More Changes on the Way for the College Football Playoff?

This year's "Final Four" for the College Football Playoff was clear cut. Will it be next year?
This year’s “Final Four” for the College Football Playoff was clear cut.

By Wendell Barnhouse

Once is a too-small sample size. Twice doubles down on once but still doesn’t provide enough data to make a forever judgement.

Year 2 of the College Football Playoff delivered a clean and clear foursome – Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the 2015 season is that for the second year in a row, Championship Saturday was written in chalk; no surprises, no upsets.

A year ago the Big 12 was left with its nose pressed against the window as the CFP started. This year, the Pac-12 is the Power Five conference that had its ox gored but it wasn’t nearly as painful as what the Big 12 endured in 2014.

Thanks to Oklahoma’s “November to Remember,” the Big 12 didn’t have to explain or defend its membership numbers or round-robin schedule or lack of a championship game.

OU also benefited from Stanford’s walk off victory over Notre Dame. Had the Irish finished 11-1, they might have been  Oklahoma’s chief competitor for a playoff spot. The Irish beat the one team (Texas) that beat the Sooners. Plus, had Notre Dame been in the playoff chase and the fact that OU beat three Big 12 contenders (Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State) who all were playing backup quarterbacks.

Oklahoma’s closing argument was a dominant victory in Stillwater that gave OU the Big 12 championship. The Sooners spent Championship Saturday relaxing, not sweating.

“Last year, people were in a panic that the Big 12 absolutely had to have a championship game,” executive director Bill Hancock said the day the CFP released its four-team bracket. “They couldn’t be in the playoff without a championship game, and here this year they are in the playoff without a championship game. One year doesn’t make a trend. I don’t know that two years make a trend, but clearly, we know now that you don’t have to have a championship game to play in this playoff.”

But nothing in college football is ever simple and argument free. The Big 12’s outlier status as the only Power Five conference that doesn’t stage a championship game remains a hot topic.

In 2014, the lack of a championship game was cited as a reason why TCU and Baylor both were left out of the CFP. Plus, the fact Big 12’s administrators had voted to declare co-champions despite a “One True Champion” slogan was seen as they height of indecisiveness.

The Big 12, along with the Atlantic Coast Conference, are sponsoring legislation that eliminates the National Collegiate Athletic Association rule that says a championship game can only be staged if a league has at least 12 teams that are aligned in two divisions. The idea of the regulating legislation is to allow conferences to decide their champions however they see fit. The rule change will be voted on at the NCAA Convention. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has spent the last year expressing confidence that the change would be approved.

Enter two big shot, know-it-all commissioners. Big Ten big boss Jim Delany had his league file an amendment to the legislation that he said wasn’t opposing the change but to spark discussion.

“I want to have some familiarity – some knowledge as to how these things are going to play out,” Delany told ESPN.com. “I don’t want unintended consequences. I don’t want to wake up one morning and see some odd structure that’s unfamiliar.”

Oh, you mean like a 14-team conference that still calls itself the “Big Ten.”

And Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott fired a shot across the bow of the SS Big 12 by…well, when you read this quote, you’ll say it’s more of a direct hit than a shot across the bow.

“I’d like to see more consistency (between conferences) rather than less,” Scott said. “I’d like to see the Big 12 go to a championship game. I don’t think it’s good or fair to see a conference not have to win that extra game and have that extra opportunity both for a win and a loss. I don’t like the idea that a champion can be in the clubhouse and not put it on the line when, in this case, there are strong teams in other conferences that if they lose can be out of the playoff.”

If you think that Delany and Scott should mind their own business, pat yourself on the back for your intelligence.

It’s also more than a bit disingenuous for Delany and Scott to rail about equity between the Power Five conferences. Both were aggressive in the conference realignment movement earlier this decade. And Delany’s 14-team league will perpetually have unbalanced schedules (see: Iowa not playing Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State) this season.

Mark your calendars. A year from now in 2016, we’ll be hearing the same conversations, the same complaining. And consider this: Notre Dame lost by two at Clemson and at Stanford. Had the Irish won either or both and claimed a playoff spot, two conferences – probably the Pac-12 and the Big 12 – would be angry at being left out of the playoff.

Of course, there’s a simple solution – expand the playoff field to eight teams. The Power Five champions gain automatic bids, the CFP committee picks the three best at-large teams and away you go. The top four seeds host the quarterfinal games then the semifinals and championship game are placed as the current CFP places them.

This year, we would have had: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 7 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 6 Stanford and No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 5 Iowa.

There’s always been an argument that an eight-team playoff would render the regular-season meaningless. Nonsense. Every game means something. Auburn-Alabama, Ohio State-Michigan,  USC-UCLA still had meaning and only one had an impact on the CFP. Arkansas’ crazy victory over Ole Miss had meaning because it opened the door for the Crimson Tide.

The same folks who are worried about preserving what’s considered the best regular season in sports like to point out that college basketball’s regular-season is meaningless because of three weeks of March Madness.

Bullspit. There are 128 FBS schools playing 12-game regular-season schedules and 351 Division I men’s basketball teams playing 30+ regular-season games. It’s like arguing about the meaning and interest of a National Football League season compared with Major League Baseball.

The CFP’s 12-year contract runs through 2025 but contracts can be reworked. But there are two most reasonable arguments against going to an eight-team playoff.

ESPN paid $5.6 billion for the 12-year contract. Adding four quarterfinal games would surely inflate that figure, maybe double it. Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Put more money on the table and the players (ahem, student-athletes) will be asking for a slice.

The second argument involves the players’ health. Even if the two teams in the title game are playing “just” 16 games, that reaches NFL regular-season level. The Power Five conferences are already dealing with over a dozen lawsuits. The plaintiffs’ lawyers would love the extra ammunition for their legal briefs.

Considering the massive changes in the college football landscape over the last two decades, it’s foolish to assume there will be no tweaks to the College Football Playoff format for the length of the contract. Remember, the only constant is change.