In the fifth iteration of the College Football Playoff, the hours building up to the committee’s decision feel as if it’s a countdown to something bigger.
The argument between No. 4 Georgia and No. 5 Oklahoma for the final spot in the playoff will echo from church pews to tee boxes to brunch tables on Sunday morning from coast to coast. But the biggest question that looms over the sport in the wake of an exciting Big 12 title game and an exhilarating SEC championship will be whether the consternation over this decision means something bigger for the sport.
“This season generally invites conversation,” a veteran athletic director told Yahoo Sports on Saturday night. “It invites an inquiry in a way that previous years didn’t.”
Added another athletic director late Saturday: “If Georgia gets in, that could certainly drive it, it could create another conversation.”
In the micro, the issue is a fairly simple one on Sunday. This is the hot debate few in the sport could have forecast last week: Do you take Oklahoma (12-1) fresh off a Big 12 title victory over No. 14 Texas? Or do you keep Georgia at No. 4 after a near-miss against mighty No. 1 Alabama?
We didn’t include No. 6 Ohio State in this argument after they muddled past No. 24 Northwestern, 45-24, to win their second consecutive Big Ten title. And we didn’t because that’s the biggest window why the decision by the College Football Playoff committee means so much for the sport. For now, it appears No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Notre Dame are locks. If Georgia ends up staying at No. 4?
That means a third straight year the Big Ten champion will be left out, including Ohio State the last two years. The Pac-12 never had a chance at the playoff this season, which become obvious in late-September, as that league played out this season to the drumbeat of scandal and horrible optics. And there’s a chance the Big 12 misses with a one-loss champion, which also led the nation in scoring. “There’s a possible outcome where three of the five power conferences aren’t in,” an athletic director said Saturday. “And that’s a big deal.”
Could an examination be following for a system that in many ways was set up to fail? After all, four spots for five power conferences never felt like math that would work in the long-term. And the friction heading into college football’s version of Selection Sunday is the most tense in any of the years, clearly trumping the decision in 2014 when Ohio State nudged out TCU and Baylor for the final spot.
Is the timing right for change in the big picture? There are certainly signs. The College Football Playoff is, in essence, a 12-year television contract with ESPN. (And we’ll be clear, no one wants a bigger playoff more than ESPN, which overpaid for the original at $5.6 billion.)
Next year is Year 6 of 12 for the CFP, and veteran television officials familiar with these types of contracts told Yahoo Sports that it’s likely that a “look-in” after six years would be written into the contract. That essentially doubles as an invite for re-examination.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has always been a playoff wet blanket. He and Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby represent both of the sport’s old guard. In conversations with officials around the sport on Saturday night, the notion of a leadership change needed to be made in order for there to be changes in the playoff format was dismissed.
Bowlsby and Delany operate with significant concern for the legacy they’d leave for the sport. And the postseason is a bit muddled, as Sunday’s decision shows. The last time we saw significant change in the sport came in the wake of a 2011 season when two SEC teams – LSU and Alabama – played for the national title. Could it be two SEC teams reaching the playoff for the second consecutive years that’s the trigger this time?
Another thorny issue revolves around what the playoff could look like. One smart observer pointed out that the conference championships have a consistent and significant economic value. But this season has proven that many of the league title games have little competitive value. How can that be changed?
If the expanded playoff is wrapped into the current conference championships, there’s not a lot of extra money on the table. That’s because of the complications surrounding the Rose Bowl contract and the unlikelihood that leagues would want to give up the cash spigot of league title games.
If you go ahead and blow up the whole system and make it a true eight-team playoff with on-campus sites, that would be the most lucrative option. But that would involve leagues like the SEC and Big Ten potentially giving up revenue they’d already made. Few expect that to happen.
These scenarios would need to be fleshed out, evaluated and walked through. The calendar always remains an issue, as there are giant logistical headaches to starting the season even earlier. (Especially at quarter-system schools.)
But as the chatter builds as to whether Georgia can stick at No. 4 with a “good loss,” there’s a much larger conversation playing out behind the scenes.
Could we see an expanded playoff in 2020? The feeling around the sport is clear: Let the conversations begin.
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