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College Football Playoff expansion is inevitable, and the only question is how much

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As it turns out, a four-team Playoff is the worst of both worlds.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Champions-Louisiana State Celebration Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The people who fought tooth and nail against college football scrapping the old Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and moving to a four-team Playoff, as it turns out, may have known what they were doing.

Not because the now-six-year-old College Football Playoff hasn’t been a massive cash cow for the sport; it has. But what they predicted has inevitably come to pass: a four-team playoff eventually would lead to a larger playoff. As Pete Thamel reports, expansion to 12 or 16 teams is currently on the table.

The potential need for another cash infusion in the wake of COVID-19 is the trigger, but the problems with the four-team Playoff were obvious from the jump, when the 2014 Playoff Committee found a way to sneak one-loss Ohio State in ahead of one-loss Baylor and TCU, ostensibly because Ohio State flexed its muscles in a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game; but anybody who is aware of the helmet bias long present in college football immediately jumped to more nefarious explanations. It is no coincidence that the initial push to guarantee a #1-versus-#2 bowl matchup started to gain steam after BYU won the 1984 national title after beating 6-5, unranked Michigan by a touchdown in the Holiday Bowl.

At times, it’s almost felt like the entire goal all along was to make sure that didn’t happen again. A side effect of guaranteeing a top-two matchup was that a team like BYU couldn’t back into a championship just by beating the teams on its schedule and being the last remaining undefeated team.

The push to a playoff, at least to its proponents who aren’t simply interested in a cash grab, has always been about greater inclusion and access, and yet a funny thing happened on the way to a four-team playoff: It devalued the portion of the sport that wasn’t competing for a playoff spot while not really increasing inclusion and access. Six years in, Alabama and Clemson have each made the playoff five times, Oklahoma has made it four times, Ohio State has made it three. 17 of the 24 possible playoff appearances have gone to just four schools. And the other seven spots haven’t exactly gone to strivers; they’ve gone to Florida State, Oregon, Michigan State, Washington, Georgia, Notre Dame, and LSU. Non-Power 5 schools have combined for zero appearances in the Playoff. Hell, college football programs that haven’t won a national title since 1980 have combined for two (Oregon and Michigan State.)

Meanwhile, the Playoff itself has managed to devalue the rest of the sport to a degree that wasn’t anticipated by even the loudest opponents of a playoff. The biggest opposition to the playoff had always come from people who wanted to make sure that the Iron Bowl would still matter; and yet the funny thing is that the regular season has never mattered more for the teams competing for a playoff spot. You may not have to go undefeated, but through six years of the playoff, not a single team with more than one loss has made the playoff. The flipside, though, is that there’s considerably less interest in college football outside of the playoff contenders — and recruiting has taken a turn for the worse, as the number of teams that can plausibly compete for a national title has managed to narrow in spite of the alleged inclusion granted by the playoff.

In other words, the four-team playoff has turned out to be the worst of both worlds for anyone interested in the long-term health of college football. The hoarding of talent by the top schools — probably directly influenced by the small number of teams seen as capable of winning a national title — has led to more and more blowouts, and fewer and fewer interesting games. The Playoff itself can’t even guarantee that the games will be interesting; every year, it seems, somebody gets run off the field.

So the real question now is not if the Playoff will expand, but when and by how much. I would recommend, though, that the powers that be ensure access to a 16-team playoff by giving automatic bids to every conference champion: because your arguments against automatic bids become less and less persuasive with more expansion.