It only took 16 years for college football’s national championship bracket to grow from two to four teams.
Surely it won’t be that long before it goes to eight — or maybe even 16 — without waiting for the current 12-year contract to expire in 2025.
Depends on whom you talk to.
“There’s going to be intense pressure to go to eight, and, in my view, the sooner it happens the better.”
Baylor Athletic Director Ian McCaw, whose school finished fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings
“We would prefer to stay at four.”
Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, whose school finished fourth and will face No. 1 Alabama in semifinals in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday
“I don’t see it staying at four teams for the next 11 years.”
Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson, a member of the CFP management council
“There’s no talk in our group about expanding.”
CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock
But, Hancock added, the fact that even before the first CFP games are played there is a lively debate over its future shows “the passion and ownership for this game,” felt by everyone from ordinary fans to the highest levels of decision-making.
College football has never been hotter — at least as a media property, because actual attendance has been declining slightly.
That’s why the rights for the CFP — the two semifinal games plus the Jan. 12 title game in Arlington, Texas, plus four other bowls played Wednesday and Thursday — went for $600 million, more than triple the amount for the old BCS games. That enriched the coffers of the schools, particularly those in the Power Five conferences, to unthought-of levels.
And it’s why Alabama can pay Nick Saban $7.1 million per year as he gets the Crimson Tide in position to win its fourth national title in the past six years.
And it’s also why the game’s power-brokers must be calculating how much ESPN, the current rights holder, or some other interested party would be willing to kick in for a round of four quarterfinal games.
There are already look-ins available after six years, although anything else would take the schools making the overture and not vice versa.
But it’s not that easy.
College football, for all of its big-money revenue potential, remains just that — college, not professional — and is ultimately controlled by the school presidents.
Adding extra games would mean interfering with the academic calendar — either playing the quarterfinals in mid-December, which is usually a dead time because of exams, or extending the season past mid-January, which, although it would involve only two teams, would mean violating the long-stated standard of keeping football a fall semester sport.
At the same time, and showing how quickly things are evolving, there also is the growing question of whether the athletes are receiving their fair share of the proceeds, especially if they are being asked to play more games.
Already, the semifinal winners will be playing 15 games. Another round of playoffs makes it 16 — the same length as an NFL regular season.
“Just cut off one of those lesser regular-season games,” suggests former Texas coach Mack Brown. “They’re more like scrimmages anyway.”
Trying selling that to the schools that count on home-game revenue to help balance their books — or to those who take payday games to improve their bottom lines — not to mention what a home game means to the local economies of cities like Tuscaloosa, Columbus or Baton Rouge.
And while there have already been moves to compensate the athletes beyond their scholarships, such as stipends to cover the actual cost of attendance, it’s still a pittance compared to the revenue football creates, much of which goes to fund the nonrevenue sports.
Smith suggests providing the cost of traveling to the playoff games for the players’ parents as one way of indirectly aiding the players. But that’s a proposal rife with the potential for abuse.
Obviously, just providing fluffier dorm room pillows doesn’t offset asking a potential high-round draft pick to risk injury to play extra games.
Fortunately for those who would have to deal with such issues, the players themselves seemingly have little concern in that area.
“We practice like we play, so there’s always the risk of getting hurt,” said Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, a consensus projected top-10 pick, of the potential for even more games. “It’s never entered my mind.”
It may have never entered Cooper’s mind, but it certainly has for potential agents who could have his ear, or anyone else’s for that matter, and it would increase with an eight-team playoff.
Beyond those two major matters, there are logistical questions.
There is no lack of bowls that would be willing to host quarterfinal games played in mid-December in an eight-team format, but the more-common proposal would be to play the games on campus sites.
The idea of a playoff game at Bryant-Denny or Ohio Stadium is certainly intriguing. But what about the large amount of tickets that the visiting teams would rightfully request?
“I’ve got 103,000 season-ticket holders,” Smith said. “Who am I going to ask to give theirs up?”
There is also the idea of maintaining the bowl experience, a near-universal engrained sentiment of coaches and administrators and one that wouldn’t be possible with on-campus games which would be denied to the losers.
However, in a CFP world, the bowl experince may be a diminished asset.
Already, the semifinal winners will spend only three days in North Texas before the title game, and that’s only because of a required media day Jan. 10, two days before.
“The bowl experience will always be there,” Hancock said. “But the coaches know what is best for their teams, and we will be listening to their feedback.”
Already, the players are expressing their feelings.
“Honestly, I would enjoy practicing at home more than coming here (to New Orleans),” Alabama senior defensive back Nick Perry said. “Being here is nice, but it definitely gets old in a hurry.
“This is a business trip for us, not a vacation. Our ultimate goal is to win this game and play for the national championship.”
Perhaps coincidently, the Nike hoodies worn by Ohio State and Alabama players in the media sessions have the logo of the CFP but not the Sugar Bowl.
Even the official name of the game is the College Football Playoff at the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
“Sometimes it’s the little things that add up to big things,” Sugar Bowl Chief Executive Officer Paul Hoolahan said. “This game will have all of the trappings of the Sugar Bowl in the framework of the CFP semifinals.
“But we don’t know yet what it’s going to feel like in the future.”
One thing for sure: Change is never impossible.
Another thing for sure — the title game has become a valuable property far beyond what it was in the BCS days. This year’s game at Dallas and the 2016 game in Phoenix and 2017 game in Tampa cost the bidding entities far more than their predecessors.
Hancock said requests for proposals for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 games will go out in February with a decision expected in September.
New Orleans can’t bid on the 2018 game, because it’s a semifinal year for the Sugar Bowl, but the other two years are possibilities.
“It’s going to be very competitive,” Hancock said. “Cities are going to have to bring their ‘A’ games.”
And if there ever is to be a move to expand the playoffs — either now or a decade from now — it will not happen without the consensus agreement of the Power Five.
It took the Big Ten coming on board to make the CFP happen. Smith said there’s no movement in his league for change. Likewise, Southeastern Conference officials are in no hurry.
Nothing happens without those two working in concert.
However, both the SEC and Big Ten have teams in the semifinals. Smith acknowledged that Ohio State’s gaining the No. 4 seed in the final week probably affected his thinking, and the SEC likely would have seen things differently had Mississippi State, which had been in the top four in the rankings throughout the regular season, not lost its finale against Ole Miss.
More immediately, there could be some tweaking of the process for next season.
There’s a consensus that the eight weeks of standings were too many. Next year, having 14 rather than 15 weeks in the regular season will eliminate one, and Hancock said another week might be shaved although conceding ESPN would be reluctant for to go along.
But unlike the early years of the BCS where there were several major changes, including the double-hosting model after the threat of legislative or legal action by the coalition led by then-Tulane President Scott Cowen gained more access for the non-automatic qualifying conferences, the selection committee gained overwhelming approval for its end result.
“You’re always going to have critics,” said Sun Belt Conference Commissioner and management council member Karl Benson. “But overall, the reaction from the public and the media has been more than anybody expected.”
Except that now lots of folks are expecting more.