In Playoff Expansion Conversation, Recent Snubs Aren't the Only Thing on the Big Ten's Mind

Andy Staples
In Playoff Expansion Conversation, Recent Snubs Aren't the Only Thing on the Big Ten's Mind
In Playoff Expansion Conversation, Recent Snubs Aren't the Only Thing on the Big Ten's Mind

The angst is still flowing following the playoff selections and the Heisman Trophy announcement, and you have questions…

From Dan: Jim Delany has been noticeably quiet regarding being left out of the playoff. Is it safe to assume that the conference brings in so much money that “it just means less,” to coin a phrase?

Delany is never going to publicly lead the charge to expand or change a playoff he didn’t really want in the first place, but do not assume the Big Ten doesn’t care about winning national titles. Your “It just means less” motto applies better to the Pac-12, where the fan bases that aren’t USC or Oregon just aren’t as interested in college football as the fan bases in the SEC and the Big Ten. The Big Ten schools at the top are spending and acting like the other schools that care about winning national titles. When it comes to football, that’s easy to do since the league’s new media rights deals give Big Ten schools the largest take of any conference.

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It probably does trouble the leaders of the Big Ten that their champion has been left out of the playoff three years in a row, but remember that in 2016 the league was very close to being the first conference to get two teams into the playoff. Had a few more people in the committee room favored Penn State over Washington, Penn State and Ohio State would have gotten in.

Surprising regular-season blowout losses on the road by Big Ten champ Ohio State in the past two seasons have kept the league out of the playoff. That outcome seems fairly anomalous, even though it has happened in consecutive seasons. Under normal circumstances, the Big Ten stands to benefit just as much from the current playoff system as the ACC or SEC—the two leagues that have yet to miss the playoff.

But Delany is a pragmatist, so if circumstances keep conspiring to keep the Big Ten from making the playoff, expect him to agitate for some kind of change. Already, there are thought leaders within his league suggesting change could be on the way. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez just said this to Nicole Auerbach of the The Athletic: “Everyone has the same feeling; expansion is inevitable,” Alvarez told The Athletic. “When you can do it, and I think we need to serve more people. I think four was the right way to get started. In my opinion, we need to take a look of adding more teams into the playoff, giving more opportunities.”

This is an important opinion because Alvarez isn’t just an AD. He’s a respected former coach who also used to serve on the College Football Playoff selection committee.

Still, Delany probably would rather not do anything that might damage the Rose Bowl. Remember, old-school Big Ten people believe the pinnacle of existence is ringing in the new year in Pasadena. Delany, an old-school Big Ten person who also happens to be a shrewd businessman, knows that mystique helps keep a game the Big Ten basically co-owns bringing in $80 million a year in media rights fees. But if expansion is indeed inevitable, might Delany try to push through something that benefits the Big Ten like semifinals on campus? (Quarterfinals would certainly be on campus.)

If the playoff expands to eight and the Big Ten champ, the Pac-12 champ and the Big Ten’s second-best team make the bracket, would ESPN be willing to pay that much for Pac-12 No. 2 vs. Big Ten No. 3 in the Rose Bowl? Would the additional money an eight-team playoff could bring for the Big Ten make up the difference?

Yes, Big Ten leaders want Big Ten teams in the playoff. But they also must balance what they consider their obligation to league and its signature bowl with the desire to win national titles. So don’t expect Delany to mount the charge, but expect him to put his league in the best possible position for whatever the next thing is.

From Al: Can a non-playoff player win the Heisman? If the CFP puts Ohio State or Georgia in the playoff, does Kyler Murray still win the award?

This is an interesting question, especially moving forward. It’s easy to say “Sure, just look at Lamar Jackson two years ago.” But the playoff was still a relatively foreign concept. And even though it’s still fairly new, four of the five winners in the playoff era have come from playoff teams. (And you’ll still find a lot of people who believe Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, a playoff participant, should have won in ’16.)

And I do wonder if Murray would have won the award if the Sooners hadn’t beaten Texas in the Big 12 title game. Imagine Murray had posted exactly the same numbers but Oklahoma’s defense, which played its best game of the season against the Longhorns on Dec. 1, played a more typical game and Oklahoma had lost 41–39. I was leaning toward voting Murray first—I voted Murray first, Alabama’s Tua Tagovalioa second and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins third on my Heisman ballot last week—before that game, so I probably still would have voted him first. After all, his play wouldn’t have changed in that scenario—just the Oklahoma defense’s. But I think I would have been in the minority. I think Murray avenging that loss and putting Oklahoma in the playoff combined with a bad game from an injured Tagovailoa swung a lot of votes. Had Texas won in the scenario described above, Tagovailoa might have won. And that certainly would have strengthened Al’s theory that a player has to be on a playoff team to win the Heisman.

Perhaps the definition has changed. Most Outstanding Player in recent years meant “best quarterback or running back on a team with at least nine wins.” But if this keeps up, we’ll have to adjust to “best quarterback or running back on a playoff team.”

From Andrew: If you had to pick out one bowl in order to get out of a family function so you could watch, what would it be? (Aside from the playoffs.)

This is a great question, and I think I have a good one that should cover the entire length of said family function. If you want a game worth bailing on your loved and not-so-loved ones for, then choose the Liberty Bowl between Missouri and Oklahoma State on New Year’s Eve. These might have been the two biggest Jekyll-and-Hyde teams in America all season, and if we get the correct versions of them, this could be a classic.

We don’t want the Missouri that played South Carolina or the Oklahoma State that played Texas Tech, of course. Those teams looked miserable. But if we could get the Missouri that played Tennessee and the Oklahoma State that played Texas, this thing is going to end 61–60 when one team either converts a miracle two-point conversion or stuffs a two-point conversion.

And don’t give me the I’m-a-purist-I-want-defense claptrap. You’re trying to buy time away from your in-laws. You want as many touchdowns as possible. And if the best two versions of these teams show up, you’ll get touchdowns deep into the evening.

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