Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 13, 2021

More Changes, And More Cash, For The CFP

We cannot say for certain, because the sole known work of Heraclitus of Ephesus has only survived in fragments.  Writing five centuries BCE, the Greek was influential enough on later thinkers, including Plato and the schools of Stoicism and Cynicism, to earn a place – with Michelangelo serving as the model – in Raphael’s famous 16th century “School of Athens” fresco.  So perhaps in the missing sections of “On Nature,” Heraclitus gets more specific on say, how Alabama’s dominance or the frequent snubbing of the Pac-12 has impacted the College Football Playoff.  Maybe he was the original advocate for regular inclusion of schools from the Group of Five conferences, the leagues that consistently put some of the sport’s most exciting product on the field, only to be dismissed by the CFP Selection Committee in favor of squads from the Power 5 leagues that are the committee’s core constituency.  What a shame if the annual debate over the makeup of the playoffs has been missing such an argument for twenty-five centuries.  While there is not quite enough evidence to reach a firm conclusion, it sure seems like Heraclitus had the CFP in mind when he laid out his philosophy.  For his core belief has come down through the ages as that familiar aphorism, “the only constant is change;” so what else could the Greek have been talking about?

Prior to 1992, which for some fans might as well be back in the days when the Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, college football’s national champion was the team that wound up atop the two major polls.  That meant the judgment of sportswriters and coaches, rather than the outcome of a decisive contest, decided the titleholder.  There was no guarantee that either the regular season schedule or the traditional, conference-based matchups of the major bowl games would produce a game between any of the top ranked teams.  And it also left open the possibility of co-champions, should the two polls produce different results. 

It was, in short, a process guaranteed to produce controversy and, depending on the final records of the top two or three squads, some quantity of bruised feelings among fans, particularly the well-heeled alumni whose contributions were increasingly important to athletic directors seeing the growing allure of big-time football programs.  So it was that after the writers’ and coaches’ polls picked different champions twice in succession in 1990 and 1991, the Bowl Coalition was formed.

This initial break from tradition was a union of five conferences plus independent Notre Dame with the organizers of seven bowl games.  The intent was to put together the best possible bowl matchups based on the poll rankings, with #1 versus #2 in one of those games being the most desirable outcome.  While the first year produced that ideal result, #1 Miami versus #2 Alabama in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, the first bowl showdown between the top two teams in the country since 1987, the Coalition was doomed from the start.  Its membership did not include either the Big 10 or Pac-10 (now Pac 12), nor was the Rose Bowl a member, because the granddaddy of bowl games refused to release those two conferences from their contractual obligation to send their champion to Pasadena.

So college football’s long and ongoing era of constant change began.  After three seasons the Bowl Coalition gave way to the Bowl Alliance, largely because of the demise of the Southwest Conference and a sudden turn by Notre Dame to relative mediocrity.  The Alliance, which had many of the same problems of its predecessor, also lasted just three years before yielding to growing calls for an expansion of the eligible participants, calls that included rumblings of antitrust investigations by Congress.  That led to the formation of the relatively long running but always reviled Bowl Championship Series.  Under a lengthy and mutating set of rules, the BCS assigned eight lucky teams to four bowl games – the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange.  Initially one of those four was designated as the national title game on a rotating basis, with the two top-ranked teams facing off.  Then in 2007 a separate championship game was introduced, thus expanding the field to ten teams.

But almost from the very first year of the BCS, there were fans and pundits calling for a more structured playoff format.  Conference commissioners and university presidents resisted fiercely for years, always clinging to the crutch that their “student-athletes” shouldn’t take the time away from their studies that would be required to participate in more than one postseason contest.  The excuse was always treated as the joke that it was since lower levels of the NCAA hierarchy have long had football playoffs.

Seven years ago, the faux concern about adequate time in study halls crumbled before the economic opportunity of a playoff.  But almost as soon as the current CFP began, critics emerged to ask why only four teams were included.  Now, once again, the golden glitter of potential television contracts and more revenue sharing for participating conferences has sounded a siren call.  In this case, the wayfarers unable to resist were the members of a CFP working group, who this week recommended expanding the playoff from four teams to twelve.  The top four teams would receive first round byes, meaning the real impact will be to add one more week to the college football postseason.     

This proposal will work its way up the CFP management tree in the next few weeks, though it likely couldn’t be implemented before 2023 at the earliest.  Schools in the Group of Five conferences are the most obvious winners, since it will take some extraordinarily creative excuses for the CFP Selection Committee to exclude them from a twelve-team field.  Make no mistake, that is a good outcome.  But the real winners will of course be the treasuries of all the participating conferences.  One early estimate put the annual value of the TV contract for an expanded playoff at two to three times the current $600 million.

Given that staggering number, and the history of the last thirty years, just don’t treat whatever decisions are soon announced as anything like a final word.  If twelve is good, why not sixteen?  Would one more week really hurt?  Heraclitus, who in one of the sadly lost papyruses of “On Nature” might have told us that we should absolutely take Alabama and the points against Ohio State, knew better.

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