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The Silliness of Arguing Against a College Football Playoff Expansion

Because really, if Vandy ever manages to win the SEC, the College Football Playoff would probably figure out a way to leave us out.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

College football, at least at the FBS level, has somehow consistently managed to have a terrible system for picking a national champion.  For a long time, the sport simply determined an unofficial national champion based on the final polls.  This led to, on three occasions between 1990 and 1997, a split national championship in which different groups declared two different teams to be the national champion.

This led to the BCS, a system by which the consensus two best teams in the country were guaranteed to play each other for the national title.  Or at least that was the idea.  It didn't stop the AP from declaring USC the national champion in 2003, after the Trojans were shut out of the BCS championship game.  It also led to interminable arguments about who the second-best team in the country was.  And utterly ludicrous stuff like a two-loss LSU team playing for a national title in 2007 (in fairness, only two power conference teams finished with one loss that year, and one of them was Kansas) or 2011, when the BCS determined that undefeated LSU should have to play an Alabama team they already beat to declare them the national champions.  Which they didn't, but that's besides the point.  There really weren't a lot of good arguments for the BCS over the old system of just letting the poll voters sort it out after the bowls picked the teams.  I mean, yeah, allegedly the BCS guaranteed that the two best teams would face each other, but most of the time it was entirely debatable just who the two best teams were.

So now, we have a four-team College Football Playoff, in its second year of existence, and already some people are talking about expanding it in the future -- and, of course, the usual suspects are arguing against any further expansion.  Why?  Beats me, but the comments to this article pretty much sum up the usual arguments against expanding the playoff to eight or even sixteen teams.  Hint: they're pretty much the same dumb arguments deployed against having a playoff in the first place.

Taking them one at a time...

Expanding the playoff diminishes the meaning of the regular season.

And this is bad because, apparently, every sporting event must have some sort of greater meaning. Sports aren't inherently fun to watch, unless the game is really high-stakes.  College football's regular season has frequently been termed "an 11-game (or 12-game, now) playoff" because traditionally there has been almost no margin for error.  Lose one game, and your chances of winning a championship are practically on life support.  Lose two games, and you're pretty much done.  Expanding the playoff means that some teams are going to be able to lose a couple of games and still have a chance to win a national championship, which makes the regular season less interesting to people because now it doesn't matter as much.

College basketball is frequently brought up as an example of a sport in which a low-stakes regular season draws low ratings while the lose-and-you're-out postseason draws high ratings.  But this is a silly argument.  March Madness draws high ratings in large part because of people who watch because they fill out their office pool based on which team has a tougher-sounding mascot.  These people are not some untapped market of diehard college hoops fans who would tune into the regular season if only it had more meaning, but rather the equivalent of people who watch the Super Bowl for the commercials.  It's actually rather incredible that college basketball manages to draw so many people in to watch the postseason of a sport in which so few care about the regular season.

But this argument falls apart completely when you notice the TV ratings and attendance for NFL preseason games.  By the "logic" of the arguments against playoff expansion, nobody would watch NFL preseason games because they are meaningless; they quite literally do not count. No, to most people who watch college football, the meaningfulness of the game they're watching is probably tangential to their decision.  But sure, maybe if the playoff is expanded to eight teams, fans of an 11-0 Alabama team will not care about the Auburn game because their playoff spot is assured and therefore the game is not meaningful.  Sure, I believe that.

The players will miss more class time.

I'm sure you are really concerned about this, school that recruits football players who may or may not be functionally illiterate.

In seriousness, though, the NCAA apparently only sees this concern when it comes to FBS, as all other divisions have playoff formats that include more than four teams.

If we expand the playoffs, undeserving teams might make it!

As opposed to now?  Last year, Ohio State got into the playoff after losing to Virginia Tech by two touchdowns before rolling through an almost ludicrously weak Big Ten schedule (note: I refuse to call it "B1G") and this somehow made them more deserving of a playoff spot than a TCU team that got through a schedule that included five teams that were in the top 25 at game time with only one loss.

And then Ohio State won the title.  Isn't that kind of the point of a playoff?  But what if TCU had gotten in?

While the people against playoff expansion decry the college basketball model of a massive postseason tournament that "diminishes" the regular season, what they fail to consider is that under the March Madness model, we can go to sleep at night knowing that everything will be settled on the court.  There are no arguments to be had about whether the team judged by the Selection Committee to be the 69th-best team in the country could have won a title if only they had gotten the chance.  But the TCU/Ohio State/Baylor debate last year shows that four teams is not enough.  In fact, you only have to go back to 1983 to find a team ranked #5 going into bowl season that was ranked #1 afterward.  In some ways, the CFP is not even better than that model for determining a champion.

And it is probably not a coincidence that in the first year of the CFP, the most controversial selection for the playoff involved a traditional powerhouse being selected ahead of two new-money entrants to the college football elite.  The goal all along has been to prevent the upstarts, from the 1983 Miami team to the 2014 TCU team, from a 12-0 Boise State to a hypothetical 12-1 SEC champion Vanderbilt, from winning a title.  The BCS did this both by using human polls as a weight and preventing the computer formulas from relying on victory margin (thus preventing them from actually working); the CFP does this by assigning the work of selecting the playoff teams to a committee that includes Condoleezza Rice.  The goal is to create a process that appears inclusionary on the surface, but at its core is an exclusionary system that keeps out the riffraff regardless of how good they are at football.

Which is why the College Football Playoff needs to expand to eight, or maybe even sixteen teams.  Otherwise, you're continuing to support a system that virtually ensures that only ten or so teams will ever have an opportunity to win a national championship.

Or is that why some people want that system?