College Football Playoff: A Rousing Start

by John Furgele

The College Football Playoff is a hit. The ratings will be out soon and I’ll assume that they’ll be great. For starters, the Rose Bowl Game, always at 5 pm EST is a ratings winner for many reasons. For people living in the cold of winter, the scenery alone picks up and fosters a positive attitude/feeling about the New Year. And, the Rose Bowl is…..the Rose Bowl.

The game itself got out of hand, simply because Florida State, in an effort to keep up with the fast paced high scoring Oregon Ducks, made too many mistakes, and thus, their national championship streak ends at one. There is no shame in what Florida State did. This is college football, and while it’s increasingly more important to hang banners, the Seminoles did well in going undefeated, winning the ACC title and appearing in the CFP Semifinals.

The nightcap was a stirring affair. The Superdome always looks pretty on Sugar Bowl night, filled to capacity with the colors of the opposing teams. There was a time when it was 21-6 Alabama that the CFP was not going to live it to its hype; but the Buckeyes, poised beyond reproach rallied behind a powerful running game, timely defense and a very calm third string quarterback.

Let’s not do what many on Twitter did by referencing the “if this was the old BCS, Ohio State and Oregon would not have been able to compete for a national title,” thing; we all know that, and that’s why the powers that be changed the system. The CFP does add that drama, that sense of urgency that American athletes and fans love. We love our playoffs, our tournaments, and the theory of advancing and eliminating. Most soccer leagues around the world have a 38 game regular season and at the end of those 38 games, the team with the most points is crowned the champion. America’s Major League Soccer has a 30 game regular season and—-PLAYOFFS. That’s what we want because that’s what we like.

The College Football Playoff will be an asset to college football. Eventually, it will be expanded to six, eight, ten, 12 or perhaps even 16 teams unless the Power 5 schools do a clean break from the Group of 5 schools. But, let’s allow the four team playoff to breathe a little (and the TV contract is structured that way) before wild calls for the inclusion of more teams. The BCS was never loved, but it did do what the previous system didn’t and that was to try and match the #1 and #2 teams for the title.

I never took the BCS as serious as others did. I never referred to the BCS Championship Game as the “National Championship Game,” because there was no advancing and eliminating and too much exclusion. It was polling and a computer that spat out two teams and said here’s a trophy to play for.

The CFP is already better. There is plenty to play for. The loser of the championship game can still say that they finished 13-2 and won the Sugar or Rose Bowl. They have won something to get into the title game and that can be sold to alumni, recruits and of course, boosters.

The downside of the CFP is the harm that it will do the so-called Group of 5 schools. Let’s be honest, the Group of 5 schools are never going to get one of their guys in the CFP. The BCS never really allowed a Boise State, Texas Christian, Utah or Central Florida access to the tile game either, but the CFP is designed purely for the bluebloods. Marshall won their first 12 games of the 2014 year and never was ranked in the Top 20. Even the bluebloods have divisions of bluebloods. If you think the history of Ohio State didn’t factor in their selection over Texas Christian and Baylor, you’d be wrong and if you saw how their fans, and Big Ten fans in general travel to big events, then you’d be wrong twice.

The Group of 5 would dearly love to stay affiliated with the Power 5 schools, but as the CFP progresses, that is going to be difficult to do. Teams like Baylor, which scheduled SMU and Buffalo—and got ripped for it—will likely be pressured to schedule only Power 5 schools or face being omitted again from the CFP. Better to go 10-2 with losses to fellow P5 schools than whipping through the likes of Buffalo, SMU and Division 1-AA Northwestern State. Nick Saban went that far by suggesting nine game conference schedules and P5 only for nonconference games. Of course, that would mean Saban and the Tide would have to drop their yearly 1-AA opponent the week before the Auburn game.

There is nothing wrong with being a Group of 5 school, but they have lost a lot of cache over the years. Their success rate (winning) of beating P5 schools worsens each year, almost to the point where 1-AA schools are their equal. Indiana State and Ball State are closer in talent and ability than Ball State and Michigan State are and for the record, Indiana State beat Ball State in 2014.

The Sporting News suggested that there be two four team playoffs; one for the Power 5 schools and another for the Group of 5 schools. My suggestion is to let the Power 5 schools finish their breakaway and unite the Group of 5 schools with all the 1-AA schools. Each division could stage their playoffs, bowl games and whatever they believe would benefit them the most. The Power 5 would be 66 schools with independents BYU and Notre Dame being included and the best of the rest would include the remaining Group of 5 schools and ALL the current 1-AA (FCS) schools. The non-P5 schools would be near the 200 mark, which would leave the networks plenty of inventory for bowl games, a 24 or 32 team playoff and whatever else the creative minds might come up with.

A playoff for the Group of 5 schools would have a minor league feel to it, but even the smallest bowl games get over 1 million viewers. Americans have shown their undying love for football, so even a second class playoff system would likely generate interest. All that said if college football’s big boys continue to do what they’re doing, what is the alternative? If P5 schools are not allowed to play G5 schools, what’s the alternative? If playing a G5 school hurts your chances of making the CFP, what’s the alternative? My point is the 1-AA classification is not an insult; it’s a perfect way to separate Division I football.

The G5 schools will survive, but many 1-AA schools play a P5 school to pay for its athletic program and in many cases, if Western Carolina can’t play Alabama, they may not be able to afford to keep its football program. Deep down, I think the leaders of college football are good with that, a survival of the fittest if you will. Why would Alabama host Western Carolina when Jerry Jones will pay Alabama and Georgia Tech to play in Arlington? You’re seeing tons of neutral site games in college basketball and the impact has been great. Rather than have Duke host Texas State, we get Duke-Texas at Madison Square Garden. In football, Alabama versus Georgia Tech in Arlington is much more attractive to both schools than Alabama doing a home and home with the Jackets, because it’s very hard to win on the road in college football. And, it certainly is more compelling than Alabama-Chattanooga and will go a long way in selecting the teams for the CFP.

The CFP is off to a rousing start. It will grow, but the key to any business is to keep growing and keep making money. They can do this by eventually expanding and they can do this by scheduling more high profile games during the regular season. And, that’s what they’ll do, because the money for an Auburn-Michigan game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando will dwarf Michigan hosting Bowling Green. The P5 schools will still have their six and possible seven home games, but rather than play down, they will play up. The result might be more two loss teams in the CFP, but that’s okay, going undefeated doesn’t mean as much as winning the playoffs as basketball schools like UNLV and Wichita State can attest to.

The writing is on the wall. There will be nine conference games, which would leave only three nonconference games to be scheduled. The PAC 12 and the Big 12 already play nine, so it’s time for the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten to even the playing field. And, for schools like Baylor, they would have to step up their nonconference slate. Replace Buffalo with Iowa; replace SMU with a neutral site game against say, Mississippi, and then another game with another P5 school, perhaps a home and home if possible. It can be done; USC plays Notre Dame every year and still schedules a quality team in their remaining two slots. In the end, the product is better, because football succeeds because it is a quality product. College football can actually be a better product than the NFL. Sure, there is parity in the NFL, but because the game is so quarterback driven, there can be lots of mismatches and clunkers. College football involves schemes and styles and that’s why Georgia Tech with inferior talent can steamroll a Mississippi State. That doesn’t happen in the NFL.

This is a good time for the Power 5 and a time of uncertainty of the Group of 5. Remember, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech, a P5 school. Baylor beat three creampuffs and the committee decided that Ohio State’s loss was better than Baylor’s wins against Buffalo and SMU. That is why the Group of 5 schools should be worried. They were at a disadvantage in the BCS and even though they’re guaranteed a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game, the chance of making it the CFP is much less likely.

You could expand the CFP to eight teams, but that doesn’t guarantee a spot for a G5 school, all it does is give three more P5 schools a chance to win the national title. The future of college football is exciting and scary at the same time, but on the field, it’s never been better.

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