It’s a common gripe I’ve seen on College Football Twitter about the 12-team playoff.
“They’re going to ruin the best regular season in sports!”
“The regular season is going to be pointless now!”
I’ve already gone over why I think the 12-team playoff makes the regular season more compelling than ever, but I want to also take a look at this idea that the college football regular season is the greatest regular season in sports, and that a 12-team playoff will ruin.
Because I actually think neither are true.
In fact, the more I think that college football is as great as it is in spite of the fact that it has had the most broken and dysfunctional postseason system of any major sport for decades.
Let me ask you a question: did you watch Sunday night’s FSU-LSU thriller? If you did, you know it was one of the most entertaining football games in recent memory. I mean, that game was bonkers. FSU won on a blocked extra point with no time on the clock? Two blocked field goals? Two muffed punts? FSU’s fumble on the goal line that gave LSU a second chance? That game was nuts. It was extremely enjoyable, I loved every minute of it. And I’m sure millions of people across the country did as well.
And guess what: it had nothing to do with the Playoff Implications™!
We all know neither LSU or Florida State are going to make the playoff this year. FSU may be on the come-up, but they’re not a playoff team yet. And LSU has taken a big step back since the 2019 National Championship season, it might be a few years before they’re a true national title contender again.
But none of that mattered! We just watched the game and enjoyed the hell out of it because it was good football. We all knew the whole time there’s basically no chance either of those teams end up among the final four, but nobody cared! Because with college football, there’s already a lot on the line in just about every game: bragging rights. It’s about school pride, it’s about conference pride, and in some cases with non-conference matchups, it’s even about regional pride.
The Pitt-West Virginia game was incredibly entertaining and compelling. We all know those teams aren’t going to the playoff this year. But we enjoyed the hell out of that game anyway because it was an intense, historic and bitter rivalry. There’s history there. There’s tradition. It was an inherently meaningful game regardless of the Playoff Implications™.
The point I’m making here is that college football is entertaining and enjoyable with or without the playoff implications factor.
The thing is, though, if we had a 12-team playoff in place right now, there’s actually a greater chance that both of those awesome games (FSU-LSU, Pitt-WVU) would’ve actually had playoff implications. With a 12-team playoff, a vastly greater number of teams would begin each season with playoff hopes. You win a big non-conference game like that early in the season, you have that on your resume if you happen to be in the mix for a playoff spot come December.
So not only would a 12-team playoff not take away from the enjoyment of those two games we witnessed over the weekend, if anything a 12-team playoff would’ve made those two games even more compelling. Because in the back of our minds, we would’ve known that whichever team won those games would have advanced its case to make the playoffs–in addition to school bragging rights, conference pride, and all the other factors that are present in every college football game no matter what.
What I really want to get into here, though, is this idea that college football has the best regular season. We hear it all the time–“The regular season is the playoff!”
That’s partially true in the sense that certain big games are de facto elimination games. Like the Ohio State-Michigan game last year, that was a de facto elimination game. Both teams were highly ranked, but already had losses on their resumes. So whichever team lost and got to 2 losses would be both out of the conference title hunt and effectively out of the playoff hunt. So in a way that Ohio State-Michigan game last year was a de facto playoff game.
The Auburn-Bama game from last year was kind of a playoff game as well–at least it was an elimination game for Alabama. Had they lost that game to Auburn, they would’ve been out of the playoff hunt, as it would’ve been their second loss. But Bryce Young came up big and saved the day, and Bama won the game in overtime, keeping their season alive.
The SEC Championship Game, too, was a partial elimination game as well, for Bama at least. Had Bama lost to Georgia in the SEC Championship game, they would’ve been out of the playoff picture.
But as it was, Bama won, clinched the SEC Championship, and punched their ticket to the playoff. Yet Georgia did as well. Georgia really didn’t have anything to lose in that SEC Championship Game against Bama–they were in the playoff no matter what. Sure, a win would’ve knocked Bama out, but Georgia knew in the back of their minds that win or lose they’d still get one of the 4 playoff spots.
And that’s something we’re told is going to be a huge problem with the 12-team playoff: rematches. Now I’ve written at length about why I am not at all opposed to playoff rematches of regular season showdowns. In the 2007 NFL season, the Patriots beat the Giants in week 17 to complete their 16-0 regular season. But the two teams met up again a month later in Super Bowl XLII, and in that game, the Giants were the team that won. I have never heard anyone argue that the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl title is illegitimate because the Patriots had already beaten them in the regular season.
It doesn’t and shouldn’t work that way. Just because you defeat a team once in the regular season doesn’t mean you’ve eliminated them. No other sport but college football has that mindset.
But even college football doesn’t really have that mindset. Georgia-Bama in the National Championship this past season was a rematch. Bama won the first matchup, Georgia won the rematch for all the marbles. Nobody thinks there shouldn’t have been a rematch–if it so happens that those are the two best teams in the country (and they were), then there’s nothing wrong with a postseason rematch.
In fact, we love rematches in other sports–like MMA and boxing. In fact, rematches in combat sports are probably the most compelling and exciting fights of all. Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.
And so that’s another argument that I don’t buy. Rematches are just fine. Sometimes they’re even better than a matchup we haven’t had before.
But the real thing I want to examine here, and which I’ve been meaning to get into but keep getting sidetracked, is this idea that the regular season of college football is always intense, high-stakes and high blood pressure.
As I went over above, some games are. And those are the games we tend to remember. But most of the college football regular season is honestly crap. And I say that as someone who absolutely loves college football–it’s my favorite sport of all, even slightly above the NFL. (Again, college football is as great as it is in spite of its dysfunctional postseason system.)
The college football regular season is honestly 90% boring-ass games. Blowouts. Lopsided affairs. Cupcake games. Filler.
So this past weekend, we had some good games, right? Ohio State-Notre Dame was entertaining, WVU-Pitt was great, FSU-LSU was great. Florida-Utah was highly entertaining and compelling, and I personally enjoyed the Iowa-South Dakota State game, which Iowa won 7-3, scoring its 7 points with a field goal and 2 safeties, but it was only enjoyable in a “Wow, this game has set college football back 90 years” kind of way.
But there were a lot more games than those five played. And I’ll bet you don’t remember most of them.
#1 Bama played. They beat Utah State 55-0. What the heck was the point of that game other than to give Bama a chance to tune itself up and get an easy win on the schedule? That was basically a preseason game for Alabama.
#3 Georgia played #11 Oregon. That was supposed to be a good game, and the schools had the right idea in scheduling it, but it wound up being a total blowout. Georgia won 49-3. Georgia was way, way better than Oregon was, and Oregon was clearly way over-ranked.
#6 Texas A&M played Sam Houston State and won 31-0. #8 Michigan beat Colorado State 51-0. #9 Oklahoma beat UTEP 45-13. #10 Baylor beat Albany 69-10. #14 USC beat Rice 66-14.
There were some highly entertaining games in the top-25 in week 1. NC State, which is ranked #13, got into a real close one with East Carolina.
But the vast majority of the games that were played last weekend were severely lopsided beatdowns.
In very plain English: Who the hell wants to watch Alabama beat up on Utah State?
Nobody. Not Bama fans, not Utah State fans, not general college football fans. Nobody wants to watch that shit. It is not entertaining, it is not compelling. We all knew Alabama was going to win by 50. There was no intrigue or drama with that game.
For a sport that has the “greatest regular season of them all,” it sure does feature a lot of lopsided blowouts that nobody actually wants to watch.
We all want compelling matchups, right?
Bama and Texas play next week. It’s probably going to be a blowout (Bama is favored by 20), but at least it’s a compelling matchup to think about. It will be far less compelling when the game actually kicks off and Bama is up 3 TDs at halftime, but it’s along the lines of What We Want to See.
However, the next week, Bama plays UL-Monroe, a game Bama will probably win by 50+.
We want to see close, compelling games between good teams. We don’t want to see Bama skulf*ck UL-Monroe by 50.
Bama’s SEC conference games will be more compelling and entertaining, but they don’t play their first ranked SEC opponent until October 1st (Arkansas). Their first SEC game of the season is against Vanderbilt on 9/24, which means that, unless the Texas game ends up being surprisingly close, basically the first month of Bama’s schedule will have been a snoozefest.
Who wants that? Nobody. We only get about 3.5 months of college football, and already we have to basically throw one of those months away when it comes to Bama.
The worst thing about college football is that we find ourselves wishing we could fast-forward through half of the games to get to the good stuff.
And I hate that! It shouldn’t be like that. We should be savoring every minute of the season. After all, we only get 12 weeks of the college football regular season.
As the Clemson-Georgia Tech game got increasingly out of hand, I went on ESPN.com and started looking ahead at the week 2 college football schedule of games.
And there ain’t much going on, unfortunately.
Sure, you have the Bama-Texas game, but that’s only compelling from the standpoint that those are two big-name brands, not because we think it’ll be a great game. (I don’t hold this game against anyone because when it was scheduled it was supposed to be a good game, so they had the right idea when they scheduled it.)
But beyond that game, there ain’t much. There’s the traditional Iowa-Iowa State rivalry, but given how bad Iowa looked last week, I don’t know how many people without skin in the game in that rivalry are going to be tuning in.
What else do we have next week?
Let’s see, we’ve got Ohio State playing… Arkansas State. Ohio State is favored by 44 points.
But hey–you can’t expect them to play a meaningful game after they just played Notre Dame! They have to get a week off and a free win, of course! Because that’s how college football operates.
What else have we got? Michigan plays Hawaii (point spread: Michigan -51), Notre Dame plays Marshall, Utah plays Southern Utah (didn’t even know that was a school), Georgia plays Samford, Clemson plays Furman (I will give you $5 if you can guess what state Furman University is located in, because I didn’t have the faintest idea. My first guess was that it was an in-state opponent, and that was correct. But it was just a guess–the point is that Clemson is playing against some school that 99% of college football fans have never even heard of, and we’ve just come to accept that this is a normal thing and Part Of College Football™.)
Again, there are some games that are admittedly compelling, but only mildly so: USC-Stanford should be interesting, Florida-Kentucky should be fun, Tennessee-Pittsburgh should be as well, and Texas A&M vs. Appalachian State might be frisky for the first quarter or two.
But man, the slate next weekend is weak. Florida-Kentucky will probably end up being a ranked vs. ranked matchup, but other than that, there will only be one other ranked vs. ranked matchup: Baylor at BYU, which will be the late night game on Saturday.
So 25 teams are ranked, and only 4 of them will actually be playing each other.
This actually sucks. We’re all so excited that football is back, we get one good week of games, and then next week we’re stuck with a weak-ass slate of games that already has us wishing we could fast forward to all the good games.
And even more bad news: I looked ahead to week 3 and it’s no better than week 2. It’s probably worse. The only real ranked matchup on the docket is Texas A&M vs. Miami. I guess I’d also say BYU-Oregon and Michigan State-Washington are mildly compelling, as is Oklahoma-Nebraska, if only from the standpoint of, “If Nebraska gets slaughtered does Scott Frost get fired on the spot?”
Other than that, nada. Can I interest you in Clemson vs. Louisiana Tech? Ohio State vs. Toledo? Michigan vs. UConn? Wisconsin vs. New Mexico State (which was the worst team in the FBS last season)? Oklahoma State vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff?
This is that incredible regular season that is supposedly being destroyed by playoff expansion, that we’re supposed to be so sad and devastated that we’re losing?
No, I’m not buying it. I’m just not.
Look, the conference schedule for college football is incredible. We all agree on this. And in my view, the 12-team playoff will only make conference play more compelling, since more teams in each conference will be alive for playoff berths.
But it’s the non-conference schedules that really drag the sport down. Yes, week 1 was awesome as far as non-conference games went, but there are no more non-conference heavyweight bouts this year until the playoff. Ohio State-Notre Dame was week 1, and that’s basically it. You could consider A&M vs. Miami a light heavyweight bout at best.
The non-conference portion of college football really needs to be fixed. And I think the 12-team playoff has the potential to do that, because it creates automatic berths, meaning you could schedule a brutal non-conference slate, lose all three games, but still get into the playoff because you won your conference. There’s no downside to scheduling blockbuster non-conference games–in fact, it can only help you in terms of your resume for an at-large bid down the road if you fail to win your conference. If a team like, say, Texas A&M schedules Ohio State, USC and Wisconsin for its three non-conference games, and goes 2-1 in those games, losing to OSU but beating USC and Wisco, then A&M has a great resume for an at-large bid if it fails to win the SEC Championship. The committee will look at A&M and say, “Well, they played Ohio State tough, and they beat USC and Wisconsin. They’ve got 4 losses, but they played a hell of a schedule, they deserve a playoff spot.”
Now, I get why all the good teams play cupcakes. The stated reason is that it brings in a lot of money to these smaller schools to play the Alabamas and Oklahomas of the world. They get to split the money. And that’s huge for them. The big schools obviously get a free win, and an opportunity to test and tweak their gameplans for more important games down the road.
Nobody wants these smaller schools to go bankrupt. I don’t know all that much about the business side of college football, but at the same time, if these smaller programs rely on playing the big boys to survive financially, what kind of system are we really running here? Is that really a sustainable and healthy model, for schools like–say, Samford–to have to rely on playing Alabama and Georgia in order to stay afloat financially?
There’s got to be some other way to give these smaller schools the financial windfall that comes from playing big-time programs while not actually forcing Furman to line up against Clemson, or Citadel to play Alabama. It would have to be something along the lines of a revenue-sharing agreement based on the increased TV revenues from having a fully loaded slate of high-profile non-conference games as opposed to a few big non-conference games amid a bunch of David vs. Goliath matchups. The big time college football programs already basically subsidize their schools’ entire athletic departments–meaning all the smaller, unprofitable sports. I’m sure there’s a way to set it up so that the biggest college football programs in each state share some revenues with the smaller programs without having to actually play one another.
I don’t know. I’m getting into a topic that is completely out of my depth here, but what I’m saying is that college football’s regular season is not all it’s cracked up to be by the people who are opposed to the 12-team playoff.
And again, I’m someone who loves college football dearly. I’m not saying this as an outsider, like, “Maybe I’d watch college football more if there weren’t so many crappy games.”
No, I watch the games no matter what.
But I do think college football has a serious problem with the way its non-conference games work. It really needs to be fixed. Non-conference rivalries must be preserved–there is no reason that Michigan and Notre Dame shouldn’t be playing each other every year. Same with WVU-Pittsburgh, USC-Notre Dame, Florida vs. Florida State, Michigan State vs. Notre Dame (honestly Notre Dame just needs to join the Big Ten already), Iowa-Iowa State, Kansas-Missouri, etc.
And teams must be incentivized to play big non-conference games as opposed to just trying to schedule three or four cupcake games.
Right now in college football, the system prioritizes going undefeated. That’s the best and most foolproof way of making the playoff, and so that’s how the big-name teams build their schedules. You know they’ve got 8 or 9 tough conference games a year, so why make it even harder on yourself by scheduling tough non-conference opponents? That’s basically the mentality.
In my view, the 12-team playoff changes all that. With automatic playoff berths for winning your conference, there’s now only upside that can come from scheduling tough non-conference games.