It always feels weird, as a Vanderbilt sports blogger, writing about anything that concerns the College Football Playoff, because Vanderbilt is likely never going to make it.
Well, the odds of that did go up with today’s announcement that the Playoff will be expanding to 12 teams in 2024, something that large numbers of people on Twitter (most of them fans of one of Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, or Clemson) have been arguing against, but their arguments have never been valid unless you just believe that it’s totally fine that roughly 5-10 teams are ever in play for the sport’s pinnacle. If that’s you, good job, congratulations on picking a team (or, more likely, having it foisted upon you from birth) that is one of the best in the sport.
The argument has always been, effectively, that college football already has a 12-game playoff called the “regular season,” but that already wasn’t true if by “playoff” you mean “a single-elimination tournament where you lose and you’re out.” In the eight-year history of the College Football Playoff, 20 of 32 Playoff participants entered with a regular season loss, and four entered without even winning their conference (no, I’m not counting Notre Dame, you dolts.) At least one team will make the 2022 edition of the Playoff with a loss, since only three undefeated teams remain entering conference championship weekend. In the meantime, three teams outside of the pandemic-altered 2020 season have finished the regular season without a loss and not made the Playoff. Cincinnati finally broke through the G5 glass ceiling in 2021, but Western Michigan in 2016 and UCF in both 2017 and 2018 went undefeated and the closest any of those came to making it in was the 2018 UCF team, which finished eighth.
In other words, the four-team Playoff gave you the worst of both worlds: compared to the BCS, it was large enough to effectively give teams like Alabama or Ohio State a mulligan for losing a game — while still being small enough to exclude most teams from even dreaming of competing for a Playoff berth. It’s also a system that utilizes an arbitrary selection committee that routinely errs in favor of brand names. Remember when the first Playoff ranking was released this season and they had an Alabama team that let Tennessee hang 52 on them ahead of an undefeated TCU? That’s since been fixed, but you just know if they felt they could screw over TCU in favor of Alabama, they’d do it.
In short, the current iteration of the Playoff has a massive legitimacy problem. The idea since the late 1980s, when the push began to crown One True National Champion, was to ensure that the best teams would be guaranteed to play one another in the postseason, but the unstated part of the idea becomes clear if you look at what happened in college football during the 1980s.
From 1980 to 1984, five teams that had never won a national championship before claimed their first. In 1980, Georgia rode Herschel Walker to a national title, which, fine, Georgia was always recognized as one of the big boys in the sport. Clemson claimed its first a year later — okay, the Tigers weren’t exactly a powerhouse, and they entered that season unranked, but they were a charter member of the ACC. Fine. 1982: Penn State, an independent that entered the season having finished in the top 20 in 14 of the preceding 15 seasons, including seven in the top five — sure, okay. 1983: Miami? The team that had finished a season ranked on exactly seven occasions ever prior to 1983? The team that entered the season unranked, promptly lost 28-3 at Florida, and entered its bowl game ranked fifth before jumping to #1 after beating a supposedly unstoppable Nebraska? That Miami?
And then came the magnum opus: BYU. The Cougars opened the 1984 season unranked, promptly jumped into the Top 25 after beating #3 Pitt (which would finish the season 3-7-1), then played 11 straight unranked teams, won all of them, and rose to #1 because nobody else was undefeated. Then they drew unranked 6-5 Michigan in the Holiday Bowl, won by a touchdown, and won a national championship. And they had never even been ranked (never mind finishing the season that way) prior to the 1974 season.
It’s always felt like the real drive behind all of this was simply to make sure that never happened again.
Sure, having a couple of split national titles in 1990 and 1991 sped up the process. Part of the problem with the reforms to the postseason is that from the jump, they’ve always tried to wire everything on top of the existing bowl system, which was never intended to be used to determine a national champion. In fact, prior to about the 1960s or so, the AP released its final poll prior to the bowls, at the end of the regular season. The idea that what essentially amounted to postseason exhibition games were to be used to determine a national champion was always insane, though college football managed to make it work for a while.
But with the 12-team playoff, college football will at long last have a real postseason. And yes, there will be some blowouts. There will always be some blowouts. 1-seeds in the NCAA Tournament have won all but one game against 16-seeds and most of those haven’t been close, but including the 16-seeds mean that the tournament has legitimacy, because no one can really claim that they were unfairly left out. Yes, the last few teams out of the tournament might have a complaint about not making the tournament, but you can’t argue with a straight face that any of those were the best team in the country; and ensuring that every team in the sport has a foolproof way to make the tournament means that everybody is included.
Everybody isn’t included in the current system, and that’s a big problem. College football has always had a “don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain” problem. The way that recruiting works has always ensured that the talent flowed to the top, and when it didn’t, you could almost always be assured that wherever it was flowing could soon expect a visit from NCAA investigators. The new “Name, Image, and Likeness” system was quickly hijacked by a handful of schools who got out ahead of the game, but as more teams have figured out how it works, you can expect that talent will flow to the schools with the largest fan bases committed enough to their team’s success to literally invest dollars in player procurement, which also happen to be the teams that have always owned the sport. Still, the four-team playoff wound up creating a feedback loop where only a few teams were viewed as having a legitimate shot at winning a national title — and those same programs ended up dominating recruiting for that reason.
College football certainly isn’t unique in being dominated by big-money teams that can outspend everyone else, but college football is unique in also erecting artificial barriers to the non-moneyed teams. Major League Baseball and its television partners would dearly love it if the Yankees and Dodgers played in the World Series every year, but it’s not like MLB just decides that the 85-win Yankees make the playoffs over the 95-win Rays because of the “eye test.” In fact, if anything, most sports run in the other direction, with the people at the top recognizing that the sport is more interesting if small-market teams can compete.
College football has always taken the opposite approach, with Florida State and Miami threatening to leave the ACC if they don’t alter their revenue-sharing to ensure they get more of the league’s TV money and Texas and Oklahoma actually leaving the Big 12 in the dust because they thought they could get more money elsewhere. All of that has created a product that’s completely stale to everyone but the dipshits who won’t tune in to a playoff game if the teams involved are Wake Forest and TCU. These are the “casual fans,” and they deserve the scorn of everyone as they click to buy the UFC pay-per-view that the ESPN app throws in your face while you’re trying to find the Vanderbilt-Elon game on SEC Network+.
So, the playoff expansion will make the sport more interesting overall even if it angers the casuals who suddenly realize that both Ohio State and Michigan will both make the playoff, which was apparently the only reason they cared. The sport does not need them to care. It does need the fans of the other 80 percent of FBS to care.