This story appears in the December 15, 2016, special College Football Playoff preview issue of Sports Illustrated. To get your copy, click here.
Four great teams are in the College Football Playoff, but to some people, eight teams would be better. They are wrong.
I’m glad I could clear this up.
What, you want reasons? O.K., then.
First, let’s all acknowledge: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington had great seasons and are worthy of invites to the dance. You can argue whether these four are the most worthy—those arguments have been part of college football since Rutgers hosted the first game, completely unaware that someday it would lose 78–0 to Michigan. But Alabama (SEC champ), Clemson (ACC champ) and Washington (Pac-12 champ) all had great years, and while Ohio State was not the Big Ten champ, it had the best season of any Big Ten team and earned its spot.
So we agree on that. Now let’s acknowledge: Adding four teams would be easy. Champions from the Power 5 conferences would all get automatic bids, adding some shine to the conference title games. Then there would be three at-large bids, giving worthy teams like Ohio State this year a shot at the national title. And the teams that got left out could only blame themselves; they could have ensured a bid by winning their conference, but they didn’t.
It’s not just easy. It sounds logical. But there would be unintended consequences, and if you really love the sport, those consequences would be severe. College football has always had the best regular season in sports, mostly because there is such a thin margin for error. Even avid hockey fans might be surprised to look up in October and see the NHL regular season is about to begin, but anybody who cares about college football knows when the season starts. The Oklahoma-Houston game that kicked off this season had more buzz leading up to it than many bowl games. College football provides taut, start-to-finish entertainment. September games mean a ton, and November games mean even more.
The most compelling game this year, Michigan-Ohio State, was riveting largely because everybody understood: The winner would almost surely make the playoff, and the loser almost surely would not. That game wouldn’t have meant nearly as much if the teams were merely angling for seeding.
The biggest matchups of the final weekend, Washington-Colorado and Clemson-Virginia Tech, were tense because they were elimination games. Washington had to win, perhaps big, and the Huskies did just that. Clemson had to beat Virginia Tech, and the Tigers (barely) did just that.
If you expand the field to eight, the best teams won’t play as many meaningful games. Those early-season losses will mean a little less. Sure, it would still be college football—still exciting and quirky and heavy on pageantry. But it would not be as tense.
Proponents of the eight-game playoff say even more games would matter. But is that really true? Sure, in the last two weeks, more games would have had an effect on the field. But what about in September and October? Would Ohio State-Oklahoma have felt as important? Or Alabama-USC? Why should we suck some significance out of the biggest games on the dubious grounds that it might add tension to a few others?
We have one NFL. We don’t need another. Sure, Michigan fans could look at this year’s field and make sound arguments that their team is one of the four best in the country. They might be right. But the Wolverines lost twice. Yes, both on the last play, but the great thing about college football is that final scores matter so much. It doesn’t matter that Vegas oddsmakers would favor Michigan over Washington and possibly Clemson on a neutral field. What matters is what happened on the field.
This has always been the charming part of college football, and it’s why the sport was so interesting before there was any playoff at all. It was regional, it was quirky, and to win the national championship, you had to find ways to win all year long. There was some mystery to the polls, and it was wonderful.
Ask an Ohio State fan about 2002, an Alabama fan about 1992, a Washington fan about ’91 or a Clemson fan about ’81, and you will hear a story that involves a bit of magic. Sure, those teams were all national champions. But these schools have had other great teams. What made those seasons so special was that the teams found a way to navigate the season and its twists and turns and come out on top. It wasn’t just about being really good and getting hot at the end.
The U.S. is obsessed with playoffs, convinced they’re the best way to determine a champ. That’s why the poll system gave way to the four-team CFP. If the sport goes from four to eight, we’ll lose a lot of the magic that makes college football so great.