In those days, teams played an 11-game regular season and then possibly a bowl game, for a maximum of 12 games.
That began to change after an undefeated Georgia Tech team went to the second-tier Citrus Bowl after the 1990 season. Even though Georgia Tech shared the national title with a one-loss Colorado team, ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan was furious because the Yellow Jackets hadn’t been considered for one of the major bowls.
Corrigan ordered his top lieutenant, Tom Mickle, to come up with a solution. Mickle did: Sitting in a Lone Star Steakhouse in Greensboro, N.C., he outlined a plan for something called the Bowl Coalition, which guaranteed — among other things — that the ACC champion would be invited to a major bowl. It helped that Florida State had joined the ACC by then. More importantly, the plan guaranteed that the top two teams in the final poll would play each other — which had happened only six times since 1968.
The year the coalition came into existence, the SEC launched a postseason championship game. That meant the SEC champion would play 13 games.
The Bowl Coalition became the Bowl Alliance, which, in 1998, became the Bowl Championship Series. By 2006, the presidents had authorized a 12th regular season game, and most conferences were playing championship games.
Then, in 2014, the College Football Playoff was formed, meaning teams that made the title game almost certainly would play 15 games: 12 in the regular season, one conference championship game and two playoff games. So much for those noble speeches about protecting so-called student-athletes.
And now, no surprise, the presidents want more. The four-team playoff — and the four “New Year’s Six” bowls that aren’t part of the playoff — are worth about $470 million per year, thanks to a 12-year contract signed with ESPN before the 2014 season.
Seven years into the contract, the sport’s leaders have decided the playoff needs to be expanded. Expanded a lot. A four-member subcommittee recently recommended expanding the playoff to 12 teams, and the 11 university leaders who supervise the playoff then approved further evaluation. There will be more studies and more committees, more recommendations and more votes.
Trust me. It will happen.
And do not believe for one second this has anything to do with being fair to the Group of Five conferences, which have been selected for exactly zero of the 28 playoff spots available over the past seven years. Teams such as Central Florida (twice), Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina and Western Michigan have gone undefeated and received a nice pat on the head and, for all but Coastal Carolina, the mandatory bid the Group of Five receives to one of the non-playoff New Year’s Six bowls. That list doesn’t include Houston, which went 12-1 in 2015 and then beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
A 12-team playoff would, of course, be more equitable — and profitable — for all. It would force the CFP committee to include at least one and perhaps even (gasp!) two Group of Five teams in its tournament. The initial recommendation provides for six bids for the highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large bids — with no automatic bids for any conferences.
It will be fascinating how the presidents — and their mouthpiece commissioners and athletic directors — justify the possibility that some of their so-called student-athletes might be asked to play as many as 17 games.
The proposal calls for first-round games to be hosted at campus sites by seeds No. 5 through 8, which will play seeds No. 9 through 12. The winners would advance to New Year’s Day quarterfinals, with semifinals and then the championship game kicking off sometime before the Super Bowl. (We hope.)
This system isn’t far from what I proposed years ago, though I suggested two fewer games for everyone. I proposed going back to an 11-game regular season, meaning the big-bucks teams might have to lose those 62-3 blowouts against Football Championship Subdivision opponents they like to schedule. I also suggested dumping the conference championship games and playing first-round games the first weekend in December before giving the so-called student-athletes a break to, you know, study for and take final exams?
That would mean no one would play more than 15 games — the current maximum — and it would further spread out schedules, giving players a chance to recover from the pounding they take beginning in August.
It would also mean that the little guys would get their shot at the big boys in games that truly matter. Teams such as Boise State, Central Florida, Houston, Cincinnati, TCU (before it joined the Big 12) and Utah (before it joined the Pac-12) proved they can compete with — and sometimes beat — the Power Five schools. When they have won games, the apologists for the big-money schools always have excuses.
Okay: Let’s find out.
Under my plan, the schools would still make far more than they’re currently making despite losing a home game and the conference title games. The CFP would more than double in value with 11 meaningful games available as opposed to three.
But that’s not going to be good enough for the presidents. If they’re going to let the little fish into their money pond, they’re first going to stock it with every available dollar. That means the regular season will stay at 12 games, the conference championship games will remain, and the national title game will be played about 15 minutes before the Super Bowl pregame show begins.
It is still fairer to the Group of Five schools; under the current system, a 9-0 Supreme Court ruling couldn’t get one of them into the four-team playoff. You can bet none will ever get a bye in the new system, and a first-round home game is almost as unlikely. But as the old saying goes, you can’t prove people wrong unless you get to play.
There are five years left on the current ESPN/CFP contract. I’m betting the CFP will want the extra bucks sooner than later and will take a $1 billion-plus-a-year deal from ESPN. They could choose to wait until the deal runs out after the 2025 season and hope for a bidding war. That’s a long wait to start counting all that money. And no one enjoys counting money more than college presidents.
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