At a news conference on Thursday, two days before his Alabama squad’s matchup with Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Nick Saban asserted that he would prefer to see the tournament limited to its current, four-team format, rather than grow to eight teams or more.
Well of course he would. After all, Saban is the only coach whose team has been included in the CFP in all five years of its existence, making the past three finals. Why would he want to expand the field and make it more likely his Crimson Tide could suffer an early-round upset?
Naturally, that’s not the reasoning Saban presented Thursday. He claimed to be worried about increasing apathy in the non-CFP bowl games, both among fans and star players who might skip those contests in ever-greater numbers.
“I think the playoff . . . continues to expand to minimize the importance of those games, maybe to the point where those games won’t even exist,” Saban said (via ESPN). “I’m not sure that is the best thing, overall, for college football.”
Saban has a point in that more than in any previous year, college football players noteworthy enough to have realistic professional aspirations are emulating the example set by the likes of Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey and eschewing their teams' bowl games in favor of preparing themselves for the NFL draft process. On Michigan alone, four Wolverines starters have announced they’ll sit out Saturday’s non-CFP Peach Bowl matchup with Florida. Even a prominent quarterback, West Virginia’s Will Grier, is delegating starting duties to his backup and is set to miss Friday’s (most definitely non-CFP) Camping World Bowl.
That last detail, though, goes to a likely cause for overall disinterest in bowl games that Saban did not mention — there’s just way too many of them, particularly with an explosion over the past two decades in which new bowl games have been created at a rate of more than one a year.
That rapid growth, combined with the overtly corporate nature of the events — the Camping World Bowl, a relative oldster by virtue of having begun in 1990, has previously been named for Blockbuster, Carquest, MicronPC, Mazda, Champs Sports and Russell Athletic, and let’s not even get started on Wednesday’s Cheez-It Bowl — reflect the fact that for the most part, the contests are not intended to provide players with one last hurrah to their seasons but, of course, to make money. Not only do the games provide excuses for fans to go on road trips, but they fill crucial programming hours for TV networks, ESPN in particular.
With almost none of those profits going directly to the so-called student-athletes, while executives who run the bowl games rake in ungodly sums, it’s hard to blame the top players for looking out for their own financial well-being. At the same time, while many college football fans appreciate the traditions behind the classic bowls, most of the biggest ones, including the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Peach, are being used to stage the CFP semifinals on a rotating basis. Fans of all sports tend to prefer games that are, you know, meaningful.
Even baseball, a sport long criticized for being too stodgily stuck in the past, has seen the light and gone to a wider playoff field. Just staying with college sports, no one has embraced the philosophy of “If some is good, more is better” than the organizers of the NCAA basketball tournament, and its steady expansion over the years has done nothing to dampen its popularity.
Granted, football is a bit different and you can make a more plausible case for hand-wringing over the marginalization of, say, the Holiday Bowl than of the NIT. Still, Saban’s not fooling anybody when he claims that, as ESPN’s Alex Scarborough put it Thursday, “expanding the field leads to an undercutting of the ‘self-gratification’ for players that comes with going to bowl games not associated with the national championship.”
An arguably more candid assessment of the merits of expansion came Thursday from Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, a voting member of the CFP’s management committee whose team is playing in the other semifinal on Saturday against Clemson.
“You’ve got to be open as a business to looking at your business,” Swarbrick said (via USA Today). “It doesn’t mean that there’s a need to change or that there’s momentum to change, but every business should examine itself and the core elements of what it does."
Presumably, Swarbrick would understand that players skipping bowl games to focus on the NFL are simply making their own business decisions. We know for a fact that former Fighting Irish star Jaylon Smith has no issue with Grier and others, because he has pointed out the unfortunate way in which his experience serves as a cautionary tale.
Smith, now a Cowboys linebacker, was a likely top-five draft pick who fell all the way to the second round after he tore two knee ligaments in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, which was not part of that year’s playoff. That move cost Smith millions and while he told Sports Illustrated earlier this month that he “would make the same decision” to play in the bowl game, he added, “My situation has affected college football forever. … People just look at the facts of what happened to me and the severity of my injury, and from there they have to make a decision on whether it is worth the risk.”
For his part, Saban is in the business of winning championships for his employer. From that perspective, it would be perfectly understandable if reducing the number of obstacles in his path were the real basis for his objection to increasing the playoff field. On a related note, Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly, who has his team in the CFP for the first time, proclaimed recently that he was in favor of doubling its contestants.
“We’re forcing out a conference champion. … There are five Power conferences and there’s the independent ranks,” Kelly, whose Irish are among the independents, said on Saturday. “If there is going to be an expansion of any kind, we would prefer to include eight. That gives the Power 5 their champions and then [it] opens up more opportunities for at-large [teams].”
As the coach of a team that lost to Saban’s Crimson Tide in 2013 in the final BCS National Championship Game, the CFP’s forerunner, before appearing in the Pinstripe, Music City, Fiesta and Citrus bowls, Kelly didn’t sound too worried about a playoff expansion diluting interest in other college football postseason events. Saban adopted a different stance Thursday, asserting that such interest would continue to “sort of disintegrate,” while saying, “I’m not really for going eight teams in a playoff."
Of course you’re not, coach. It may or may not be the “best thing, overall, for college football,” but keeping the field at four certainly looks like the best thing for helping Alabama add more titles to its trophy case.
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