There's a reason the Playoff feels more stale than the BCS, and it would (sort of) be fixed with expansion
Little did the college football decision-makers realize that when they moved from the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) to the 4-team Playoff, it would create a system that would yield stale results by 2020.
Yet here we are, 7 Playoffs in and the numbers don’t lie. Of the 28 Playoff berths clinched, 4 teams (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma) accounted for 71% of them. Throw in Notre Dame and that number climbs to 79%.
Playoff expansion feels inevitable, and perhaps before the contract runs out after the 2025 season. Last month, the CFP management committee met and discussed options ranging from 6-16 teams. A total of 63 possibilities were discussed, though CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN that “nothing is imminent.”
Take that for what you will. The fact that these discussions are taking place an entire presidential term before the current deal runs out is, at the very least, telling. All Hancock promised was that 2021 and 2022 would still have the 4-team Playoff.
Once upon a time, the Playoff was supposed to wipe out the SEC bias that allegedly fueled the conference’s run of 7 consecutive national titles. If there was a desire to eliminate the then-stale taste of SEC teams winning titles, I’d argue there were mixed results in the Playoff. The SEC claimed 4 of 7 titles, and it was represented in 6 of the 7 championship games.
Now, though, the push for expansion is being fueled by the repetitive nature of the field. Six of the last 7 Playoffs featured at least 3 of those core 4 teams (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma).
That’s obviously at the root of why things have gotten so stale. Let’s focus on the Power 5 conference champions since 2015:
*Ohio State made Playoff instead of Penn State
**Alabama also made Playoff
Why didn’t I include the Pac-12? Because with the exception of 2016 Washington and its shortened 2020 season, the Pac-12 didn’t produce an unbeaten or 1-loss conference champ during that 6-year stretch. That’s a massive reason we’re in this spot with a stagnant Playoff. By virtue of not producing a team worthy of Playoff contention, it has essentially come down to those 4 conferences and then Notre Dame.
Think about this: Since 2015, there have been 24 conference champions in those Power 5 leagues (we’re excluding the Pac-12). Of those 24, only 4 went to teams outside of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. And of those 4 instances, 2 still yielded a scenario in which either Ohio State or Alabama made the field.
People were upset that the SEC was to blame for the BCS’ staleness. But that’s actually not the case in the Playoff. Ohio State is riding a streak of 4 consecutive conference titles. Clemson’s streak is now at 6, which is the same as Oklahoma. Alabama hasn’t won consecutive SEC titles since 2015-16. As a result, the SEC produced 3 different Playoff teams compared to 2 for the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 with 1 for the Big 12.
So if you have 4 teams that win their Power 5 conferences nearly every year combined with 1 Power 5 conference continuously failing to produce a Playoff contender, what do you get? A stale system.
It wouldn’t have been as stale with the BCS because there’s bound to be more variability with just 2 spots up for grabs, but at the same time, 10 of the 14 No. 1 or No. 2 seeds have gone to Alabama or Clemson. We didn’t have concurrent dynasties like that during the BCS era, which produced 12 different champions in its 16 seasons. It did so without a single repeat title game, too.
But why did the Playoff come about? The 7 consecutive years of SEC teams (4 different ones) claiming national titles from 2006-12. SEC fatigue set in. Now, there’s clearly Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State/Oklahoma fatigue.
Yes, any sort of Playoff expansion would add some spice. Even a 6-team Playoff with automatic bids for every Power 5 conference with 1 wild card would breathe some life into the sport’s title-deciding process. The 4-team system has yet to yield a a 2-loss team or a Group of 5 team. That would almost certainly change in any 8-team format, with the most obvious being the 5 Power 5 champions, 1 Group of 5 representative and 2 wild cards.
What wouldn’t change? The best and most talented teams winning national titles.
Everyone thinks their non-Playoff team could’ve beaten anyone down the stretch like 2020 Oklahoma or 2016 USC. That’s what expansion supporters point to as a reason the system needs to change, even though it was the system we have that allowed them to play a lesser team on a bowl game just so that those takes could live on. The pro-expansion crowd will bang the drum that the system denies them a fair shot when in reality, those people just want everyone to pretend like losing 2 conference games out the gate should be forgiven.
Don’t get it twisted. That’s not my way of saying I want things to stick at 4 forever. Expansion feels imminent. We, as college football fans, just need to approach it without expectations that it’s going to turn into March Madness. In football, we’ve learned the more games you play, the more likely the cream will rise to the top.
Is the now-stagnant nature of the current system partially a byproduct of all Power 5 leagues having conference title games? Probably. We forget that the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 all implemented those in the last decade (the Big 12 scrapped it from 2011-16 and then brought it back in 2017).
If expansion comes and we’re still talking about a potential national champion playing at least 14 games — most would play 15 — we might get tricked into thinking it’s less stagnant when in reality, the balance in power within those conferences needs to shift first. And by the time that happens and someone does end the streaks for Clemson, Oklahoma or Ohio State, it might not even matter because those teams could still earn Playoff berths by finishing second in their respective conferences.
See the issue? It’s hard to envision any imminent shakeup with the teams at the top. Even the Name, Image and Likeness legislation isn’t suddenly going to close the door on talent coming into Ohio State.
It’s OK to be conflicted by some of the elements with expansion. I’d rather have the 2016 USC fan complain about its 3-loss team not making the field than reward a team that treated September like a mid-summer trip to the beach. And I, like some of you, wouldn’t mind seeing games outside of those 4 major Power 5 championships decide the Playoff field.
The 4-team Playoff has a problem, unintended or not. It took the perfect storm to get us to a stale place in such little time.
Not to rain on the inevitable expansion parade, but that problem isn’t going to wash away as easily as some think.