Stryker: Shorten NCAA regular season to 11 games, expand playoff to 8 teams
Is four enough? Would eight be enough? Would even 16 be enough?
More than any other, major college football is a sport of endless disputes. For its millions of fans, this is an issue that will never disappear. Not if the College Football Playoff field remains at four until its current contract expires at the end of the 2025 season. Not even if the CFP expands to 16 tomorrow. Even then, fans of the 17th-rated team would find a reason to be furious.
The FCS (formerly Division I-AA) has used a playoff ever since it split from the big boys in 1978. It started at four teams, within a decade had grown to 16, and now includes 24 teams, several who finished the regular season 6-4 or 7-4. The FCS playoff works for the smaller schools, which have no history of bowl games to affect their thinking. However, it’s too large for the FBS, and frankly, it rewards mediocrity.
The movement to expand the FBS playoffs is growing, but there’s a lot of inertia to overcome, mainly from the SEC (which has benefited most from the current playoff format) and the man who runs the College Football Playoffs.
“There is no talk about expansion among the university presidents and the commissioners,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said last July. “They are quite happy with the four-team playoff.”
Things have changed a bit since then. For one thing, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney seems more open to the idea than he did a year ago. For another, UCF just ran the table again. Only the SEC seems dead-set against expansion, but it carries enough clout to derail the growing movement.
It’s a complex issue, involving academics, money, competitive opportunity and player health/safety. Let’s start with academics.
Hancock argued that capping the playoff at four teams “keeps college football within the framework of higher education.”
Really? If so, that means higher education is not a priority at FCS schools like North Dakota State, Maine, James Madison or Cornell. I’m not buying that. The academics argument is the weakest for keeping the CFP at four teams. Somehow, FBS football players manage to study for finals while taking part in a 24-team playoff. Academics is a moot point in this argument.
There’s no denying that money drives most everything, including college football. It’s true that an expanded playoff would create more meaningful games. it’s easy enough to see that more meaningful games mean more money for colleges — although exactly how that extra revenue would be distributed is undecided. But you have to look at money from the little guy’s point of view, also. Even the most rabid fan cannot afford travel to three remote sites in a month to support his team.
UCF and its representation of the so-called “Group of Five” conferences brings a compelling argument to this issue. Scott Frost has been steady in his support of an eight-team playoff ever since his undefeated 2017 Knights missed a shot at the playoffs. Power Five schools argue that UCF “hasn’t played anybody” while steadfastly refusing to schedule the Knights because they’re afraid of losing to them. Something about that situation smells rotten. Competitive opportunity argues for an expanded playoff, as does the fact that the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions have been shut out of the last two tournaments.
To me, the biggest issue is the health and well-being of the players. On one level, the pro-expansion side has a clear-cut, compelling argument. If the FCS schools can handle a 24-team playoff, why can’t the FBS handle at least an 8-team playoff? For folks who oppose an expanded playoff, t’s hard to answer that argument, but here’s a start — maybe because the FBS already has a 12-game regular season compared to 11 for FCS schools. Maybe because the physical toll of an average FBS game is greater than the physical toll of an average FCS game. Think about the larger mass and faster speed of the average FBS player. It’s a matter of physics. I think major college players bear a greater risk of serious injury than do their small-school counterparts.
I don’t want to see players pushed beyond the limits of health and safety. Urban Meyer raised questions about playing even 15 games after Ohio State beat Oregon to win the 2014 season CFP. That’s why I oppose expanding the NFL season beyond 16 regular-season games, no matter how much more money everyone makes. I would ban Thursday night NFL games — which means two games within five days — for the same reason. I figure it would harm both owners and players financially, but at some point, all the money in the world can’t restore your health.
I view an expanded College Football Playoff with similar skepticism. I see the momentum building for young men to play more football games. I also see a lot of people implicating football for allegedly causing an uptick in long-term brain injuries. Let’s play it smart and limit the number of college football games any team can play at any level, especially the highest level where the biggest, strongest athletes line up and hit each other over and over again. Football is the greatest team sport in the world. Let’s keep it that way by limiting the accumulative effects of high-impact collisions.
Fans who say, “The NCAA doesn’t care about the student-athlete; all they care about is the money,” should come down strong on this side of the argument.
I would reluctantly favor an expansion to an eight-team College Football Playoff, but only if all teams are confined to an 11-game regular season schedule (as they were before 2001), and all conferences must play eight league games. All participating conferences must have a postseason championship game. This levels the playing field as much as reasonably can be done.
The first round of the playoffs should be at the campus sites of the four highest-seeded teams, and it should be held three weeks after the conference title games (this year, it would have been Dec. 22). That would at least reduce the amount of travel for a large swath of fans, and it could occasionally force Southern teams to travel north in December, which would be a nice turn of events. Semifinals and finals would be played just as they are currently.
The champions of each Power-Five conference (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) would automatically qualify, unless they had more than three losses. The highest-rated team among all Group of Five conferences would automatically qualify if it went undefeated. The remainder would be the highest-ranked at-large teams in the season-ending CFP poll. First-round losers would miss out on a bowl, but I think the opportunity to play in the CFP more than makes up for that.
This format would give the best combination of revenue generation, realistic options for fan travel and competitive opportunity while keeping the health and welfare of the players in mind.
It allows for two teams out of an exceptionally strong division to qualify. In 2001, this would have allowed both Colorado and Nebraska from the Big 12 North to make an eight-team playoff. In 2011, it would have done the same for Alabama and LSU from the SEC West. It allows for a worthy longshot like UCF to play its way into the tournament.
No format is perfect, but this is a good one, although no matter what happens to the playoff, college football will be filled with controversy more years than not. And that’s a good thing.
A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org