The biggest obstacle to an expansion of the college football playoffs? The ACC, which would be very likely to benefit from an expanded playoffs. Although it may seem strange, commissioner Jim Phillips reasonably explained why he is ready to lie down on the tracks in front of the 12-team train on Friday.
It is by no means the only roadblock; neither of Phillips’ Alliance compadres, Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff and Big Ten’s Kevin Warren, are ready to board the train as it is currently built. They also have issues with the 12-team playoff format that has been championed by most of the other 10 FBS conference commissioners as well as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.
But while Kliavkoff and Warren expect relatively minor changes to the proposed model, Phillips takes a tougher stance. His take, distilled: We have a dozen things to worry about before we even seriously address a new Playoff structure.
“We have a college athletics problem before we have a college football problem,” Phillips said in a Friday conference call with reporters.
His list of issues goes pretty far into the political weeds, but most relate to the “overall disruption of college athletics.” This includes the NCAA’s plunge into immediate eligibility for transfers and name, image and likeness changes. He is pushing for a “365-day review” of college football and its schedule. He’s asking for congressional legislation to help the NCAA out of the wilderness. And he wants to see the results of the NCAA’s push to overhaul its entire roster, which will take more tangible form next week at the association’s national convention.
But one of the most salient objections Phillips raised on Friday was this: There’s too much football. The season is too long. Teams that advance through a 12-team playoff will play too many games. The expressions “wear” and “school calendar” appeared.
This is not a new concern, of course. The qualms have been raised over the decades as the college schedule has grown from nine games to 10 to 11 to 12 and beyond. They were raised as the playoffs developed and created the likelihood of CFP Championship participants playing 15 games.
But Phillips said the ACC’s own coaches are unanimous in their opposition to adding games to the schedule. “Clemson,” Phillips said, citing the league’s most frequent CFP attendee, “they don’t want to play any more games.”
The point is valid. Administrators uttering platitudes about “student-athlete welfare” while simultaneously expecting them to play up to 17 games are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. The most likely number of games for a CFP finalist would be 16, with 17 a rarity, but still. Both are a lot to ask of young people who are still supposed to go to school and who are still not paid like real professionals.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey raised the premise Monday ahead of the national championship game that rule changes may reduce the number of games per game and thus reduce physical demands on players. There are, indeed, many ways to shorten the interminably slow college game and play fewer snaps in a 60-minute contest, like the NFL does, but that’s cosmetic surgery.
The teams would spend another 16 or 17 weeks in training. That means 16 or 17 weeks of hitting each other to prepare for those games and 16 or 17 weeks of studying movies, meetings and lifting. It also does nothing to prevent encroachment on the academic calendar, including the trampling of graduation weeks in December.
The best way? Get rid of conference championship games. That would free up the first week of December to start a 12-team playoff early, which would either mean finishing it earlier than planned in late January or adding more wiggle room in December.
Conference championship games are often pointless beyond the revenue drain, which is why it would be hard to get rid of them. Most conferences have a clearly established better team in the regular season, without the double risk of proving it again in a league title game against an inferior opponent from another division. The rest of the 12-team playoffs could also be easily filled depending on regular season performances.
The number of truly significant results is low. Watch this year’s Playoffs.
Michigan didn’t need to beat Iowa in the Big Ten championship to establish its CFP credentials. Georgia and Alabama were both in the top four before meeting in an SEC title game that proved nothing. Same with Cincinnati before facing Houston in the AAC title game.
In a larger playoff, Oklahoma State and Baylor would have been without a Big 12 championship game. The only Power 5 leagues that would have had playoff representation affected by title game results were the Pac-12 and the ACC – the first got Utah into the top 12 and Oregon out, and Pittsburgh moved from 15th to 12th after beating Wake Forest.
The number of games played is a legitimate concern – a concern that should be given more than lip service on the way to the next big money grab. Especially when many of the players involved with playoff teams have NFL aspirations.
A 12-team playoff is worth it, and as Phillips noted on Friday in an almost resigned tone, it will inevitably happen. When the current contract expires in 2026 and they can change the voting parameters, making it rule majority instead of unanimity, that will happen.
But Phillips and his conference are right to try to contain the physical risk and academic difficulties that would come with an expanded playoff. The easiest way to have both is to at least consider scrapping the most disposable games of the year: the conference championships.
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