Would eight be better than four?
That was the obvious question after Sunday’s announcement of the final College Football Playoff rankings, which determined the four teams that will compete for the national championship.
The semi-finals will match No. 1 Alabama, the SEC champion, vs. No. 4 Washington, the Pac-12 champ, in the Peach Bowl, and No. 2 Clemson, the ACC champ, vs. No. 3 Ohio State, the Big Ten East Division runner-up, in the Fiesta Bowl.
On the outside looking in are the Big Ten champion, No. 5 Penn State, and the Big 12 champion, No. 7 Oklahoma, as well as No. 6 Michigan, which beat Penn State by 39 points and lost to Ohio State in double overtime, and No. 8 Wisconsin, the Big Ten West champ.
As a bowl director, I originally was opposed to the playoff, fearing that it would diminish the bowls (which it did) and the regular season (which it didn’t). The playoff has proven to be a huge success, and a boon to the sport.
But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. Four teams is better than the old two-team BCS model, but when you have five “power” conferences, one or more champions will be left out of the playoff every year—two were left out this year—and one or more deserving teams won’t get to compete for the title. If you go to an eight-team tourney, each year’s field would feature the five league champs plus the next three highest rated teams. More elite teams would have a chance to grab the brass ring, and there would be less quibbling over who was left out.
Imagine these quarter-final pairings in an eight-team playoff this season:
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 7 Oklahoma
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Michigan
No. 4 Washington vs. No. 5 Penn State
We’re in the third year of a 12-year playoff agreement between the conferences and ESPN. However, the playoff could easily be expanded to include eight teams before the original contract expires. Why? Because the structure is already in place. At present, two semi-final games rotate through six different bowls (the “New Year’s Six"). These same six bowls could host an eight-team playoff—four for the quarter-finals and two for the semis, with the championship game awarded by bid, as it is now. Is it possible the commissioners had expansion in mind when they set up the original six-bowl format?
Our feeling is that the eight-team playoff will become a reality in 2020, after the first six years of the 12-year deal are concluded.
Blowout epidemic: Washington’s blowout win over Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game is the latest example of a disturbing trend. Consider the scores of the Pac-12 title game since its inception: 2011–Oregon 49, UCLA 31; 2012–Stanford 27, UCLA 24; 2013–Stanford 38, Arizona State 14; 2014–Oregon 51, Arizona 13; 2015– Stanford 41, USC 22; 2016—Washington 41, Colorado 10. Only one close game in the bunch, and an average victory margin of 22 points. CBS’s Jon Solomon did an analysis that showed the Power Five championship games had an average margin of victory of 17.4 points, and that was before last weekend’s games, which averaged 20.75.
Understandably, with the advent of the playoff, championship games have lost much of their luster. Many fans see these games as a stepping-stone to the playoff and stay home rather than having to travel to two—or possibly three—postseason games to follow their team. The blowouts don’t help. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby recently suggested that if the playoff expands, conference championship games might be one of the casualties.
Neutral sites: Friday night’s Washington-Colorado game also marked the end of the Pac-12’s three-year agreement to play the championship game at neutral-site Levi’s Stadium. Our feeling is that these games should be played on campus, on the home field of the highest ranked team. The first three Pac-12 games followed that format. The 2011 game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene was a sellout (59,376) and the 2013 game at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe fell just short (69,535). (The 2012 game at Stanford didn’t do well because it was held in a driving rain and the two participants had played each other the week before).
By contrast, the three games at Levi’s have drawn crowds of 45,618, 58,476 and 47,118 in a venue that seats 68,500. The conference likes the certainty of knowing in advance where the game will be played, and that reasoning may work in the football-crazy SEC, but not on the West Coast. Instead of 47,118 in Santa Clara, imagine last Friday’s game being played in an on-campus environment before 70,000 in Seattle.
Blame Game: Michigan might well be one of the best four teams in the country, and Jim Harbaugh is a great coach, but Harbaugh’s attempt to blame the officiating for his team’s double overtime loss to Ohio State deserved a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. The officials didn’t throw a pick-six or mishandle a snap from center on the one-yard line—the two plays that cost Michigan the game. Yet after Harbaugh’s rant, the officials received numerous death threats from rabid Michigan fans. There’s no excuse for that type of behavior, or for Harbaugh’s sideline antics and post-game diatribe.
Dr. Pepper: What’s happened to the “Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway” at the various conference championship games? Contestants used to throw the football toward the target like a quarterback attempting a forward pass. Now they all use a chest pass, as in basketball. While this technique might be more accurate from short distances, it makes a mockery of a competition at a football game.
Foster Farms Bowl: The Bay Area’s bowl, now in its 15th year, will be played at Levi’s Stadium on Dec. 28 and match Utah from the Pac-12 against Indiana from the Big Ten. This will be the Hoosiers first appearance in the game. The Utes played in the bowl in 2005 at AT&T Park, when it was known as the Emerald Bowl, and upset Georgia Tech 38-10.
Stanford to the Sun: Despite the presence of one of the most exciting players in college football, Christian McCaffrey, a higher ranking and a superior record (9-3), No. 18 Stanford was bypassed by both the Holiday Bowl (which selected unranked, 8-4 Washington State) and the hometown Foster Farms Bowl (which took No. 19, 8-4 Utah), and fell to the Sun Bowl in El Paso. The Holiday apparently felt that WSU would bring more fans to San Diego. The folks in Santa Clara went with Utah because Stanford has played in Levi’s Stadium in each of the past two seasons, beating Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl in ’14 and USC for the Pac-12 championship last year. That’s understandable for the bowls, but disappointing for Stanford and its fans, who might choose the family room couch over a vacation in beautiful El Paso.
Rose Bowl criteria: There was some confusion as to why USC was picked over Colorado to be the Pac-12’s representative. If the league champ (in this case Washington) goes to the playoff, then the Rose Bowl takes "the next best team" in the conference. That could be interpreted to mean the next best team in the standings, which would be Colorado, winner of the South Division with one regular-season loss in league play. Or it could mean the highest rated team by the CFP Selection Committee. The Rose Bowl used the later criteria and took USC, rated 9th to Colorado’s 10th.
Heisman Watch: Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the favorite for most of the season, stumbled a bit in his last two games. But Jackson still had the best season of any player in college football, passing for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns, and rushing for 1,538 yards and another 21 scores. No other player came close. Washington quarterback Jake Browning had an outside chance to overtake Jackson with a stellar performance in the Pac-12 championship, but Browning had a subpar outing in a game dominated by the Huskies’ running backs and secondary. In all likelihood, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had a brilliant game in the ACC championship, but was plagued by turnovers early in the season, will be the runner up.