TAMPA — Reuben Foster was in good spirits during his hour at a mini-podium Sunday, smiling easily during his media day session at Amalie Arena. Even when confronted with a hypothetical that is not terribly far-fetched—that in an eight-team College Football Playoff, this would be a semifinal round and the Alabama linebacker would be facing another game after this one—Foster didn’t lose the sunny demeanor. Possibly because he knew the theoretical strain of one more outing was just that: Theoretical.
“I wouldn’t imagine playing more games than this,” Foster said.
And how would he categorize the state of his body after 14 games, let alone 16?
“Trust me,” Foster said, with a grin. “You know.”
No two teams, actually, better understand the toll that playoff expansion would exact on the players than Clemson and Alabama. They played for the national championship last year, and they’ll play for that same championship this year, which means they have intimate familiarity with the price of logging 15 games of action. Not one member of either roster was excited to add a 16th when approached with the idea on Sunday. That would be the road traveled by programs with 12 regular-season games and a full postseason run in an eight-team bracket. It is a path that the Crimson Tide and Tigers would prefer to see blocked off with spike strips.
In an eight-team bracket, Alabama and Clemson would only be in the semifinal round at this stage. Anyone claiming to have athlete welfare in mind might want to ask the actual athletes before doubling the playoff field and adding another game without compensating elsewhere. “That’s just too many games to ask out of a player, honestly,” Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett said. “Having the conference championships and then to go on to play [three] playoff games, it would be ridiculous to do. It’s just too much to ask.”
Or, as Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick put it, “That’s too many games. Way too many games.”
If the momentum toward an eight-team playoff is inexorable, the Tigers and Crimson Tide would suggest some consideration for what national finalists put their bodies through already. “It’s really about six months where you’re constantly going and constantly working and your body is hurting all the time,” Fitzpatrick said. Even at a program like Clemson, where practices are kept short in part to help maintain freshness and limit wear-and-tear during the season, there’s no avoiding the consequences of a physical slog that starts with summer conditioning in June and July. “Coach [Dabo] Swinney has done a good job taking care of us,” Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph said. “But there are nagging things. Like my thumb: I don’t know what’s wrong with my thumb, but my thumb is killing me. Things like that. My feet hurt all the time. My knees. You’re just broke down. Things just add on and it kind of lingers through the season.”
The players would continue to be willing to push past those ailments in pursuit of a championship decided in an eight-team field if there were accommodations in other ways.
Most suggested the elimination of a regular-season game to balance the ledger. “That’d be the only way possible,” Leggett said. Another suggestion was adding more bye weeks during the season and/or during the playoff run itself. Players do think they can get somewhat back to normal given a December schedule that is relatively light on practice and completely bereft of schoolwork once finals are completed. “For that, just being out of school kind of helped,” Alabama offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher said. “Just focusing on football, taking care of your body, getting off your feet instead of having to go to class right after practice or workouts. That helped out a little bit. But still, to play this football at this high a level for that long, it takes a toll.”
There are, however, complications to more off weeks, too. If the powers behind the playoff want to at least pay lip service to academics, would they want to push the championship game into what would be the second semester at most schools?
Regardless, the two teams playing the most games last year and this year have concluded this much: The grind is worth it for a title, but it’s long, and it doesn’t need to get longer.
“From a fan perspective, it’d probably be awesome,” Joseph said. “But from a player perspective, we’re not feeling it.”