But a combination of getting greased by the bowls for decades and the relatively new phenomenon of leagues essentially owning bowls (Rose: Big Ten/Pac-12, Sugar: Big 12/SEC, Orange: ACC) means they have a keen interest in keeping those bowls relevant to television networks.
In 2011, the people whose votes mattered swore there would always be a BCS until the day they decided they were going to destroy it. So don’t expect any new public comments from the Power 5 commissioners supporting a larger playoff. But don’t be surprised if, behind the scenes, the wheels have already started to turn.