Proponents of an expanded College Football Playoff should have cringed over the UConn-Kentucky men’s basketball NCAA tournament championship game.
The matchup of two underachieving regular-season teams perfectly illustrates exactly why football needs to keep the invitations to its playoff to a minimum.
UConn and Kentucky—seeded seventh and eighth in the tournament, respectively—ranked Nos. 19 and 22, respectively, in the pre-tournament USA Today Coaches Poll. The two combined for 18 losses and a collective .735 win percentage.
Such a win percentage in a 12-game college football season would approximately equate to a 9-3 regular season.
Yet basketball’s setup enabled the sports world to celebrate UConn as the national champion before the confetti and streamers hit the court inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The very nature of college football wouldn’t allow the same settled feeling for a similarly credentialed winner of a postseason tournament.
Next year, AT&T Stadium will host the first-ever College Football Playoff championship game, but the playoff format will differ greatly from basketball’s. Only four teams will qualify for the initial football playoff—a far cry from the 68 that make the men’s basketball NCAA tournament.
And that’s a good thing.
College football has long enjoyed a history of having the most important, meaningful regular season in sports.
The impact of that regular season disappears if the sport expands its playoff beyond eight teams.
In nine of the past 10 seasons, expanding the playoff to even 16 teams would have admitted at least one three-loss team based on BCS standings.
Moving to a 24-team playoff—such as the one utilized in the FCS ranks—would have allowed four-loss national champions, thus crippling the power of the regular season.
|Year||Three-plus losses in Top 16||Three-plus losses in Top 24|
|2013||2 (LSU, Arizona State)||7 (LSU, ASU, UCLA, Wisconsin, Texas A&M*, Georgia*, Duke)|
|2012||2 (Oregon State, Nebraska)||6 (OSU, Neb, Texas*, Northwestern, Michigan*, UCLA*)|
|2011||4 (Baylor, Oklahoma, Clemson, Georgia)||8 (Bay, OU, Clem, UGa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State, West Virginia)|
|2010||1 (Alabama)||7 (Bama, Texas A&M, Nebraska, South Carolina*, Mississippi State*, West Virginia, Florida State*)|
|2009||4 (Virginia Tech, LSU, Miami, West Virginia)||12 (VT, LSU, Miami, WVU, Pittsburgh, Oregon State*, Oklahoma State, Arizona*, Stanford*, Nebraska*, Utah, USC*)|
|2008||3 (Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Georgia)||10 (OSU, GT, UGa, Oregon, Michigan State, Virginia Tech*, Pittsburgh, Missouri*, Northwestern, Boston College*)|
|2007||5 (Florida, Illinois, Boston College, Clemson, Tennessee*)||11 (UF, Ill, BC, Clem, Tenn*, Wisconsin, Texas, Virginia, South Florida, Cincinnati, Auburn*)|
|2006||1 (Arkansas)||8 (Ark, Tennessee, California, Texas, Texas A&M, Oregon State*, Nebraska*, Boston College)|
|2005||None||7 (Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan*, Boston College, Florida State*, Oklahoma*, Georgia Tech*)|
|2004||3 (Miami, Tennessee, Florida State)||10 (Miami, Tenn, FSU, Virginia, Arizona State, Texas A&M*, Pittsburgh, Texas Tech*, Florida*, Oklahoma State*)|
|*-Denotes four losses|
All of a sudden, weekly must-see contests would turn to afterthoughts.
Consider how vital some games were at the end of this season.
Three conference championship games would have featured a pair of teams ticketed for a 16-team playoff. Even losses wouldn’t have prevented Auburn or Missouri (SEC), Arizona State or Stanford (Pac-12) and Michigan State or Ohio State (Big Ten) from qualifying.
Ditto late-season contests between Clemson and South Carolina, as well as Alabama and Auburn.
In other words, five must-see games for any die-hard college football fan would have turned into little more than a prelude for the far more critical 16-team playoff.
College basketball has long been a sport more predicated on punching a ticket into the NCAA tournament and attempting to make a run once there.
It has never been about rewarding teams that start strong and sustain a high level of play throughout the season. Conversely, college basketball centers on crowning teams that gel over the first 30-something games during the regular season and then grow white-hot during the postseason.
Such a blueprint never served as college football’s M.O.
Rather, football rewards teams that escape the gauntlet of a grueling regular season at least relatively unscathed.
It’s why we tune in every Saturday afternoon to watch, listening to the broadcast of Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson. It’s why we—until the coming 2014 season—focus our eyes on the Saturday night spotlight game, as called by Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit.
Every night could be an elimination night in college football.
It’s what we love about the sport.
Don’t lose tonight because there might not be another chance tomorrow.
How many teams should be in the College Football Playoff?
Lose twice and forget about winning it all—the lone exception over the past 50-plus years coming from LSU, which won the BCS national championship as a two-loss team in 2008.
College football isn’t and never has been college basketball.
That’s a very good thing.
For all the shouting back and forth between conferences and fanbases, we don’t want a three-loss team hoisting the championship trophy.
We want those teams playing in the Alamodome.
Leave the title-game picture for the regular-season titans, who continue the legacy of making the 12 or 13 games running from late August through early December matter.