Saturday night brought us a great pair of college football games, as the Big Ten and ACC title events had viewers bouncing back and forth for the dueling drama. The slate also served as an urgent reason the College Football Playoff needs to expand from four to eight teams.
No. 7 Penn State and No. 6 Wisconsin battled to the final minute before the Nittany Lions won, 38-31, but there was an unfortunate undertone of irrelevance to it. That’s because the only Big Ten team advancing to the CFP could well be Ohio State, which is ranked second, with top-ranked Alabama, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Washington likely filling out the other slots when the field is announced Sunday.
The latter three teams won their respective conference championship games over the weekend, but Alabama’s victory practically defined irrelevance, as the Crimson Tide, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 from the start of the season, was almost certainly going to get into the CFP no matter what happened. By the same token, the reverse was true for its SEC opponent, No. 15 Florida, for which a massive upset was still not going to deliver a berth, and the same could be said of Clemson’s foe, No. 23 Virginia Tech (which fought valiantly in a 42-35 loss).
With Penn State’s win, Sunday is guaranteed to bring outrage from at least one school’s fan base, and if Nittany Lions supporters are left out, they will howl over the snub dealt to a “Power 5″ conference winner which also defeated Ohio State. If both PSU and OSU get in, either Tigers or Huskies fans will be apoplectic, to say nothing of Michigan supporters clinging to the notion that a controversial, double-overtime loss last week at Ohio State was hardly reason to drop the school out of the top four.
The main problem here is that conference title games originated before the BCS existed, let alone the CFP, and are now in conflict with the aims of the playoff. The CFP selection panel certainly gives weight to those games, and the two-year-old tournament has yet to feature an at-large team, but it values season-long performance very much, as well, as reflected in its evaluation of Ohio State.
In any case, with five power conferences (albeit one, the Big 12, that does not stage a title game), at least one champion is a lock to get left out of the four-team field every year. So here’s the solution: get rid of conference championships.
After all, they were born of a desire to make conferences more money, and an eight-team CFP would take care of that nicely, right? That is, if ESPN’s $7.3 billion contract to televise the four-team tournament over 12 years is any indication.
Instead of staging four major-conference title games after the regular season ends and before bowl season begins, why not four CFP games? Apart from Gators fans — some of whom probably weren’t relishing the prospect of an inevitable beatdown, either — who wouldn’t have wanted Alabama’s first postseason game to have come against No. 9 Oklahoma, rather than Florida?
That scenario gets to the best part of an eight-team field, which is that each Power 5 conference could be represented, and there might even be room for a particularly impressive “Group of Five” team. Going by the most recent rankings as of Saturday evening, Oklahoma would have had to bump out a higher-ranked team, likely No. 8 Colorado, to get in, but how much hand-wringing would have taken place over that, as opposed to what we’ll see on Sunday?
Using those rankings (which, of course, will change a bit based on Saturday’s results), Clemson and Wisconsin could have been playing each other in one very meaningful game, with the Ohio State-Penn State winner waiting on that side of the bracket. Michigan would have been in, as well, and paired with Washington in a classic, Rose Bowl-esque matchup.
Was Saturday’s PSU-Wisconsin game exciting? Sure, especially with the Nittany Lions staging a major comeback and making one final pitch to end its fine season with an unexpected CFP berth.
But it’s telling that tickets to the game could be had for less than face value on the secondary market, as were tickets to the ACC title game. That’s because many fans would rather save their money and go see their teams play in the bowl or CFP games to follow. Make this round of contests a win-or-go-home proposition and those tickets would become very hot commodities, indeed.
In terms of giving the people what they want, the college football powers that be are almost there. They tried to settle decades of arguments over national champions, when the very best teams often did not face each other because of conference-affiliated bowl obligations, by creating the BCS. That proved to be exceedingly flawed, so the CFP emerged in 2014 — and no one wants to go back.
But there is a better way forward. Just as the BCS and CFP were instituted at the expense, to some degree, of the big-time bowl games, so should an eight-team field emerge at the expense of the conference title games. And unlike the Rose Bowl, it’s not like the ACC or Big Ten championship games (first played in 2005 and 2011, respectively) can claim any sort of illustrious history.
The SEC championship game, dating back to 1992, got that particular ball rolling and has the most fan interest, but in most years, the traditionally high-powered conference could expect to place two squads into a lucrative eight-team playoff. More importantly, it could expect to have its best team’s first postseason game actually matter.