Over the weekend, NCAA president Mark Emmert made a stunning comment. After weeks of talk centered on a potential Plus-One (four-team) playoff model coming to college football, the NCAA’s Numero Uno Honcho made this declaration:
“The momentum seems to be — and I’m just reading the tea leaves, pretty much like you — the momentum seems to be toward an eight-team playoff.”
Cue the sound of a needle scratching across a record. (Readers under 30, Google “record player.”)
Eight teams? For the past month word has leaked from various conference commissioners that it was proving difficult to arrive at four-team model, much less an eight-team plan. Could going to eight really just be the easiest means of compromise?
Here’s hoping not.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of the current BCS system. And if it takes an eight-team plan to insure that all the best teams in the country get in — rather than just the four highest-ranked conference champions — then I understand the logic. There’s no question television dollars would be greater for an eight-team, seven-game system, too.
Heck, I once proposed an eight-team plan and then allowed a sports marketing/television guru to dissect it. But as time has passed I’ve come to believe a four-team model would be far better than an eight-team model. More importantly, I find it hard to believe that an eight-team plan could be the outcome of current talks between the conference commissioners.
Below are 10 reasons why I have a hard time believing what Emmert has suggested:
1. For decades, university presidents have steadfastly been against a playoff of any sort for college football. Now — with the SEC stockpiling championships year after year — more presidents and commissioners are interested in creating some sort of new model in order to help spread the wealth. But would those longtime anti-playoff folks really go from zero teams to eight teams so quickly? Wouldn’t a four-team plan be the easiest way for these guys to dip their toes into the playoff waters without taking a complete, full-on plunge?
2. One major worry for college football muckety-mucks has been the likelihood that a playoff would undermine and lessen the regular season. Well an eight-team playoff would put a lot bigger dent in the regular season than a four-team model. Basically, one out of every 15 FBS teams would reach the postseason in an eight-team playoff. That’s a bad thing and here’s why…
3. More undeserving teams would get a shot to play for the title. Sure the Cinderella factor would increase and that would make for great spectacle and tremendous ratings — as is the case with the NCAA basketball tournament. But would the best team in the nation truly be crowned as champion? And isn’t that the goal? If the four best teams are selected to play for a title, it’s likely a team with a darn good resume would capture the NCAA’s flag. However, by the time you get to teams ranked #7 and #8 each year, you’re talking about teams that no one even considers a first-place contender on paper. NC State over Houston and Villanova over Georgetown were great stories. But were Jim Valvano’s and Rollie Massimino’s teams really the best teams in the country in the years they won the NCAA’s hoops tourney?
4. If the regular season is lessened, college football would become even more television-driven. That money is great, yes, but attendance at football and basketball games has already taken a hit in recent years. Television has no doubt played a large role in that as more and more games have been broadcast. Recently we’ve seen that when a team struggles, fans stop going to games. With an eight-team playoff, you can bet many more fans would begin staying home just as soon as their favorite squad fell from playoff contention. Whereas with a four-team plan, it’s more likely only the uber-elite programs would even expect to get a shot at the title each year. More fans would continue to set the realistic goal of a good bowl game.
5. With an eight-game plan, more fans would expect/demand their coaches reach the playoffs. Heck, it would be easier to make an eight-team field than a four-team field. So more fans would dream of popping champagne at year’s end. That would result in even more pressure on college coaches. Already we’ve seen an increase in the yearly turnover of college football coaches. With an eight-team playoff, coaches would be more susceptible to “he never even made a playoff” cries than they would be in a world with a four-team playoff. Again, four would reward the elite, the best of the best. Eight would give more little guys shots. Coaching turnover would increase. Bank on that.
6. More games equals more injuries. If a college football playoff consisted of four teams and three games, only two squads would be forced to play an extra game (compared to those teams going to bowls). With an eight-team plan, four teams would play an extra game and two would go on to play a second additional game. The sport has a 12-game regular season now — and that’s not going to change because no one would want to give up extra home games or give back television money. Toss in a conference title game and you’re looking at a 13-game schedule for several teams. Then come the bowls which bring the total to 14 games. An eight-game playoff would mean that two squads would probably have to play a grand total of 16 games… which is the length of the NFL regular season. Are college-age bodies built to hold up for that long? You’d better be ready to see your favorite squad hobbled by the time it reaches the final game of an eight-team playoff.
7. According to conference commissioners, travel has been a sticking point in their recent playoff conversations. Can fans travel to two different sites a week apart? Now ask yourself if fans would be able to travel to three sites over the span of two weeks. When we initially suggested yes — in the post linked to above — college attendance was still on the rise. That’s no longer the case.
8. If an eight-team playoff comes to pass and presidents and commissioners decide to use on-campus games to offset the issue of travel for higher-seeded teams, that results in fewer teams being rewarded for a good season. As it stands — while I’m no bowl-lover — players do get to enjoy some sunny weather, a new iPod, and a steer-ropin’ or orange-squeezin’ contest at some bowl site in Florida, Arizona or California. An eight-team playoff would likely mean that seven very good squads would get no reward other than losing on some other team’s home turf in late-December or early-January. “Congratulations for a job well done. Hope you enjoyed a freezing beatdown in Ann Arbor.”
9. When would these games be played? The NCAA wants its football postseason to run between finals (around December 22nd) and the first week of January. In a perfect world, the four first-round games of an eight-team playoff would be played on New Year’s Day, marking a return to excellence for a day that once featured only the very best bowls. But if that were the case, the playoffs wouldn’t end until mid-January and that’s been viewed as a no-no up until now. We think that would be a sticking point for planners.
10. Finally, what of those major bowl games? In a four-team plan, major bowls could still maintain their traditional ties to conferences or even be featured as part of the Plus-One (depending on the travel decisions discussed in Point 7). An eight-game model would totally displace the traditional power bowls — unless fans are asked to travel from bowl site to bowl site to bowl site over a three week period as part of the playoff. If that’s not the solution and games are played on campus sites, how would the Sugar Bowl — for example — feel about getting the SEC’s third- or fourth-best team, depending on how many squads its partner league would place in a playoff?
I’m not an anti-playoff guy. I just believe a four-team model would be easier to pull off — for schools and for fans. It would reward truly excellent teams that deserve a shot at the title belt. Such a plan would also do less damage to a regular season that currently tops all other NCAA sports’ regular seasons.
Emmert is privy to a great deal more information than the common reporter, talk show host, or blogger. So if the NCAA prez says he thinks there’s a move for an eight-team playoff, there probably is.
But, boy, creating such a plan would force conference commissioners and university presidents to jump through a helluva lot more hoops than a four-team plan would.