Feinstein: Not "Holding My Breath" On Playoff Fix

Fixing the College Football Playoff isn't difficult, John Feinstein says, but that doesn't mean it will happen

John Feinstein
January 02, 2019 - 9:33 am

USA Today Images


Sitting here on the morning after New Year’s Day, it is impossible not to think back to the not-so-distant past when January 1 was the climactic day of the college football season. Many years ago—as in more than 50—the day began with the Cotton, Sugar and Orange Bowls kicking off at almost the same time, with the Rose Bowl wrapping up the day—and the season.
That changed in 1965 when the Orange Bowl became a night game. That meant the games began about 1 o’clock Eastern and ended around 11. The only conflict was between the Sugar and Cotton Bowls. In 1981, I covered the last afternoon Sugar Bowl—Georgia and Herschel Walker beating Notre Dame to win the national championship.
In the Georgia locker room, I happened to walk behind the chalkboard Coach Vince Dooley had used before the game. It was turned around so the visitors in the room couldn’t see it, but it wasn’t pushed against a wall. On the board I saw the words, “Today is Forever.”
That had been Dooley’s message to his team.
That was both the lead and the tag to my story.
A year later, the Sugar Bowl became a night game. By then, the Fiesta Bowl had pushed its way onto the New Year’s Day schedule and, because it didn’t have any conference tie-ins, the bowl was able to schedule a couple of national title matchups: Penn State-Miami; Notre Dame-West Virginia. For those of you scoring at home that year (1988 season) was the last time Notre Dame won a national championship.
Most years, even without a playoff, the national champion was clear-cut once the bowls were played. Not always though. In 1997, both Michigan and Nebraska finished unbeaten. Michigan had been ranked No. 1 in both polls all season, but the coaches voted for Nebraska in their final poll—clearly as a going away present for retiring Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne.
A year later, the Bowl Championship Series was born, meaning the top two teams in the so-called, “BCS Rankings,” would meet for the national title. The NCAA presidents clung to the BCS for 16 seasons even though the selection system was clearly flawed. Finally, in 2014, the College Football Playoff was created amidst much fanfare; much throwing of money (by ESPN) at the schools and the creation of the so-called CFP Selection Committee.
Also known—at least to me—as The Genius 13. Much like the NCAA basketball committee, the Genius 13 acts as if selecting four schools for the playoff and 12 in all to play in the "New Year’s Six" bowl games is slightly more difficult than splitting the atom or putting man on the moon.
Because the CFP is such a cash cow, one designated member of the Genius 13 "updates" the rankings every Tuesday beginning in late October, during one of the most meaningless weekly hours of television ever created.
Fact: My wife, who watches one football game a year (Army-Navy) could do at least as good a job as the G-13 in putting the field together. This year, she would have looked at the won-lost records of the 131 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (another of the NCAA’s silly euphemisms) and said: “Well, four of them are undefeated, so they should get the four playoff spots.”
Of course, we all know that’s not how the G-13 work. There was no way UCF—after going undefeated for a second straight season—was getting into the playoff. There was also no way that an unbeaten Notre Dame team, even after playing what turned out to be a stunningly weak schedule, was NOT getting in.
I know the Power-Five apologists—many of them colleagues of mine in the media—will point at LSU’s 40-32 victory over UCF on Tuesday as some sort of proof that the Knights weren’t worthy of a playoff slot. In fact, the AP story on the game in my Washington Post this morning pointed out that LSU won without several defensive starters.
It never mentioned that UCF’s star quarterback McKenzie Milton didn’t play. Seriously? Would UCF have been LESS competitive than Notre Dame against Clemson? Doubt it.
College football gets away with being an inherently unfair cartel because those who love it will insist that it’s the best sport going regardless of how unfair it is; regardless of whether players are being exploited by schools making millions while they sacrifice their bodies and their minds to the sport.
The most blatant examples of players being exploited don’t actually come at the highest level: they come at the lower FBS and FCS levels when teams that MIGHT have one or two future pros on them are sent to get hammered in guarantee games in order to fund the budget of an athletic department.
That, however, is a different issue for a different day.
As much as I always enjoyed the New Year’s Day climax to the season, I was one of those screaming for years that major college football needed a tournament—like every other sport at every level—to choose a champion each year.
The presidents, who all but invented the word hypocrite kept insisting they didn’t want their "student-athletes" playing too many games. When Alabama and Clemson play Monday, each will be playing its 15th game of the season—that’s one less than an NFL regular season. Everyone now plays 12 games and almost everyone plays 13—two-thirds of FBS teams play in bowl games.
It was my late friend Tom Mickle who first came up with the idea of "The Bowl Alliance" back in the early 1990s, which led to the BCS and at least attempting to pair No. 1 vs No. 2 on an annual basis. Mickle drew up his plan on the back of a napkin at a restaurant in Greensboro one night after his boss, ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan, had thrown a tantrum about having an unbeaten Georgia Tech team play a 6-6 Nebraska team in The Citrus Bowl. The Yellow Jackets finished 11-0-1 and shared the national title with an 11-1-1 Colorado team.
Corrigan wanted the ACC champion to be guaranteed a spot in a major bowl. Mickle’s plan did that (as did Corrigan recruiting Florida State to join the league) and created the possibility of 1 versus 2.
But it turned out there was almost always a dispute over who should be No. 2 and who should be No. 3. Or even No. 4. That—and lots of money—led to the CFP. Now, there’s an annual argument over No. 4 and No. 5 or even No. 6. UCF—for the record—has never been in the conversation and never will be. The G-13 chairman will always sit there, shake his head sadly and bleat about ANY Group of Five school’s strength of schedule.
Of course the Power-Five schools aren’t exactly lining up to play the top Group of Five schools are they? Florida, for example, has flat out refused to schedule UCF. And no one is going to play them home-and-home, that’s for sure.
Now, though, the presidents of the power schools that don’t make the cut at No. 4, are starting to whine about being shunted to "meaningless" New Year’s Six bowls. While ESPN "broke down" the CFP semifinals almost 24 hours a day prior to last Saturday, how much talk was there about the Ohio State-Washington Rose Bowl game or, for that matter, the Georgia-Texas Sugar Bowl? Other than an ongoing tribute to the "retiring"—until another job he likes comes along—Urban Meyer, where was the drama in Pasadena?
So now the possibility of an eight-team playoff looms. It would be a good idea but only if done right—and the chances of the G-13 or anyone in college athletics getting something right are somewhere between slim and none, and slim is currently hiding under a rock somewhere.
Here’s what SHOULD happen: Five automatic qualifiers from the Power-Five conferences (they will insist on it, so give it to them); three at-large teams AT LEAST one from the Group of Five. Quarterfinal games would be played the first weekend in December, replacing the money-grab often meaningless conference title games with money-grab meaningful tournament games.
The quarters are played at home fields and if a Group of Five team goes undefeated, it is guaranteed a home game—not an eighth seed on the road, which the powers would no doubt want. ANY unbeaten team is guaranteed a spot in the tournament. There will never be nine—this year’s four was almost uniquely high. If teams tie for a conference title, various tiebreakers are used. If none break the tie, then and only then, do the G-13 choose one or the other or seed one higher than another.
The two semifinals are played on NEW YEAR’S DAY. In years that the Rose Bowl is not a semifinal, the semis kick off before and after the Rose Bowl and it remains in its traditional 5 p.m. Eastern time slot.
The championship game is played a week later—regardless of the day of the week.
Will there be a ninth team screaming it should have gotten in? Of course, just as there’s always a 37th at-large team yelling it should be in the NCAA Tournament every March. No system is absolutely perfect in anything: sports, politics, journalism.
The money would keep rolling in and the system would be a lot less unfair. New Year’s Day would be almost as big a deal as it was all those years ago. And the second-tier bowls that have pushed into New Year’s Day would go back where they belong and be played pre-New Year’s.
It isn’t really all that hard to do. I won’t, however, be sitting here holding my breath waiting for it to happen.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League,” which was called, “Another must read by a master of long-form sports journalism,” by Booklist. His latest work of fiction is, “The Prodigy,” which follows a 17-year-old in his quest to win the Masters and avoid the pitfalls of early stardom thrust upon him because of his talent. His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com