First and 10: College football is at a crossroads. Solution? Expanding the Playoff
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Long ago, when college football was fat and happy, SEC commissioner Roy Kramer came up with a crazy idea to play a conference championship game and sold controversy over continuity.
Controversy, he said over and over, is a good thing.
Now controversy has officially crossed over to counterproductive damage.
“What we have now is not sustainable,” an FBS commissioner told me this weekend about the current setup of the College Football Playoff.
And that was before Ohio State played 6 games and was awarded a spot in the CFP, giving Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State 16 of the 28 available CFP spots in the 7-year history of the postseason.
Add Oklahoma, and it’s 20 of 28 – or a whopping 71%.
“We won’t be at 4 teams much longer,” a Power 5 athletic director told me Sunday.
When asked if the CFP would finish the initial 12-year deal that runs through the 2025 season, the P5 AD said, “We’d like to, but I’m not sure it’s feasible. We can’t keep selling the same thing over and over, year after year, and expect our fans to stay interested.”
Nearly 30 years ago when he instituted the SEC Championship Game, Kramer said the league can’t get complacent and must continue to grow – even at the expense of an upset that might cost the SEC’s best team to miss out on a national title.
In the long run, he said, it would benefit the conference. The long run is here again, and there are no shortcuts this time around.
The CFP can’t get complacent. It’s time to grow.
There’s too much television/streaming money available for the Playoff to not expand. Programs are losing money and eliminating Olympic sports at a drastic pace because of this COVID season and will likely continue to do so well into 2021.
Change shouldn’t happen because Texas A&M got hosed in this year’s selection process, or because Ohio State was gifted (again) a spot in the Playoff. Or because SEC commissioner Greg Sankey — the sport’s most powerful commissioner — decides he’s ticked off about the Texas A&M snub and wants to set the wheels in motion (which he absolutely could and may do).
It should arrive because without change — without an expansion of the CFP — college football risks damaging its brand and ignores potential billions in broadcast revenue.
“I think we’re all on the same page there. University presidents, athletic directors and coaches,” a Power 5 athletic director told me last weekend. “It’s not that we’re avoiding change, it’s when and how it’s accomplished.”
One FBS commissioner told me in November that the CFP management committee – the 10 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick — has talked about expansion for “a while now,” though nothing necessarily specific.
The sport can’t keep selling every game matters when, after 7 years of the Playoff, it really doesn’t. Both Alabama and Ohio State have made the Playoff without winning their conference championship, and Ohio State this season made it after playing 5 fewer games than the other 3 playoff teams (Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame).
That’s not selling controversy. That’s pushing away fans (and eventually advertisers and revenue) when the inevitable of who plays in the postseason is a reality before the season begins.
There is no secret sauce, no drama, to the selection of the 4 Playoff teams. And it’s getting old, quickly.
2. The future format
The only question now: How do they expand?
It begins with preserving the P5 conference championship games – and specifically, the SEC Championship Game. The other P5 conferences can take or leave their championship games.
It’s an identity for the SEC, and the conference is never backing off.
“It’s a non-starter for them,” a P5 AD told me. “Not even a discussion point. Greg (Sankey) and their university presidents have made that very clear.”
To that end, any change to the Playoff more than likely has to take into account collateral damage to the championship games. So forget about 16 teams; that’s a pipe dream.
Expansion could be as small as 2 more teams or as many as growing to 8. A 6-team Playoff – with 2 teams earning first-round byes – is the favored model now. But there’s a long time between now and actual execution.
Six teams and 2 first-round byes allow the Power 5 to retain the importance of their conference championship games (and the revenue). While 8 teams further expands the field and gives Group of 5 teams more potential access, it also moves the championship games closer to having no impact on the Playoff.
“We don’t want to eliminate the idea that winning a conference is a big deal,” another Power 5 AD told me. “If anything, there are some in the room who believe it needs to be more important.”
What it would look like:
— A 6-team format (with current CFP rankings):
- Byes: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson
- No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Oklahoma (at Columbus, Ohio).
- No. 4 Notre Dame vs. No. 5 Texas A&M (at South Bend, Ind.)
- Semifinals: Alabama vs. lowest remaining seed, Clemson vs. highest remaining seed (in bowl games).
— An 8-team format:
- No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 8 Cincinnati (at Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
- No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 7 Florida (at Clemson, S.C.)
- No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Oklahoma (at Columbus, Ohio.)
- No. 4 Notre Dame vs. No. 5 Texas A&M (at South Bend, Ind.)
- Semifinals: Highest vs. lowest. No set bracket.
3. QBs battle for Heisman
For some reason, the push is on for a non-quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy.
Exhibit A: the Alabama trio of QB Mac Jones, TB Najee Harris and WR DeVonta Smith. All three elite players, all three All-Americans.
But to think that Alabama would be the same team without Jones is absolutely laughable. Alabama isn’t in the Playoff without Jones.
Alabama is more than likely still the No. 1 seed in the playoff with Brian Robinson at tailback, and John Metchie III as its No. 1 receiver. I’m not minimizing what Harris and Smith accomplished; they’ve had record-breaking seasons.
I’m underscoring what Jones did.
The Heisman hasn’t become a quarterback award, it’s just that the quarterback has become the most important player on the field in today’s game. That means a majority of the Heisman winners will be quarterbacks, who are given so much responsibility and deal with so much play by play pressure, any other option in the Heisman race would have to be a truly rare and elite player.
The closest thing to rare and elite outside the quarterback position this season was Florida TE Kyle Pitts – but he didn’t play a full season (see how that works for teams, but not players?) and can’t realistically win the award.
There are 3 players who can realistically win the award: Jones and Florida quarterback Kyle Trask on their rare seasons alone, and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence – because he’s the best player in the game, no matter the numbers.
Statistics alone, Trask had the better season but Jones did more within the framework of his unbeaten, No. 1-ranked team. Jones has his team in the CFP; Trask’s team lost on a last-second field goal, a last-second missed field goal and by 6 points to No. 1 Alabama.
My best guess: Jones wins the Heisman.
4. Big Orange mess
Nobody does dysfunction quite like Tennessee.
Think about this all-time kneecap performed on Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt by someone – wink, wink – close to the athletic department.
Over the last few days, that “someone” let it slip (see: leaked) to Fox Sports Radio in Knoxville that Tennessee’s NCAA compliance department was investigating potential NCAA improprieties with players the Vols recruited under Pruitt, and with players currently on the team.
Now, being the gracious soul that I am, I’m going to connect the dots on this developing story since the first month of the season:
— Tennessee loses in Week 3 after winning 8 straight dating to last season, manhandled by rival Georgia in a game that showed, without a doubt, this program isn’t ready to make a significant step.
— Tennessee is beaten by rivals Georgia, Alabama and Florida by a combined 123-57, making Pruitt 0-9 vs those three teams.
— Tennessee ties a school record with 6 straight losses, before routing undermanned Vanderbilt (49 scholarship players available).
— Tennessee is embarrassed by Texas A&M in Knoxville to finish a 3-7 regular season.
Add that up (and that’s the abridged version), and understand that Tennessee owes Pruitt nearly $13 million if he’s fired without cause.
Now here’s the key: Tennessee owes Pruitt nothing if he’s fired for cause.
What’s cause, you ask? NCAA violations.
Ding, ding, ding, ding.
If you’re wondering who’s the leaker, all I know is “someone” led a coup 3 years ago to get another person fired to gain power.
And since we’re dealing in irony, think about this: Tennessee could fire Pruitt for cause because of NCAA violations and hire Hugh Freeze – who had NCAA issues at Ole Miss.
5. The Weekly Five
The 5 most impactful games of 2020.
1. Alabama 52, Florida 46: The new wave SEC: points, points, points – and a service break by a defense. Alabama got one more than Florida.
2. Florida 44, Georgia 28: After 3 straight losses to the Bulldogs, Gators win the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party again. Leads to an East Division title and recruiting momentum.
3. Texas A&M 41, Florida 38: A crushing loss for the Gators; a reaffirmation of a $75 million investment for the Aggies with coach Jimbo Fisher.
4. Alabama 63, Ole Miss 48: The Week 3 moment when Lane Kiffin announced that Ole Miss, despite not playing a lick of defense, would be a tough out for anyone. In 2020 – and beyond.
5. Texas A&M 31, Auburn 20: The Alabama loss for Auburn was bad enough, but you don’t get rid of a coach (and pay him almost $22 million to walk away) who has beaten Nick Saban 3 times. You do get rid of a coach whose team gets outscored 17-0 in the 4th quarter in an 11-point home loss to Texas A&M.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Florida DE Brenton Cox:
“I just don’t know where he plays. Is he a Will (linebacker) in a 4-3, or does he play on the outside in a 50 front? He hasn’t played linebacker, so you’re going to have to invest time to teach him the position, or hope he grows into a guy that can come off the edge at end.
“He’ll go to the Combine and knock it out of the park, and he has some good tape. He’s got a quick burst off the edge, but he’s not consistently the strongest guy. He’ll get swallowed by bigger (offensive tackles) with good feet. He’s a lot like K’Lavon Chaisson, who scared me to death last year. He scared me because I didn’t know where he played, but also because I was concerned that passing on him could come back to bite you.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Alabama: How much will potentially losing offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to Auburn impact the CFP run?
2. Texas A&M: Jimbo Fisher told his Texas A&M team during the postgame at Tennessee that, “This is as good as I’ve been around. You’ve got something special going on here.” Fisher won 29 straight games at FSU at the end of the BCS era, and into the first CFP season.
3. Florida: Three seasons, three New Year’s 6 bowls for the Gators under coach Dan Mullen. Is that the ceiling, or can Florida recruit the lines of scrimmage well enough to move forward?
4. Georgia: There’s too much importance to the Peach Bowl for Georgia to do anything but ball out. JT Daniels can set up this team for a huge 2021 with a big finish.
5. LSU: An awful season comes to an end with 2 key wins: on the road against East Division champion Florida, and at home against rising rival Ole Miss. A nice save by Tigers coach Ed Orgeron.
6. Auburn: If you’re willing to pay a guy $22 million to walk away, you absolutely take your time and get the coach you want – no matter what it costs.
7. Missouri: An ugly loss at Mississippi State can’t overshadow what Missouri accomplished in Year 1 under Eliah Drinkwitz. Beat Iowa in the Music City Bowl game, and build momentum for 2021.
8. Ole Miss: No matter what it takes: recruiting, the transfer portal, walk-ons from the student body. Get bodies that can stop the other team.
9. Kentucky: Really like the hire of Liam Coen as new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He’s exactly what QBs Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen need: a young coach in the profession who has NFL culture in his background and has been given free rein to expand and improve the offense.
10. Arkansas: The Hogs must decide what they want to be on offense. I’m not sure KJ Jefferson is the answer as a thrower, and if he’s not, 1 of 2 quarterbacks in this year’s recruiting class might be.
11. Tennessee: No matter how impactful a potential NCAA investigation may be (you’re not holding out players if there aren’t issues), Vols must decide soon on starting over. Again.
12. Mississippi State: Bulldogs got exactly what they needed: a big win to finish the season, and positive momentum to push through the long offseason.
13 South Carolina: After the worst recruiting class in school history (through no fault of his own), Shane Beamer says he has as many as 16 scholarships remaining and he’s shopping the NCAA transfer portal. It’s going to get worse in Columbia before it gets better.
14. Vanderbilt: Clark Lea got his first huge win at Vandy: he kept together a surprisingly strong recruiting class (ranked 49th by 247sports).
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Will Florida have a new defensive coordinator by the time we play our bowl game against Oklahoma?
Chris: There could be plenty of new faces on the field in Arlington, Texas, when Florida shows up to play Oklahoma. Star TE Kyle Pitts has already declared for the NFL and said he will not play in the bowl game to concentrate on preparing for the NFL.
If I were advising QB Kyle Trask, I’d tell him to do the same. There’s no way Trask should be doing anything other than preparing for the Senior Bowl and for the NFL Combine. Those are the most important things in his football future – not a meaningless bowl game.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there are others, too. It has been a long season for players, and the physical and mental grind of battling each other, opponents and COVID has taken a toll. If you can get out and rest an extra week before preparing for the Senior Bowl or the Combine, you do it.
Save your health, save your body.
As for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, if something is going to happen, it will happen early this week. If he’s not philosophically Mullen’s man, Mullen must move on and find his coordinator. If that means a defensive assistant takes over the play-calling for the bowl game, so be it.
9. Numbers: 11
Alabama beat 11 of the SEC’s 13 other teams this season – and didn’t lose once. That’s it. Nothing else. Eleven SEC wins.
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Ed Orgeron: “Throughout the season our team became tougher. Our coaching staff became closer. We continued to fight. Went through a lot of adversity. There were some games we didn’t play very well, but we came back and we fought and we finished strong.”