It's that time of year—no season is complete without an in-depth discussion of expanding the College Football Playoff.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Wisconsin athletic director (and former CFP selection committee member) Barry Alvarez and West Virginia president Gordon Gee all voiced their support for an eight-team playoff to Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic.
Down the rabbit hole we go again.
For the fourth time in five seasons of the CFP, the final rankings sparked controversy. That's not necessarily a problem for the sport—the more emotion, the better; the longer time in headlines, the better—but once again, high-quality teams won't play for the championship.
In the interest of entertainment, there's clear reason to expand the current format from four programs to eight. But this conversation is not as simple as the suggestions make it out to be.
Now, this is not an objection to a larger playoff. It's not a defense of the existing system, either. But the widespread conclusion is a bigger field would be composed of five power-conference champions, the highest-ranked league winner from the Group of Five and two at-large bids.
That route is begging for nonsense.
Were you prepared for Pitt to earn a CFP spot this year? Would you have not rolled your eyes if a team that previously had losses of 45 to Penn State and 31 to UCF—let alone North Carolina and Miami—was involved in a tournament intended to crown the best team?
How about Utah, which played November without its starting quarterback and running back? If the Utes had defeated Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game, they'd have earned a guaranteed spot to represent the league in the CFP.
Given the actual conference championship game matchups, here's a possible eight-teamer in 2018:
- Alabama (13-0): SEC champion
- Notre Dame (12-0): at-large
- Ohio State (12-1); Big Ten champion
- Clemson (12-1): at-large
- UCF (12-0): top G5 champion
- Texas (10-3): Big 12 champion
- Utah (10-3): Pac-12 champion
- Pitt (8-5): ACC champion
Sure, that's a "worst-case" scenario with three upsets (ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12) in Championship Week. But if you're guaranteeing CFP entrance to league winners, you accept that as a possibility—one that, in this case, also leaves out Georgia in 2018.
Why should geography dictate five CFP teams? (It shouldn't.) Shouldn't on-field results matter most? (They should.)
Let's return to reality and use 2018's final CFP rankings for an eight-team field, providing each of Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Georgia, Ohio State and UCF a berth.
We need one more. Strength of schedule, quality of wins, final record, offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency all favor 10-2 Michigan over Pac-12 champion Washington. However, an automatic qualifier would instead place UW in the field.
Debates like these are unavoidable.
In 2017, which two of Wisconsin, Auburn and USC would've secured the final slots? Wisconsin was the only one-loss team, but Auburn defeated two then-No. 1 teams; yet only USC won its conference. UCF's inclusion would limit the discussion to two of those three.
Again, how much should championships matter? That's a major reason this discussion is happening; 2016 Ohio State and 2017 Alabama both reached the CFP without a league crown. Conferences want their champions rewarded—and also want to protect the revenue stream that is their title games.
Money rules college football, so conference championship games aren't leaving. And unless every league abandons divisions, the conversation is a circle: You OK with five-loss Pitt?
If yes, then how are we seeding teams? Can an at-large program—one that didn't win its conference, excluding independent Notre Dame—host a quarterfinal game?
Saying no puts an emphasis on conference winners, and we already see a potential flaw since the CFP selection committee deemed 2016 Ohio State and 2017 Alabama Top Four teams.
Saying yes suggests the most deserving side should hold the advantage. It's then logically inconsistent to give a league champion an automatic berth over a more deserving squad. That opens the possibility of Pitt instead of Michigan (and many others) in 2018.
Look, we don't hate Pitt, but the 2018 team is simply average. The CFP should not be a potential reward for an average year.
Detractors will say that would devalue the regular season for some schools, with nothing play for in November in the absence of a conference title.
You know what else devalues a season? Losing.
An eight-team playoff with automatic qualifiers will not eliminate controversies; it will create new ones.
If the college basketball world can't agree on the 68th team to qualify for the March Madness field, agreement on the No. 8 school in the College Football Playoff isn't happening. The first team left out will always be very angry. No amount of expansion can change that.
Remember, this isn't an argument against any and all expansion. Sign us up for more football. A bigger season-ending tournament, several CFP matchups on school campuses? We're in!
Using automatic qualifiers for an eight-team playoff, however, would lead to diluted quarterfinals and even more complaints of unworthy teams.
Good luck convincing the heads of each power conference they still aren't guaranteed representation with expansion, but a focus on including the best teams is the only way to ensure a rightful champion.