Four big, unanswered questions about the proposal to expand the College Football Playoff
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I've got a fair amount of housekeeping notes to share, but we'll get to that at the end of the newsletter. For now, I want to talk about the proposal to expand the College Football Playoff to 12 teams.
By now, you've probably read the press release and familiarized yourself with the core concepts of the proposal. In case you missed it last week, the proposal, which is only a proposal at the moment, called for the playoff to expand to 12 teams, with the top six conferences earning an automatic bid, and with the top four conference champions earning a bye. First round games on campus, with later rounds played at neutral bowl sites.
Plenty still needs to be hashed out, but after reading as much as I could and asking around a bit, I keep coming back to four big questions that will need to be answered.
What will the players get out of this?
I like the idea of expanding the Playoff. I think expanding postseason access will improve interest in college football nationally, and provide a more meaningful regular season to more college football players. It will also make a lot of money.
But even with NIL reform, college athletes will, at best, only realize a tiny fraction of that money. They'll also be asked to play even more college football games, with elite programs essentially playing an entire NFL-length campaign.
You might be able to argue that a longer season, with increased national exposure, could make the individual NIL rights of certain college football players more valuable. But even then, an expanded playoff feels like a significant sacrifice to ask from players that are already asked to give quite a bit.
Sure, FCS teams participate in a large playoff. But they also have a shorter regular season, no bowl games, and few conference championship games.
At least two lawmakers, including one who will be heavily involved in NIL legislation, are saying that the increased playoff exploits college athletes, athletes who do not currently have a meaningful way to organize on behalf of their own interests.
If a professional league wanted to expand the length of the regular season, or expand the size of the playoff, they'd need to collectively bargain with the player's union, and the players would likely extract some sort of concession. That can't really happen, at least now, in college sports.
At the very least, I think college football administrators need a much more compelling answer for how to address concerns over athlete safety, well-being, and academic progress. One idea, in my humble opinion, would be to signal to lawmakers that they would support an expansion of athlete health care obligations by member schools, as part of a NIL/college reform bill, and that revenues from the expanded playoff would be used to help pay for it.
If athletic leaders aren't willing to seriously engage with this issue, they run the risk of letting Sen.Blumenthal do it for them.
How will this increased revenue get shared with independents or new G5 programs?
As it stands, the expanded playoff only guarantees bids to highly ranked conference champions. Any independent, including Notre Dame, would need to earn an at-large bid, and they wouldn't be eligible for a first-round bye, a system that Notre Dame appears to be okay with.
On paper, that would make playoff access much more challenging for an independent program. But honestly, outside of Notre Dame, playoff access for independents is more of an academic question. The strongest non Notre Dame independent, BYU, was excellent in 2019, but has mostly struggled to break out of the ranks of "merely good" since leaving the Mountain West. Liberty needs a few more seasons like last one to begin to seriously wonder about playoff access, and the others struggle to even go .500.
No disrespect to my many UConn readers, but "can UConn make the College Football Playoff under this system" should not crack the top twenty-five most important questions right now. The only system where UConn can currently make the College Football Playoff is one where UConn is given an automatic bid thanks to some obscure clause in Randy Edsall's contract.
The more interesting question, to me, is how much money those indie programs can expect to get from the CFP, and if that share changes if any other FCS programs, or heck, FCS leagues, decide to join FBS in the next decade.
This, for my money, is the single biggest factor that will determine if the WAC, ASUN, or any other FCS league, eventually ends up in the FBS. If there's a mechanism for a new G5 league to earn legitimate shares from the CFP, individual schools will push harder to reclassify. If there's a waiting period until the end of this TV contract, or if the revenue split is comparable to FCS, then many will decide the juice isn't worth the squeeze.
I don't think playoff access will be a meaningful factor in any school's independence status (outside of Texas or USC giving independence a shot). But how the money gets split up could potentially push a few teams one way or another.
Could Playoff expansion lead to changes in scholarship limits or counters?
There's already lively debate in college athletic circles over reforming the 85/25 scholarship limits. Right now, the TL;DR is that a football program can offer 85 scholarships for their roster, but only 25 over a specific year, give or take one or two. If a massive number of athletes transfer, withdraw, or otherwise leave the program, the team can't automatically take, say, 40 kids in one class to catch back up. If a roster dips significantly below 85 scholarships, it might take years to get back. This is a major reason why Kansas has been terrible.
In a world where athletes can transfer once without penalty, and a world where a good team could potentially play 15, 16 or even 17 games in a regular season, I would expect coaches and ADs to push even harder to adjust those numbers. I'd be a little surprised if anybody really pushed to significantly increase the 85-man limit (it would make Title IX compliance much harder and likely make competitive balance even worse) a true one-for-one transfer replacement system is likely to embolden coaches in "processing" (i.e pushing players out) athletes.
I don't know what the best solution is, or even necessarily what the most likely one is. But I don't think the status quo will hold up if the season could potentially get significantly longer.
Could the composition of the Playoff Committee itself change?
Public confidence in the Playoff Selection Committee cratered last season. On one hand, their job was essentially impossible, since COVID forced dozens of teams to play without a quarter of their roster every given week, schedules provided almost no common data points, and the rest of the sporting world was on fire. There was almost no sound way to rank teams.
Buuuut whew they still didn't do a very good job.
There's no reason for any playoff selection committee to be almost completely built from former and sitting D-I athletic directors. These individuals do not have the time or expertise to watch college football for 13 hours every Saturday. They have much more important obligations!
A new TV deal and an expanded playoff is a great chance to reset how the committee actually makes decisions, and do it in a way that restores greater confidence inside and outside the industry.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, after all, has finally embraced advanced stats. The Playoff could do the same...bring in Bill Connelly. Bring in Brian Fremeau. Bring in a statistics professor. Bring in a D-III athletic director or coach. Rotate those voices, and give folks a reason to trust that group.
You can create a surprisingly egalitarian system to increase Playoff access, but if you're going to have at-large bids, there's going to be a human element. If steps aren't taken to improve trust in that decision-making process, college football isn't going to benefit the way these administrators want them to.
Playoff messaging will probably improve if the committee takes the simple step of "not letting Gary Barta talk on TV anymore." But that should only be step one.
I'm cautiously optimistic about an expanded Playoff. But it should be more than just good for television executives and my alma mater. It should be good for players, good for consumers, good for all of D-I, and for college football history.
I think it can get there. But I'll need to see a lot more information.
As a heads up, I am going to Salt Lake on a badly needed family vacation from June 17 to June 23. Extra Points should still publish four days a week this week, no problem, and Going For Two should still publish at the usual time. Bryan and I already recorded it and everything.
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