Feinstein: College Football Needs Eight-Team Playoff

John Feinstein outlined his ideal College Football Playoff format – and there's a lot to like

John Feinstein
December 04, 2018 - 11:10 am

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We are now in year five of the cleverly-named College Football Playoff, and the time has come for change.
It’s worth remembering that the college presidents – ultimately the decision-makers in these things – were dragged kicking and screaming into a four-team playoff for two reasons: 1) Some of the Power-Five teams were getting shut out of the BCS title game when they thought they deserved to be there, and 2) MONEY. Money would also be reasons 3, 4, 5 and one million. Or billion.
Once it became apparent that ESPN was willing to pay BILLIONS, the presidents suddenly had an open mind about asking their "student-athletes" to play an extra game en route to the title game. The network of relentless self-promotion agreed to pay "about" $5.64 billion for 12 years or $470 million a year. That breaks down to about just under $157 million for every GAME.
The CFP decided to follow the very successful NCAA basketball model by creating a committee to decide the four teams that would play for the title and the other eight teams that would play in the newly named so-called, "New Year’s Six Bowls." That in spite of the fact that the NCAA basketball tournament is successful IN SPITE of the committee.
Just to prove that it could be fair to the little guy – or, more likely, to avoid an anti-trust suit – the CFP decided to award one of the 12 bids (four playoff teams, eight New Year’s Six bowl teams) to the so-called Group-of-Five conferences. Of course the notion that anyone from the Group of Five might be allowed to actually compete for the national title was completely laughable.
And still is.
Which is why the system should be changed, if only so we don’t have to listen to a drone like CFP chairman Rob Mullens shaking his head sadly and talking about Central Florida’s strength of schedule. Hey, Rob, how’d the Knights do last year against Auburn—a team that beat BOTH Alabama and Georgia, the two teams who played in YOUR championship game? How’d they do this year against Pittsburgh (45-14 win) – a team that Notre Dame was life-and-death (19-14) to beat at home.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi last week: “I’d rather play Notre Dame than Central Florida.” This from a coach who has faced both teams, not from a bunch of people sitting around a hotel conference room reading computer printouts.
The top level of college football is the only sport on the planet where a team can go undefeated (two years in a row) and not have the chance to play for a championship.
So let’s at least remove some of the hypocrisy from all this. One way, of course, is for the Genius 13 – as I like to call the committee members since they’re almost as in love with themselves as the 10 drones on the NCAA basketball committee – to just say, "If you aren’t from a Power-Five conference, you can NOT compete for the national title."
At least that would be honest. But there’d be that legal thing again. Unless the NCAA wants to create yet another football division—there are already four—that won’t work.
Here’s what would work: an eight-team playoff. Forget the fact that the ESPN contract runs until 2025. If you think they’re paying a lot of money for a four-team tournament, how much do you think they’ll pay for eight teams – and seven games rather than three?
You do NOT have to add another game for the "student-athletes" (ha!) to play. You just do away with the stupid conference championship games. Did we really need to see four-loss Northwestern and five-loss Pitt play last week? For that matter, did we need to see Washington beat Utah, 10-3, in that Pac-12 barnburner? (Yes, they still play football in the Pac-12, though many of us aren’t sure why).
Let the Group-of-Five schools continue to have championship games if they feel they need them – the only reason would be added revenue – but use the first weekend in December for quarterfinal games.
Play them at home sites so seeding matters. There would be no automatic bids, although if the Power-Five presidents want protection, you could give an automatic bid to each Power-Five conference champion. If there’s a tie for first, THEN let the committee pick one team if there’s no tiebreaker (like head-to-head) that works.
GUARANTEE the Group-of-Five at least one bid and insist that it NOT be the eighth seed. If a Group-of-Five team goes unbeaten and there aren’t four or more unbeaten in the Power Five, the Group-of-Five unbeaten team gets a home game in the quarterfinals. You pick two other at-large teams.
So, this is how the tournament would have lined up this year: Washington (8) at Alabama (1); Ohio State (7) at Clemson (2); Georgia (6) at Notre Dame (3) and Oklahoma (5) at UCF (4). Pretty good weekend, no? Then the winners play in the two bowls designated for semis that year and the championship game after that.
No extra games. More revenue. No four- and five-loss teams playing the first weekend in December. And a fair chance for an exceptional Group-of-Five team. This should NOT mean a second group of five team CAN’T make the playoff. Let’s say Fresno State hadn’t stumbled early against Minnesota and its only loss was on the road to Boise State: give them the eighth-seed and leave out Washington. That’s why I’d prefer no automatic bids.
The second-tier bowls—or as I call them the 6-6 bowls (there are 10 6-6 teams in bowls this year, but, thankfully no 5-7 teams)—remain the same, games that exist because ESPN needs content during the holidays and guys like me get fired up to see Army, Navy and Air Force play in bowl games. Sadly, this year, only Army gets to go.
I have no issue with the existence of these bowls although some of the corporate names that get slapped on them are thigh-slappingly funny. My two current favorites are the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Bowl and the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. We all miss and mourn the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl.
It’s actually funny when the ACC brags about getting 11 bowl bids when one of those 11 is Duke, which finished its season by somehow losing 59-7 to Wake Forest—one of the 6-6 bowl teams. There’s also Virginia Tech, which conned Marshall (with money no doubt) to show up last Saturday to get routed so the Hokies could get to 6-6 and keep their "bowl streak" alive at 26.
With Florida State and Miami having fallen from grace, the only team in the ACC that matters on the national stage right now is Clemson. But the league got 10 teams into 6-6 bowls, so praise John Swofford and pass the hat—the 47-team ACC basketball tournament will be starting in about 15 minutes.
But seriously folks…
It is long past time to at least attempt to be fair and give the non-power schools a shot at playing for a championship. The magic of the NCAA basketball tournament—which, as I said, even the committee can’t screw up—isn’t the Final Four. It’s the first weekend when the little guys get their shot at glory: UMBC beating Virginia; Hampton beating Iowa State; Richmond beat Syracuse one year and Indiana and Georgia Tech another year. (Dick Tarrant could really coach).
The highlight of last year’s tournament—unless you are a Villanova fan—was Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean making their miraculous, inspired run to the Final Four. Think George Mason, Butler (twice), VCU and Wichita State. Those were the teams that made the event magical – not Villanova or North Carolina or Villanova or Duke or Connecticut or Kentucky – to name the last six national champions that haven’t been vacated.
Would UCF win the title? Probably not. But could it win a game? Sure it could. Go back and check the history of non-Power Five schools when they’ve gotten a crack at the big boys in bowl games. Anyone remember Boise State-Oklahoma? Utah-Alabama? The list goes on.
Let’s make it an eight-team tournament. And let’s turn the drones off while we’re at it.
John Feinstein’s latest book is ‘Quarterback,—Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League,’ described by ‘Booklist,’ as, “Another must-read from a master of long-form sports journalism.” His new novel is, “The Prodigy,”—set at the Masters, the story of a 17-year-old facing the pressures of stardom on and off the golf course as he competes with the world’s best players…His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com