Wasserman: The price we’ll pay for College Football Playoff expansion
When Brian Kelly kept his offense on the field in overtime against Alabama on Saturday night, time stopped. The entire country slide to the edge of their seats, some of us with beads of sweat dripping down our foreheads.
This was a playoff game between bitter SEC rivals. As the sport exists now, the results of games like this go a long way in determining the eventual national champion. So we watched with bated breath.
Kelly, the first-year head coach trying to prove to his rabid LSU fan base that this program can compete at the highest level under his watch, didn’t want the game to go to another overtime. His team just scored a touchdown and was an extra point away from tying the game and forcing a second OT. Instead, he opted to go for two. He was at home. His team proved it could score. It had the big, bad wolf on the ropes.
He was going for it with everything on the line — his team’s season, a potential spot in the College Football Playoff and the approval of a fan base. He put his hands on his chips and slowly pushed them to the middle of the table.
College football perfection.
Kelly succeeded. Quarterback Jayden Daniels found tight end Mason Taylor a yard short of the end zone before the talented freshman crossed the goal line. LSU won 32-31. The Tigers remain alive for the SEC championship—and the presumed playoff spot that comes with that championship—while Alabama’s national title hopes died.
Yes, that was a regular-season game. But it was essentially a playoff game, where the winner takes all. That’s how college football works with the current four-team system. The spots are absurdly exclusive compared to other sports, which is why college football has the most compelling regular season. Though some teams may get the benefit of the doubt — such as teams in the SEC like two-loss LSU, which is still clinging to the hope that it can win the best and deepest conference in the sport — everyone at the Power 5 level has have luck. Win all of your games, you’re in. It’s easy. And once you lose, things may fall your way or they may not, but that loss exposes you to the potential of being left out.
There were no CFP logos on the field in Baton Rouge on Saturday, but we all got a playoff game in November.
It seems like everyone is for the expansion of the College Football Playoff. There is an excitement about how it’ll grant access to more teams and add the aforementioned stakes to other games some of us may pass over now. The little guy is finally being seen. The Group of 5 teams are finally being represented. And having branded Playoff games on campus is an exciting new possibility in a sport that has evolved dramatically in the last three years. The positives of expansion are frequently highlighted in the media.
Curiously, there haven’t been many who have voiced the negatives. Do we really want to tamper with the dramatic regular season this four-team field provides? To get all the benefits of expansion, you have to acknowledge that we’re taking away the magic from the big-time regular-season playoff games that already exist.
What were the three biggest results of the past weekend? LSU over Alabama, Georgia over Tennessee and Notre Dame over Clemson. All three losers of those games were represented in the top 12 of the College Football Playoff committee’s most recent rankings released Tuesday evening. Tennessee was No. 5, Alabama was No. 9 and Clemson was No. 10. No consequences for losing.
Oh, and this year’s Ohio State–Michigan game? You know, the game that will likely pit two undefeated Big Ten East teams for a chance to win their conference and make the Playoff? Well, with an expanded field, the results of that game won’t matter for the national title race. Sure, the fan bases will always care because it’s a bitter rivalry, but the only consequences of losing that game would be a lower seed and having to hear the opposing fan base talk trash. Ohio State may lose the game, but it’ll be the No. 7 seed in the College Football Playoff and host another team and be a 23-point favorite instead. Great.
It’s understandable to want to see new teams. We’re tired of the same results every year. So what do we do? We change the definition of success — be a top-12 team instead of a top-four team — rather than forcing improvement and excellence.
What Michigan did last year was special. After continually falling short during the Jim Harbaugh era, the Wolverines restructured their staff and went to work. They beat Ohio State at the end of the year. They won the Big Ten. They made the Playoff. That’s something Wolverines fans can be proud of. That’s something they can cherish forever, to make it into the exclusive club the hard way. The pure way.
That is real achievement, not fake achievement that would have come from Michigan making it another year as the No. 11 seed. Or the achievement that Cincinnati feels by breaking the Group of 5 barrier. Those are meaningful. They’re real. They matter.
In the future, we’re going to have to celebrate forgettable teams because we lowered our standard. Those 9-3 teams that James Franklin puts on the field that frustrate Penn State fans? Yeah, those teams may make the CFP now. Shift your perspective from failure to success because that’s much easier than demanding Penn State actually put together a team capable of winning it all. Franklin can cash his $75 million guaranteed because he makes the Playoff now without having to improve the product.
The College Football Playoff exists to determine the national champion.
But we’re inviting teams that don’t deserve that distinction so we can all feel better for the little guy. Teams that are clearly inferior can hang banners now because hey, it’s not fair they can’t compete with Georgia and Alabama.
And in the instances when it’s not for the little guy, all we’re doing is giving the Alabamas of the world a second mulligan so they can compete for national championship in years in which they don’t deserve to be in the field. The first team that wins the new College Football Playoff as a No. 6 seed or worse is going to be a super team that was afforded a third chance and got hot at the end of the year. That 2015 Ohio State team that missed the Playoff because it lost to Michigan State at home in November didn’t deserve to win a national title because it lallygagged all year despite its immense talent. Now we’re opening the door back up to incredibly talented teams that weren’t great and don’t deserve to be celebrated.
The regular seasons don’t matter for Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson anymore. Lose three games? No problem, you’re in anyway.
Which brings us to the concept of schadenfreude. In college football, we get almost as much enjoyment out of watching other teams suffer as we do watching our teams prosper. It’s unlike any other sport. And that is what makes the upset so compelling. It’s not just beating a team you’re not supposed to beat. It’s the thrill of witnessing the better team’s season crumble in front of the entire country. That’s the epitome of college football.
The response to that will predictably be that we’re now assigning more importance to games that would’ve been overlooked in the past. But aren’t we getting a playoff game for TCU when it travels to Texas on Saturday? My colleague, Sam Khan Jr., will argue that TCU is held to a different standard than LSU or Alabama. Yes, that’s true because LSU and Alabama are built differently and play in a conference that’s infinitely more difficult. When you win the SEC, you reap the benefits of that distinction. And even if TCU is held to a different standard, if it wants to compete for a national championship — because that’s what this whole thing is about — shouldn’t it beat the three-loss Longhorns in the playoff this weekend? Maybe TCU is held to a different standard because it is a seven-point underdog to a three-loss team.
The beauty of it, though, is that TCU doesn’t need to win by 100 to impress the committee. All it needs to do is win and keep winning its playoff games between now and Selection Sunday. There isn’t a Power 5 team that doesn’t control its own destiny. Wake Forest, Syracuse and whoever else—you want to compete for a national title? Be excellent, don’t lose and win your conference.
If you’re worried about the Group of 5, fine. That’s fair. There is an element to this that stinks when undefeated teams like UCF in 2017 get left out. If you want to call it the College Football Playoff, it’s fair to want everyone to have a seat at the table. But if we’re focused on crowning a national champion, then the Group of 5 has to be the casualty. And Cincinnati proved that it’s not impossible for a Group of 5 team to win a national title. The Bearcats also showed what happens when you face a team that’s actually equipped to do it.
It seems to me that we’re more concerned about making sure everyone is included rather than actually crowning the best team. And unlike other sports, the national champion in college football during the Playoff era has unequivocally crowned the best team every year. This isn’t an everybody love everybody scenario. This is a big business where we’re demanding excellence to be viewed as one of the best.
That’s how the world works, doesn’t it? Nobody cares if you’re included among the highest-paid people in the world if you don’t produce. It’s action then results. Here, we’re changing the results without demanding the action.
The playoff has been expanded since 2014. We just got the playoff games in the regular season. We love the regular season and we’re changing it for inclusion. Yes, the UCFs of the world are going to make it now, but so are the two-loss Alabama teams.
You may say that it’ll create more interesting games at the end of the year, and sure, it will. And we’ll all watch them because college football is wildly entertaining and none of us can get enough football. We’ll watch this sport no matter what the system looks like.
It is just odd that for all the cheering we get from everyone about how cool the expanded College Football Playoff is going to be, nobody is willing to stand up and talk about the cost of expansion: We’re handing out participation trophies to inferior teams and we’re watering down the regular season. And we aren’t even going to get new champions out of it. The same teams you’re bored of watching now are going to win the next version of the Playoff, too, because they are in a league of their own.
Expansion is expensive.
Most people, funny enough, are willing to look past the price.
(Sam Khan Jr. takes the other side of this debate. You can read it here.)
(Photo of Jahmyr Gibbs and Micah Baskerville: John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)