How to Fix College Football

Over the summer, it became clear that expansion of the playoff is inevitable. While the details have yet to be worked out, and by no means are all the conferences on the same page right now, there seems to be broad agreement that 4 teams is not enough and things have to change.

The current working consensus is that the earliest the playoff can expand is for the 2024 season, meaning three seasons from now, not including this current one. According to ESPN’s Heather Dinich, expansion talks have been tabled until December 1, and an agreement on the size of the new playoff (be it 8 or 12 teams) needs to be in place by January 1, 2022 in order to be able to realistically have the new playoff ready to go for 2024.

So Jan. 1, 2022 is basically CFP Director Bill Hancock’s self-imposed deadline here. What happens if they come to an agreement on January 2, 2022? Does the new playoff have to get pushed back to 2025? I have no idea, but probably not. That would be silly. I think the ultimate takeaway here, though, is that all the power players involved are motivated to get this done ASAP, and this self-imposed deadline is a way to ensure it happens.

An expanded playoff is certainly a welcome change for the sport, as I’ve written several times on this site in the past. Somehow, it feels like the 4-team playoff has made the sport even more of a top-heavy, exclusive club than it was under the BCS.

The goal is to have more meaningful games happening late in the season. Take, for example, this past Saturday’s matchup between Texas A&M and Ole Miss. It was a great game, highly entertaining, but you just got the sense that it really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Even if A&M had won, they still would’ve had to hope for a Bama loss in order for A&M to have any chance at making the SEC Championship game. Ole Miss won the game, but they still need Bama to lose twice in order to make the SEC Championship game, given that Bama beat Ole Miss head-to-head earlier in the season and Bama only has 1 SEC loss to Ole Miss’ 2.

That game pitted the #11 team against the #15 team, and yet it still felt meaningless. That is not good for the sport. Under a 12-team playoff, or even an 8-team playoff, that A&M-Ole Miss game would have had real playoff implications.

Also, let’s take the OU-Baylor game, in which Baylor scored a 27-14 upset over the previously unbeaten Sooners. Oklahoma was ranked #8 in that game, Baylor #13. As fun as that game was to watch, it probably won’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things given that the Committee seems determined to leave the Big 12 out of the playoff this season. Even after the win, Baylor only sits at #11 in the AP poll, while OU is #12. Sure, OU taking their first L of the year probably all but killed their longshot hopes at making the playoff, but in a 12-team playoff regime, the win for Baylor would’ve given them new life in the playoff hunt.

Instead, the game really didn’t do much. Baylor was a longshot to make the playoff before beating OU, and they’re still a longshot to make the playoff after beating OU. OU was a longshot to make the playoff before losing that game, and they’re still a longshot to make it after losing.

Something is fundamentally broken with the college football system when a game between #8 and #13 doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

Now, I know a lot of people look at this and think, “Okay, who the fuck cares about Baylor and Ole Miss? It’s obvious that Georgia, Bama and Ohio State are the only teams that have a chance to actually win the whole thing.”

And that’s a fair point. It certainly appears that way. But I’d just like to see it proven on the field. I don’t like this idea of “Well, Bama would kill Baylor if they played in a playoff game, so it’s pointless to expand the playoff.”

Maybe 9 times out of 10, Bama would kill Baylor. But we don’t know that for certain. Upsets can happen. Remember, in the very first college football playoff in 2014, the #4 seed won it. Ohio State in 2014 wouldn’t have even gotten a chance to play for the National Championship under the 2013 rules. After Ohio State beat Bama in the semi and then beat Oregon in the final, the consensus around college football was, “What on earth were we thinking using the BCS all those years?”

And more importantly, I don’t like the idea of Bama, Georgia and Ohio State being able to coast based on reputation alone. Sure, their reputations are well-deserved, obviously, but every team should have to earn their way in the same way: by winning their conference, or coming close enough to winning their conference that they earn an at-large bid.

I don’t care if Georgia, Bama and Ohio State go on to win every college football playoff for the next 10 years under a 12-team playoff system. That’s fine with me. Obviously it would get a little boring, but if they earn it, then I’m fine with it.

But let’s not just assume they’d beat all these other teams ranked 5-12 in the opening rounds of the playoff and just give them an express pass to the Final Four. That’s what we do now.

If Ohio State beats Michigan State this weekend as expected, and Michigan beats Maryland as expected, then it’ll set up a showdown in Ann Arbor between two 10-1 teams that will certainly be ranked within the top-6, maybe even the top-5. Say that Ohio State-Michigan game is close. It wouldn’t feel right saying only the winner of that game deserves a shot at a National Championship. If Ohio State were to lose that game to Michigan close, then they’d be out of the playoff hunt even after just completing a stretch in which they beat ranked Penn State, a massively underrated and dangerous Nebraska team, a very dangerous Purdue team, and a top-10 Michigan State squad. If Michigan loses close to Ohio State, then it would mean Michigan is out of the playoff hunt just because they lost close on the road to a top-10 Michigan State team, and then lost close to an Ohio State team that may well be the only team out there that can beat Georgia.

And with the system now, we’re basically telling Michigan: “How DARE you lose that game! FRAUDS!!!!!!!”

Now, I don’t think the Ohio State-Michigan game should be meaningless, where both teams are in the playoff no matter what, but I think if the game is close, then the loser shouldn’t just be automatically eliminated from the playoff hunt.

Same with Bama-Georgia in the SEC Championship: if it’s a close game and Georgia wins, then I don’t think Bama should just get kicked to the curb.

With a 12-team playoff, seeding and first-round byes would be in the mix, so it’s not as if we’re rendering these games meaningless.

If we had a 12-team playoff, the Minnesota-Wisconsin game two weekends from now would have meaning. Oklahoma State-Texas Tech would have meaning. The Thanksgiving Ole Miss-Mississippi State Egg Bowl would have meaning as MSU would have a chance to knock Ole Miss out of the playoff.

Right now, under the 4-team system, even the Big Ten Championship game is really only relevant for Ohio State/Michigan. Assuming one of those two makes it in the East, and Wisconsin makes it in the West, 3-loss Wisconsin would only be playing to knock the East winner out of the playoff hunt. Under a 12-team format, Wisconsin would get into the playoff with a win in that game.

Currently, Pitt is 8-2 and ranked #20 in the AP Poll. But while they are still alive in the ACC title hunt, they’re not really playing any meaningful games.

The Big 12 has three teams ranked between 9-12 (Oklahoma State, Baylor, OU). None of those teams really have a shot at making the playoff right now.

Notre Dame is 9-1 and ranked #6 in the AP, but nobody’s talking about the Irish as a playoff team because their one loss is to Cincinnati, who is ranked ahead of them, and presumably Notre Dame cannot jump Cincy unless Cincy loses a game.

If we had a 12-team playoff right now, the following teams would all be in the mix for automatic bids. This is just automatic bids we’re talking about, not even at-large bids:

  • Wake Forest: 6-0 in ACC play, leading the Atlantic division.
  • Pitt: 5-1 in ACC play, leading the Coastal division.
  • Virginia: 4-2 in ACC play, one game behind Pitt, playing Pitt this weekend with a chance to overtake Pitt in the division and make the ACC Championship game.
  • Oklahoma: 6-1 in Big 12 play, currently 1st in the conference still.
  • Oklahoma State: also 6-1 in Big 12 play.
  • Baylor: 5-2 in Big 12 play, could still get in to the Big 12 Title Game if Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma in the final game of the season.
  • Ohio State
  • Michigan State
  • Michigan
  • Wisconsin: 5-2 in Big Ten play, head-to-head tiebreaker win over Iowa.
  • Iowa: 5-2 in Big Ten play, needs to win out and have Wisconsin lose another conference game.
  • Minnesota: 4-3 in Big Ten play, needs to beat Wisco in the last game of the season and have Iowa lose twice.
  • Oregon
  • Utah: 6-1 in Pac-12 play, leading South division.
  • Arizona State: 5-2 in Pac-12 play, needs Utah to lose out in order to overtake Utah in the division.
  • Georgia
  • Alabama
  • Ole Miss: could still make the SEC Championship game if they win out and Bama loses out.
  • Notre Dame: Presumably they’d get some sort of automatic bid for independents if they finish inside the top-10, and they’re currently inside the top-10.
  • Cincinnati

That is 20 teams that would currently have National Title hopes under a 12-team system. There are at least 3 teams in every Power Five conference that would be alive for an automatic bid in the playoff if we had a 12-team system.

Then you add teams like Houston and UTSA along with Cincinnati as the G5 teams that could still get into the playoff. We’re assuming the highest-ranked G5 conference champion gets an automatic bid.

You’d also have BYU which is ranked #14, and presumably they’d get the same deal as Notre Dame because BYU is independent as well (at least for now, they’re joining the Big 12 in the future).

We’re talking about almost 25 teams that would still be playing meaningful football in late November. This would make the sport significantly more compelling across the country.

And there’s even a proposal being pushed by the G5 teams that would give the 6 highest ranked conference champions automatic bids, rather than automatic bids for the P5 conference champs. This means that if Cincinnati wins its conference while being ranked where it currently is, Cincy gets an automatic bid. This is probably the way to go, as it would give every G5 conference champion a plausible shot, while making it very difficult–but not impossible–for a P5 conference champ to be left out (because they’d have to be ranked lower than not one, but two G5 conference champions).

Needless to say, I’m emphatically on-board for the 12-team playoff proposal. I think the 8-team proposal would be better than the 4-team we have now, but not as good as the 12-team.

By opening up more avenues to the playoff, I think over time it would increase parity. No longer would these recruits be pressured to go to Bama/Georgia/Ohio State because those are the only schools that make the playoff with regularity.

But expanding the playoff is not the only thing that needs to happen in college football. There are a few other changes that ought to be made as well:

  1. Remove divisions from conferences.
  2. Standardize the number of conference games played each year (ex. the Big Ten plays 9, the SEC plays 8).
  3. Open up the TV broadcasting partnerships for playoff games.
  4. Get the NCAA out of the picture.

Let’s start with the first one, removing divisions from conferences.

In the SEC, Texas A&M has been in the conference for a decade now but has only played once in Gainesville, Florida, and it was in 2017. That’s just weird. Florida and A&M have only played three times since A&M joined the conference. Florida plays Miami and FSU every season, meaning they play Miami and FSU more than they play A&M, which is a team in their own conference. That’s just wrong.

Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012 and they’ve only played Georgia once, and it was last season. Not just at home, or on the road, but total. One Georgia vs. Texas A&M SEC game in 10 seasons. That is absurd.

Divisions in college football are kind of dumb. I get the point of them, but the better move is to just have the teams in the conference with the two best records play in the Conference Title game. This way, you’ll be certain you have the best two teams in the conference squaring off for the Conference Title.

In the SEC, the West is historically way stronger than the East. Sure, the East has Georgia, but the West has Bama, Auburn, LSU, A&M, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Mississippi State. It’s way tougher than the East which has, in addition to Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. This means Georgia gets an easier conference schedule in general than Bama and the other West teams, and it theoretically means a team could win the East despite being like the 4th or 5th-best team in the conference.

Such a situation is about to happen right now in the Big Ten, where the East division is way stronger than the West–the East has Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State, while the West has Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue as its strongest teams. Wisconsin might not even be better than any of those top-4 teams in the East. They have already lost to both Michigan and Penn State. But Wisconsin is almost always in the Big Ten Championship game because they play in the far-weaker West division.

Get rid of the damn divisions and pit the top-2 conference records against each other in the Conference Championship. It’s much simpler and more fair.

Plus, you’d have better schedules. You wouldn’t have shit happening like Texas A&M only playing one game in a decade in Gainesville. And did you know Iowa and Ohio State have only played twice in the past 10 years? Iowa has not played a game in Columbus since 2013. And Iowa and Ohio State are supposedly in the same conference. What the hell is the point of being in the same conference if you only play twice in a decade?

The way we’d be able to work this is each team would be able to designate 1-2 rivalry games that must be played every year, for example Ohio State-Michigan, Auburn-Alabama, Georgia-Florida, etc. Then the remaining conference games would alternate every year–for your other conference games, you play 7 (or 8) other teams, and then the next year you play the teams you didn’t play the year before.

In order to make this workable, we’d need to finally decide once and for all how many conference games are played in a given season, because right now there’s a discrepancy: the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 play 9 conference games while the SEC and ACC only play 8.

This is why you see Alabama getting to play New Mexico State this late in the season as a tune-up game before the final stretch. Georgia is completely done with SEC play: they play Charleston Southern next week and then Georgia Tech in their last game of the season.

I think it’s a bit unfair for SEC and ACC teams to only have to play 8 conference games.

Every conference should either play 9 conference games, or 8. It’s gotta be one or the other. We can’t have this situation where some conferences play 9 and some play 8, that’s unfair.

The next fix for College Football is to simply open up the playoff television contracts so ESPN no longer has a virtual monopoly on the college football playoff.

It’s no secret that in a couple years’ time, ESPN will become the official home of the SEC. I’m not going to get into the idea of ESPN having an SEC bias, but there are a lot of people out there who are convinced ESPN is pro-SEC and anti-everyone else in terms of its commentary and coverage.

But let’s look at it rationally: Fox has a partnership with the Big Ten and the Big 12. Fox is viewed as the most pro-Big Ten television network. CBS currently has a deal with the SEC, although again that will change in 2024 when the SEC shifts over to ESPN. And the ACC is aligned with ESPN/ABC.

If each network is aligned with a particular conference, then it only follows that those networks are biased in favor of the conference they’re in contract with.

Now obviously the individual commentators at each network have their own allegiances which undercuts the “bias” narrative quite a bit. At ESPN, Kirk Herbstreit is obviously a Big Ten guy having played QB at Ohio State. Desmond Howard is a Big Ten guy, having won a Heisman at Michigan. And David Pollack played at Georgia. Rece Davis is an Alabama alum. So in terms of ESPN’s lead guys on college football, it’s actually pretty balanced in terms of Big Ten/SEC representation. ESPN is also the home of Paul Finebaum, who is obviously a big-time SEC homer.

At Fox, Joel Klatt is a former QB at Colorado. Then on their panel they have Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart who are USC guys, Brady Quinn who’s a Notre Dame guy and Bob Stoops, who is an Oklahoma guy but also probably has some Big Ten leanings as well given his history at Iowa. Fox also has Colin Cowherd who is a pro-Pac-12 guy.

I really don’t think there’s a whole lot of bias coming from the commentators and talking heads at the major networks, to be honest. Fans see bias when commentators appear to disparage their teams, but that’s how fans are. Fanbois hear valid criticism of their team and think it’s bias.

No, what I’m talking about here is more about the networks themselves and their relationships with the college football playoff. If each network is tied to a conference, but one network has a monopoly on playoff TV coverage, then that’s a conflict of interest. When ESPN finally takes over the SEC TV rights, and if at that time ESPN still has a monopoly on CFP TV coverage, then that’s not a great situation. There will be an incentive for ESPN to promote the SEC and hype up SEC teams because it’s good for ESPN’s ratings when SEC teams are in the playoff.

I would rather see television rights for the playoff games split up among the three major networks–ESPN, Fox and CBS. This is how the NFL does it. Then, the National Championship broadcast rights could alternate among the three–ESPN gets it in 2024, Fox in 2025, CBS in 2026, then back to ESPN in 2027, for example. In a 12-team playoff, there are 11 total playoff games: 4 in the first round, 4 in the second round, 2 in the semifinals and then the National Championship. I guess you’d structure the TV rights where each network would get at least 3 games, and then whatever network gets the National Championship also gets the other remaining playoff game. So two networks would get 3 games, and the other would get 5 total including the Championship.

I just think it would be better for everyone involved if the network that has an exclusive contract with the SEC doesn’t also have the exclusive TV rights to the entire College Football Playoff. That just feels wrong to me.

In a sport that relies heavily on subjectivity–i.e. rankings and media coverage–it’s just going to open up problems of bias, or even just the appearance of bias if one network that is aligned with a particular conference has a monopoly on the playoff coverage.

The final fix I have in mind is the most drastic, but it makes sense: get the NCAA out of the picture.

I’ll confess I don’t know too much about what the NCAA actually does, but it seems like now that athletes are allowed to profit off of name, image and likeness, the NCAA is essentially obsolete. I thought the NCAA existed basically to make sure college athletes couldn’t make any money. Now that that’s no longer really a thing, what is the point of the NCAA?

Or, put differently, what real reason does big time college football have for remaining part of the NCAA?

The major conferences all have their own TV deals. The TV deals aren’t through the NCAA. Bowl games scheduling is handled by the conferences and the bowls themselves. The NCAA doesn’t handle scheduling.

What’s to stop the 10 conferences plus the independents of FBS college football from simply breaking away and forming their own overall governing body, free of NCAA control?

I am envisioning something like the United Nations for college football: a board of directors with the heads of each major conference on it, plus I guess you’d have Jack Swarbrick representing Notre Dame and the other independents. Then you’d have 11 members on the board.

The President or Commissioner of College Football could be a rotating position among the major Power Five conference commissioners, like the UN Secretary General. Maybe it would be 1 year terms, or 2 or even 4 year terms.

The point would be to formalize the position of “Chief Executive of College Football.” The CEO would be able to get everyone on the same page. Last year, when Covid hit, it really underscored the need for a single decision-maker or governing body at the top that could have charted a way forward for the sport. Instead, we got different outcomes for the individual conferences: the SEC played a 10-game schedule, the ACC did the same, the Big Ten didn’t start until late October, the Pac-12 started even later–that whole situation with Covid was a mess.

With a CEO of College Football, that wouldn’t have happened. Everyone would have been on the same page.

I’m not saying the NCAA has to go entirely, but the NCAA needs to be taken out of the picture of FBS-level college football, and probably D-1 level basketball as well.

Essentially what I’m saying here is that we need to “professionalize” FBS-level college football. It’s already functionally the same as pro sports leagues in terms of television exposure and in the generation of massive amounts of revenues. Let’s just start treating it as such. Pro sports leagues have commissioners, and big-time college football should have one as well.

The NCAA is a governing body designed for collegiate athletics, but college football has become a professionalized sport. Obviously it’s still a level below the real professional league, but in terms of television viewers and fanbases, college football is probably the second-biggest sport in America behind the NFL. There is no reason for it to be governed by the NCAA.

Right now we have the same governing body overseeing women’s field hockey at Holy Cross and football at Alabama. That’s just not an ideal scenario. There should be one overarching governing body for college football that handles rules and refereeing, TV deals and rights, the playoff, scheduling, athlete endorsements, and inter-conference play.

It seems inevitable now that some change is coming to the governing structure of college football. It’s no secret that SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, probably the single most powerful man in college sports, is not happy with the NCAA.

It’s time to start treating college football like the professional sports league it has become. It is being governed by the outdated and ill-suited NCAA, which is fine for other sports, but not for big-time college football.

All that said, if and when the college football playoff expands to 12 teams, that will alleviate a ton of the problems hindering the sport today.

The 4 suggestions I made for improving the sport are ultimately peripheral when it comes to fundamentally improving the product. The main change that needs to be made is the playoff expansion. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

Most fans will not really notice any sort of on-field difference if the NCAA stays around, or if ESPN retains exclusive rights to the playoff while being the official home of the SEC. Even if the in-conference divisions remain in place, that won’t really be a huge deal. If the SEC and ACC continue playing 8 conference games while the other conferences play 9, it’s not the end of the world.

The most important change college football needs to make is moving to the 12-team playoff. It will open up so many more avenues to relevancy in the sport. Recruits can go almost anywhere in the Power Five and know they have a legitimate chance at playing in the College Football Playoff.

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