Published May 22, 2012 - 10:25am
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Last week’s announcement of a SEC-Big 12 postseason matchup starting in 2014 appears to be another step towards a full-scale college football playoff. With the Big Ten and Pac-12 already committed to the Rose Bowl, the new SEC-Big 12 game (at a yet-to-be-determined site) essentially creates de facto national semifinals. All that remains is a “plus-one” championship game.
This suggests a playoff will be the end-result of not just the ongoing realignment of college football conferences, but a contraction of the sport into four conferences. The Big East, ACC, and the miscellaneous conferences continue to fall behind and there’s no reason to believe they will ever catch up. With the end of the “automatic qualifier” status after 2014, the Big East and ACC will cease to be relevant to college football’s postseason. The only remaining question is how and when will a formal split occur.
The SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 can form their own postseason structure without regard to the other conferences. Remember, the BCS is already a distinct entity from the NCAA, which has no direct control over the postseason. There are some NCAA rules that have to be addressed—notably the limit of one postseason game per school and rules governing conference championship games—but when push comes to shove, the NCAA needs the football powers to survive, not the other way around. If necessary, the four major conferences could break away from the NCAA’s football jurisdiction altogether, though that’s premature.
By 2014, we may see a three-tier Division I, with the four-conference playoff at the top, the remaining FBS schools stuck in the remnants of the bowl system, and the lower-tier FCS continuing as-is. The center will not hold. The competitive Big East and ACC schools will find new homes in the major conferences while the rest drop down to FCS. The bowl system as we know it may have less than 10 years left, as these games will continue to become more unprofitable for the schools that are still available to play in them.
Of course, once we get to a top-tier playoff, there will inevitably be pressure to expand, particularly from coaches eager to preserve their jobs. Four teams will become eight and eventually 16. Keep in mind, the FCS playoff is scheduled to expand from 20 to 24 teams in 2013. Every playoff system ever devised for sports eventually expands.
The classic argument against the playoff is that it somehow devalues the regular season. That’s not exactly true. A playoff neither enhances nor detracts from the regular season. What dilutes the regular season is expansion, either of the schedule or the leagues themselves. The more teams you add, the more spread out the talent pool, and the more games you add, the less each individual game affects the season.
College football fans should be less concerned about the impact of a seemingly inevitable playoff and more vigilant about league and regular-season expansion. The SEC is already experiencing scheduling pains as it assimilates Missouri and Texas A&M. Traditional cross-division rivalries may fall by the wayside. There’s already been calls to add a ninth conference game over the coaches’ objections. And while there’s been no hint of expanding the overall season past 12 games, it may become an option if the bowl system collapses and middle-of-the-road schools want to make up that 13th game.
Along those same lines, if the ACC and Big East do collapse as football conferences, the SEC will be strongly tempted to expand to 16 teams—if for no other reason then to keep useful schools like Florida State or Virginia Tech away from the Big Ten or Big 12. Yet adding more teams only further dilutes the conference schedule and increases the likelihood of schedule expansion, including a potential in-conference playoff.
Many SEC fans won’t see a problem with any of this. After all, how can more football ever be a bad thing? But we’ve all seen the impact of schedule dilution on college basketball. Fans are conditioned to ignore the regular season altogether and focus exclusively on a three-week, made-for-office-gambling event. Diehard college football fans should not want to replicate that environment.
The problem is that the playoff has always been the answer to an uncertain question. The media demands a playoff simply because every other North American sport has one. Peer pressure generally isn’t a sound reason to do something. And consider that other sports leagues, notably the English Premier League, do quite well determining a champion through a round-robin season and no playoff. It’s media conditioning that has led to unnecessary angst about the lack of a college football playoff.
Thankfully, the college football powers have resisted jumping into a playoff for a playoff’s sake. The SEC-Big 12 alliance indicates the immediate objective is to wrest control of the postseason away from the bowls. That in and of itself is a good thing. As the recent Fiesta Bowl scandal demonstrated, the bowls are little more than tax-exempt slush funds for local organizing committees that generate little tangible value for the football teams that provide their programming. In an era of digital mass distribution, the New Year’s bowls are a relic that should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
To reiterate, if and when a playoff comes, it will be the outcome of realignment as opposed to a reactionary move to end media criticism. What remains to be seen is the other side effects of this realignment, including changes to the regular season. The important thing is not to sacrifice the core appeal of college football—especially SEC football—in order to chase after “casual” fans or media critics who simply want a homogenized sports product.