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Incentives Aligning for Haves, Have-Nots in Quest for Eight-Team College Football Playoff

Three members of the Power 5 and all five leagues in the Group of Five have strong incentives to push for an eight-team playoff.

Danny White didn’t feel so alone Wednesday. 

The UCF athletic director has been talking to anyone who will listen—and plenty of people who won’t—about his desire for an expanded College Football Playoff. His football team hasn’t lost since the final game of the 2016 season, yet it wasn’t invited to the playoff in 2017 or in 2018. This has made White understandably upset. But unlike his father (Duke athletic director Kevin White) or his brother (Florida basketball coach Mike White), Danny White works at a Group of Five school. So his grievances, like his team’s wins, usually count for less. UCF’s AD and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson can talk about an eight-team playoff all they want, but no one will listen unless they can find some allies who carry bigger sticks.

White might be close to gaining some very powerful friends. The question is how close. In a story published Wednesday by The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, several power brokers went on the record and either supported the idea of an eight-team playoff or went further than anyone in their position has on the subject. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, a respected former football coach and a former member of the College Football Playoff selection committee told Auerbach this: “Everyone has the same feeling; expansion is inevitable. When you can do it, and I think we need to serve more people. I think four was the right way to get started. In my opinion, we need to take a look of adding more teams into the playoff, giving more opportunities.” Meanwhile, presidents such as Ohio State’s Michael Drake and West Virginia’s Gordon Gee suggested taking a hard look at the playoff format sooner rather than later.

White couldn’t help but smile. “I thought it was beautiful,” he told myself and Jason Horowitz on Wednesday on Playbook on SiriusXM Channel 84. “I was so excited to see others finally come on board.”

Everything in life boils down to incentives. Unless the people in charge are properly incentivized to change, they’ll happily maintain the status quo forever. In December 2011, the incentive arrived to kill the BCS and start the College Football Playoff in the form of an Alabama-LSU rematch in the national title game. The inclusion of 11-1 Alabama, which finished second in the SEC West to LSU that year, over 12-1 Big 12 champ Oklahoma State enraged Big 12 leaders enough to flip their support from the BCS to the four-team, seeded “Plus One” that then-SEC commissioner Mike Slive had started pushing after undefeated Auburn was left out of the BCS title game following the ’04 season. The Big 12’s move tilted the balance of power toward the pro-playoff forces, and there was nothing playoff opponents such as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany could do except get on board and try to negotiate the best deal for their leagues.

This time, Delany might be on the side of those who want to expand and the SEC’s new commissioner—former Slive lieutenant Greg Sankey—might be the one embracing the status quo. Delany certainly can’t control Alvarez or Drake, but he can advise them to shut their traps if he thinks they’re about to say something bad for the league. The Big Ten, which has been left out of the playoff the past two seasons and had champion Penn State left out in favor of East division runner-up Ohio State in 2016, would benefit from an eight-team playoff, though. It especially would benefit from on-campus quarterfinal games, which could force teams from the South to play in Columbus or State College or Madison in December.

The Big 12 and Pac-12, which have been left out of the playoff for two and three of its five years respectively, also would benefit from an eight-team tournament that guaranteed a spot to each of the champions of the Power 5 leagues. That’s three members of the Power 5 and all five leagues in the Group of Five who should be incentivized to push for an eight-team playoff. White isn’t surprised that some in those Power 5 leagues seem to be warming to the idea after getting excluded in the same way UCF has. “There were probably some that didn’t think that would happen prior to the four-team arrangement,” White said.

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But what’s most surprising is the tone of what Ohio State president Drake told The Athletic: “I do notice, though, that playoffs, generally, in other sports, in the professional sports, are determined on the field, and this is different than that.” That could be a defense of 2017 or 2018 Big Ten champ Ohio State, but it could just as easily be a defense of 2017 or 2018 American Athletic Conference champ UCF. It seems that the incentives have aligned for some very powerful Haves and some very successful Have-Nots.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby went as far as any Power 5 commissioner has gone when he told The Athletic the eight-team format is “an appropriate thing to begin thinking about.” That’s not outright support, but it’s more than anyone expected from anyone in Bowlsby’s position following year five of a 12-year deal.

This doesn’t feel as imminent as it did in December 2011 when the tide shifted against the BCS. I assumed last week that the committee’s decision to include Big 12 champion Oklahoma at No. 4 this season instead of 11–2 SEC runner-up Georgia would stave off any serious discussion of an eight-team format for a few years, but perhaps I was wrong. Still, the typically glacial pace of change in college football would make it difficult to do much in the next few years. But the mere discussion of Georgia at No. 4—and probably the fact that the Bulldogs did land at No. 5 ahead of 12–1 Big Ten champ Ohio State—may have scared enough people to start considering a format that would keep those Power 5 champs from getting excluded. 

That possibility that would turn the SEC from the change agent that created the playoff into the league asking everyone to slow down is any suggestion that leagues drop conference championship games to accommodate the extra round of playoffs. The SEC is not going to give up its championship game, and it will move to block any plan that even hints at an end to conference title games. 

“The SEC Championship Game is important to this conference and our fans,” Sankey said in a statement released on Wednesday. “I think the fact this year’s game was the most-watched and highest-rated regular season football game on any television network in seven years tells you the SEC Championship Game is important to fans of college football well beyond our conference. All conference championship games are important and relevant, which is why every FBS conference has followed the SEC’s lead and created championship games of their own.”

That last line is a beautiful humblebrag, but it also goes back to our previous discussion of incentives. An eight-team playoff with automatic bids for Power 5 conference champions would only increase the value of Power 5 conference title games, which currently go for about $30 million to $40 million a pop. Imagine if Oklahoma or Texas could have made the playoff by winning the most recent Big 12 title game. Or if the winner of the Ohio State-Northwestern Big Ten title game was guaranteed a berth. So if everyone is chasing the biggest positive incentives, no one would want to ditch their conference title games. Would they have to slip the players a little something extra because they’re making two teams play an extra game? Possibly. But the people in charge of college sports have gradually been doing that for the past eight years either because a court ordered it or because they were trying to keep a court from ordering something.

White and the folks in the Group of Five conferences probably shouldn’t get too excited yet. White jokes that he “looks inward” every day—a reference to Sankey’s suggestion that UCF schedule better to have a chance to make the playoff. He also knows a lot of people—including me—don’t agree with his insistence that UCF only schedule home-and-home series with Power 5 opponents. An anywhere, anytime mentality might produce the desired result faster, but White remains steadfast. 

If the wind keeps blowing in the direction that the discussion of 11-2 Georgia as a legitimate final four possibility seems to have taken it, White may eventually get his wish. The incentives have begun to align for an awful lot of people. “There are a lot of things we can point to that maybe help people recognize that four was a lot better than two and two was a lot better than nothing, but we’re still not there,” White said. “I think an eight-team playoff would be great for the game.”