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NCAA Football: 2023 College Football Playoff National Championship Press Conference

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College Football Playoff Expansion is Pointless

It’s futile, hypocritical, and simple-minded

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti poses with College Football Playoff trophy
| Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll side with the nay-sayers — expanding the College Football Playoff to 12 teams is an act of hypocrisy, futility, and simple minded “more is more” rationalizing.

We can start with the hypocrisy point, it being the shortest and the most damning. More games and a lengthened season will result in more injuries over the aggregate. That seems undeniable. That’s part of the reason the number of notable hold-outs from premier bowl games has crept up in recent seasons, and no one blames the players for it. They need to protect their future.

Still, player self-interest is a problem for the marketability of games for broadcasters and advertisers, which cascades into it being a problem for the university presidents and athletic commissioners who are charged with contradictory duties: promote the hell out of their universities’ brands for the sake of revenue and applicant interest on the one hand, and promote the general well-being and interests of the students on the other. Those students - athletes or no - are ostensibly the reason for the universities’ existence, we might all remember.

Yet here things stand. University presidents will ask their student-athletes to endure even more practices and even high intensity games tacked onto the end of an already long season for the sake of money to help promote the university and bring in more students and student-athletes who will be asked to endure the increase in physical brutality for the sake of bringing in more students…you see the rationalization cycle we’ve fallen into.

More is more. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. In these modern times, changes must be made in step with the forward progress of history. Whatever mantra you prefer, that’s clearly the ultimate rationalizer in the decision-makers’ minds. One report from The Athletic mentioned that switching to the 12-team format in 2024 could generate a potential $500 million increase in revenue over switching in 2026. The university presidents just “can’t” leave that money on the table.

And why can’t they? Because they need that money to raise the profile of the school, so they can get more students, so they can raise the profile of the school, so they can get more students…You could replace “more” with “higher quality” a few times in the cycle, if you like. Still, when you raise the profile of the school, increase enrollment, or chase more prestigious students, you’ve got to come up with the money to house and entertain those students, as well. And staffers to run operations. And staffers to monitor the students. And staffers to ensure quality control. And staffers to manage the staffers.

Consider, too, that if the university presidents don’t play along with the broadcast and advertising powers, they run the risk of being left out of the inner circle set up to profit. Think of those schools in the Pac-12 and ACC who, at the moment, sense the wolf at the door of college football realignment. Or if you’ve been around long enough, the sense of apprehension on Baylor’s campus when it looked like realignment would leave “scrubby little Baylor” on the outside looking in, relegated to a lower status and doomed to a lower level of revenue and prestige. Of course, this assumes being smaller and less prestigious is necessarily a bad thing. The way the university presidents and boards of regents behave, you’d think it was a death nell.

Let’s set all that aside for a moment, though. Assume that this is all about “giving everyone a shot to win”, the way UCF “deserved” to be in the playoffs a few years ago. Let’s ask the simple question, does expanding the playoff give everyone a shot to win?

If we restructure last season into the 12-team format, maybe we’ll get a bit of an idea of how things could play out. We’ll use the rankings from the end of the regular season used to select CFP and New Year’s Six bowl participants, and allow the results of those games to inform our assumptions for how the expanded playoffs would play out. Let’s assume, too, that the top four teams get a bye, as that will almost certainly be a part of the new structure. Here are the matchups, all at neutral sites:

No. 12 Pittsburg VS No. 5 Notre Dame

No. 11 Utah VS No. 6 Ohio State

No. 10 Michigan State VS No. 7 Baylor

No. 9 Oklahoma State VS No. 8 Ole Miss

Those are some compelling matchups! Everyone would certainly be interested to watch them. In fact, we actually did get to watch one. Ohio State beat Utah 48-45 in a thrilling Rose Bowl. Probably the only matchup that isn’t really very interesting at all would be Notre Dame and Pitt. All of the others, though, would make for an obviously entertaining weekend of football.

So let’s game out the next round. Without putting too much thought into it, let’s just say that chalk wins out except for the 8-9 game, where Oklahoma State puts the clamps on Ole Miss just the way Baylor did. Even if you threw in a couple of real upsets, though, I think the next part of the exercise would prove it not to matter.

No. 5 Notre Dame VS No. 4 Cincinnati

No. 6 Ohio State VS No. 3 Georgia

No. 7 Baylor VS No. 2 Michigan

No. 9 Oklahoma State VS No. 1 Alabama

I’ll admit here that I forgot the committee put Michigan ahead of Georgia in the rankings like we were back in the BCS era all over again.

Here are some more pretty compelling games. A 4-5 rematch, a 3-6 power match, a perennial second-fiddle 2-7 match, and…well, every round has to have one dud. Since Cincy beat ND in South Bend, let’s say Cincy gets this one, too, in an albeit closer game. Georgia houses Ohio State just like they did the other B1G school, Michigan shuts down Baylor’s offense and scores enough to win by two possessions, and Spencer Sanders plays worse against Alabama as he does against Baylor, if that is even imaginable.

Fantastic, now we’ve got…hold on…this couldn’t be…it’s what we had last year! No, no. No good. More games is supposed to mean variance! Baylor and Notre Dame, congratulations. You’ve been promoted to the Final Fou— Round of 4.

No. 5 Notre Dame VS No. 1 Alabama

No. 7 Baylor VS No. 3 Georgia

And here’s where we come to the point of futility. Any talking head who suggested that this could result in anything other than Alabama vs. Georgia would be immediately relegated to the FS1 morning shows. The end result of the whole process would be the same. Nothing really changes, except for a few emotional experiences for the teams not involved in the championship. We can go team by team and compare the end results of this hypothetical with what actually happened.

Round of 12 Losers

Hypothetical

Pittsburg - Lost a prestigious game

Utah - Lost a prestigious game

Ole Miss - Lost a prestigious game

Reality

Pittsburg - Lost a prestigious game

Utah - Lost a prestigious game

Ole Miss - Lost a prestigious game

So far we’re tracking.

Round of 8 Losers

Hypothetical

Cincinatti - Lost in Round of 8

Michigan State - Won a playoff game, but lost in Round of 8

Oklahoma State - Won a playoff game, but lost in Round of 8

Reality

Cincinnati - Lost in Round of 4

Michigan State - Won a prestigious game

Oklahoma State - Won a prestigious game

Would you rather: End the season a winner, or advance and lose in potentially embarrassing fashion? Or maybe lose a painfully close game? Either way, now you can hang a banner for…losing? In reality, all three of these teams got to celebrate the end of their season. Sparty and Okie won the last games of their seasons, and Cincy could hang up a playoff birth banner, still a relatively small club. Is anyone marking the achievement of losing in the Round of 8? I doubt it.

Round of 4

Hypothetical

Notre Dame - Won 2 playoff games, lost embarrassingly in Round of 4

Baylor - Won 2 playoff games, lost embarrassingly in Round of 4

Georgia/Alabama - Played in the championship

Reality

Notre Dame - Lost a prestigious game

Baylor - Won a prestigious game

Georgia/Alabama - Played in the championship

We’ve finally found the one team that unquestionably benefited from the 12-team scenario. Notre Dame would definitely prefer to win two playoff games and then get crushed by Alabama than to lose a nail-biter to Oklahoma State. We’ve already noted that Alabama and Georgia are fine with how things played out either way, assuming no further injuries from the extra game.

So then there’s Baylor, who finds herself in the most difficult position to evaluate of the whole exercise. I expect most fans would prefer the hypothetical outcome, if one could really choose between the two. Two extra games, the prestige of being in the Round of 4, and 2 postseason wins to bolster the historic season win total is a lot to say no to. Some, of course, would rather end on the high note of victory than the sour one of losing by 3+ touchdowns to the eventual champion. Personally, I’d prefer to finish a winner, rather than get funneled into a rat race that spits out a bunch of losers and just one winner. And I feel that way because in the real scenario, I knew we couldn’t compete with Georgia or Alabama, so I don’t need to have that confirmed while having Gerry Bohanon and Blake Shapen further injured. Plus, this scenario is a best-case one for the Bears. If Baylor lost in the Round of 8, I’d definitely be out.

Plus, think of how this would make that college football imperialism map so much less fun. It’d just being covered by the single champion with specs of the winners of lesser bowl games.

And all those tantalizing early round matchups the expansion provided? They’re not qualitatively better than the bowl matchups we did get — matchups that were, by the way, already broadcast on ESPN, one of those who will purportedly benefit from the expanded playoff options. Assuming, of course, that they don’t lose too many rights to other broadcasters.

The futility is that, so far, the same handful of schools have dominated the playoffs, with a guest appearance by an LSU team that was a total class above the rest of the country. However many rounds you tack on, the outcome is likely the same, or close enough to ask the question, why bother with the rigamarole?

But here’s where those rationalizations from above start to shout out, “Well hey, sure Michigan State and Oklahoma State and Baylor ended the season as losers instead of winners, but they made $X millions more in TV and gate revenue. Think of how they can upgrade their nutrition centers!”

And that’s where I want to kick the cycle to the curb and say, you know what? The nutrition center we’ve got now is pretty good.

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