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Everyone Deserves the Blame As CFP Chooses to Stick With the Status Quo

Instead of using expansion to address a host of problems, the College Football Playoff chose to give up on fixing itself simply because it can.

College football remains the most amazing sport on the planet for one simple reason: No matter how much the people in charge screw up, they can’t break it.

Mind you, they keep trying to break it. Or, perhaps more accurately, they keep refusing to fix it, to address the glaring flaws, to improve the product, to get past backbiting fiefdom disputes and cooperate for the good of the entire enterprise. They can remain mired in place because they know the money will keep flowing, the fans will keep watching.

They know we’re like the parents of a problem child, willing to love it no matter how many times it disappoints and aggravates us.

The problem child has given us four-hour games and kickoff times announced six days in advance, making scheduling a trip to campus infinitely more difficult. The problem child has given us 11 a.m. local kickoffs in the Central Time Zone, and the specter of 9 a.m. kickoffs out West eventually. And now the problem child has given us a four-team Playoff for the next four seasons when an infinitely better option is just floating out there within reach.


The College Football Playoff announced Friday that it has given up on improving itself. This comes eight months after the College Football Playoff announced it was recommending an expansion to 12 teams. What followed was a prolonged stalemate, as the conference commissioners refused to work together to reach a solution that was acceptable to everyone.

They talked a big game and then failed to play one. And so the sport will continue to play fewer meaningful postseason games until 2026. Mom and dad, go bail the problem child out of jail again.

We will have a bigger and better Playoff in 2026, but until then we persist in excluding vast swaths of the U.S. and huge fan bases. We remain constricted instead of expanded, with more bowl games that continue to mean less and more star players deciding they don’t need to play in them. We remain devoted to the blandness of neutral sites, and to the exclusion of campus Playoff games that would be the biggest things those college towns have ever seen.

Caution flags were raised from the beginning after the CFP announced its proposed 12-team format, because this is college football and change comes at either a glacial pace (or abruptly with a bayonet in the back, if politicians get involved). It took only 145 years to have a Playoff of any kind, so to expect expansion from four to 12 in less than 12 years was perhaps unrealistic.

But when the CFP floated the model in June and it was actually enthusiastically received in many quarters, optimism got the best of everyone. It was an appealing plan: The six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large selections would comprise the field. The top four conference champions would receive a first-round bye while the other eight played on campus, with teams seeded fifth through eighth hosting teams seeded ninth through 12th. Then the sport would return to its ritualistic bowl addiction (it wasn’t a perfect plan), with bowls hosting quarterfinals and semifinals and the championship game remaining a stand-alone event.

In one bold flourish, college football could have addressed a host of problems:

Regionalization of the sport. A 12-team Playoff might still result in two Southeastern Conference teams playing in the final, or the SEC vs. Clemson, but it would take a long time to get there with more stakeholders involved.

A postseason lacking the passion and stadium energy that comes with the regular season. We know how painfully rare it is for SEC and Big Ten teams to play each other on campus; a Playoff with real home games could have created those matchups. (For some inexplicable reason, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Thursday that his school might actually prefer an indoor Playoff game away from Columbus to host a one in the Horseshoe. This ranks among the strangest Playoff-related comments yet.) Home games on campus also could have given a chance for an up-from-the-bootstraps power such as Cincinnati to host a Power 5 school—the kind of opportunity it never gets otherwise.

Entire power conferences tuning out on the Playoff—and being left further behind—due to lack of involvement. In a bigger Playoff, it’s highly likely that the Pac-12 champion is an annual participant, as opposed to making two of the eight four-team fields to date. The SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC would be virtual locks every year, and probably have multiple entries more often than not.

A narrowing of interest to just a few teams in the final weeks of the season. By November, the list of Playoff contenders is usually no more than seven or eight. With a 12-team field, the list would include most of the top 25. Each November 2021 game would have mattered immensely to the likes of Mississippi and Michigan State—teams that weren’t going to win their conferences but would have had a shot at a Playoff bid.

Players opting out of bowl games. If the 2021 season had ended with a 12-team Playoff, these players would almost certainly have participated instead of sitting out their last game: Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, Ohio State receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Notre Dame running back Kyren WIlliams. Who wouldn’t want to see them playing with a national championship on the line?

Fear of an ESPN planet. One of the concerns expressed by many is the ESPN-SEC axis continuing to warp the balance of power in the sport. With an expanded Playoff would come diversified broadcast partners, and now that diversification will be delayed. In theory, that provides at least four more years of Most Favored Nation status for the SEC with the sole network carrier of the Playoff.

Lack of money for NIL and building another waterfall in the football facility. Hey, with a 12-team Playoff the money spigot flows even harder. The commissioners are leaving an estimated $450 million in new revenue on the table by failing to expand to 12.

The list could go on, stretching from Ann Arbor to Auburn. But the leaders of college football rejected it and stuck us all with the status quo, knowing that we will grudgingly accept it in the end.

Who gets the blame? Everyone, really.

The Alleged Alliance trio of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC stood in the way most steadfastly, for a variety of reasons, some of which were valid concerns. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips’s point about asking collegians to play 16 or 17 games to win a national title ranks at or near the top of the valid concern list. Still, this was more an obstructionist stance than it needed to be.

Related: It became clear that the SEC’s summer plundering of the Big 12 for Texas and Oklahoma was a severe wedge issue. And it should be. Those schools blew up the map and the SEC was a willing participant, and it remains to be seen how that will help anyone other than a couple of elite programs at the top of the SEC (Alabama and Georgia get more money while already having the necessary advantages to win anything other than the NFC West, and aren’t affected by the addition of more competition within the league). The other 12 SEC teams will find life harder, and so will the Longhorns and Sooners. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation must deal with the next revenue and publicity boom coming to the SEC.

That was the latest betrayal of trust within the college leadership cabal. Make no mistake, the ACC would have gladly taken Texas and Oklahoma as well. All the conferences would have. The division between leagues has always been there, but the pandemic season of 2020 widened them, and the realignment spasm of ’21 made it a chasm.

The conferences can’t trust one another. And with the NCAA an empty leadership shell when it comes to football (among other things), nobody has the power to make them act cohesively for the good of the sport. So we get the athletic version of congressional gridlock. Isn’t that fun?

Presented with a grand plan and a grand opportunity, college football couldn’t get its act together sufficiently to seize upon it. We the fans are all the poorer for it. But we’ll be back in droves come fall, filling the stands and working the remote, watching everything they dish up—and they know it.

The problem child will still have a roof over its head and money in the wallet. Even if we know there are more disappointments ahead.

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