by John Furgele (Accept the Only 228)
When conference championship games were created in college football, it was win-win, a pure moneymaker for the SEC, the league that started them. The only problem is the games themselves. In the inaugural SEC title tilt, undefeated Alabama faced 8-3 Florida. If Alabama won, they would play in the Sugar Bowl against number one ranked Miami. But, there was risk involved. If the 8-3 Gators had won, they would have secured the conference’s automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl with no shot of a national championship, both for themselves and their league. The SEC suits sitting in the press box had to be in total panic as it looked like Florida might pull the game—and the title—out.
In the end, Alabama won in a game for the ages, so much so that ESPN did a 30 for 30 on it. The Gators won the Gator Bowl to finish 9-4 and Gene Stallings’ Crimson Tide blew out Miami to finish 13-0 to earn the national championship in college football.
The game was so successful, that every conference decided to expand to at least 12 members and stage their own conference title clash; even the Big 12 played one. And, the stodgy Big Ten went against “longstanding traditions” to establish one for their 12 and now 14-team league.
Americans love football and because these games normally pit two excellent teams against each other, it continues to be a win-win, right? Well, that all depends on how you perceive things. The College Football Playoff has created many things; among them, angst. Prior to the BCS and CFP, the winner of the conference title game went to the conference’s designated bowl game. If 9-3 Georgia beat 11-1 Alabama, then Georgia went to the Sugar Bowl, while an 11-2 Alabama likely went to another top tier game like the Orange or Fiesta. Now, the conference leaders are forced to root for the team with the better record. Assuming Alabama beats Auburn and Florida (and this is a questionable assumption) beats Florida State, Alabama and Florida would be 12-0 and 10-2 when they get together in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Florida could very well be 9-3.
What hat does the SEC wear in this one? Alabama is the best team; they could probably lose and still get one of the four CFP bids. Florida, by winning would be guaranteed a New Year’s Six bowl, but is this what the commissioners wanted when they set up these title games? At the end of the day, the SEC wants its best team, its undefeated team in the CFP as the number one seed. They don’t want to see 9-3 Florida win that game and leave some doubt in the minds of the CFP committee.
The Big Ten could see Ohio State beat Michigan this week and with the game in Columbus, nobody would be surprised. Ohio State would be 11-1, but if Penn State takes care of Michigan State, the Nittany Lions would play for the Big Ten title against another two-loss team in Wisconsin or Nebraska. For arguments sake, let’s say Penn State and Wisconsin square off with identical 10-2 records. If Penn State wins, they would be 11-2 with a victory over 11-1 Ohio State. Which team would go to the CFP; the team that won the conference championship; or the team with the better record?
As good as the CFP has been, this is its biggest problem. College football remains a beauty contest, and as long as that’s the case the CFP will never achieve to its fullest potential. In college basketball, if you win the conference tournament, you get the automatic bid. You may not get the higher seed that the team you just beat does, but you get to go, no questions asked. In college football, Colorado could win the Pac 12 title, but at 11-2, be left out of the CFP for the 11-1 Ohio State Buckeyes or even an 11-2 Michigan, which beat the Buffaloes in September. Yes, college football is only 12 or 13 games and we all know that college football loves the controversy because it provides ammo for all the sports networks. Why would they want to change that? On the other side, does this way of thinking make any sense?
The conference championship game could also hurt Clemson should they lose to Virginia Tech or North Carolina and finish 11-2. The ACC isn’t good enough to get a two-loss team into the CFP, plain and simple.
Then, there is the Big 12, which gets knocked for not having a conference championship game. Love it or hate it, the Big 12 does offer a true round robin, where each team plays one another. But, we saw when TCU and Baylor each went 8-1 and 11-1; both were left out of the CFP because Ohio State drubbed Wisconsin 59-0 in their conference title game.
The easiest remedy is to eliminate the conference title tilts and have each team play 12 games and using the beauty contest model, the CFP committee would select what they think are the four best teams. That way, a 9-3 Florida could never beat a 12-0 Alabama, because there wouldn’t be an SEC Championship Game.
Another option would be to drop back to 11 regular season games, play conference championship games and expand the CFP to eight teams. In this format, the winners of the conference title games would secure an automatic bid to the CFP. Because an eight team playoff requires an extra round, you’d have to drop down to 11 so no team would play more than 15 total games. In this scenario, the 9-3 Florida could beat the 12-0 Alabama, but because there would be three at-large berths available, both teams could get in. Would schools want to give back the 12th game and lose revenue? Probably not.
The FCS plays 11 regular season games and it’s possible for the FCS champion to play 16 games. The FCS has a 24-team playoff, so if you don’t get the opening round bye, you’d have to win five games to be crowned the champion. Most FCS champions play 15 games, the same amount that both Alabama and Clemson did last year. No matter how you slice it, that’s a long season for a college football player who is also “trying” to be a student, too.
Is there a way to have 12 regular season games, conference championship games and an eight team CFP? That’s probably what those who run college football would want, but they know that they’d be pressing their luck with those who think college athletics has jumped the shark and its attempt to sell us the student-athlete.
I would hate to see Ohio State get into the CFP at 11-1 without playing in their conference title game. Are they a better team than 11-2 Wisconsin; probably, but there is something negative about “backing in” to the playoffs. I would hate to see Colorado win the Pac 12 at 11-2 and get left out, because in any sport, if you win your league or division, you get rewarded with a trip to the playoffs. In the old days, the 8-3 team could go 0-3 in nonconference games, 8-0 in conference and their reward was a trip to the Sugar, Rose, Orange or Cotton Bowl. Now, that three-loss team is the villain if it plays in the conference title game because all they can really do is wreak havoc. I guess in some ways that’s good, because chaos can be fun, but it is my hope that college football can get the right teams into its playoff whether that number is four, six, eight or ten.