For many years Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel was the loudest, most virulent voice in opposition to the old Bowl Championship Series. His characterization of the BCS as a result of a cartel of major-college teams and college football as a whole as held hostage by big-money bowl committees and their corporate sponsors shifted the terms of the college football playoff debate in the latter years of the BCS’ existence, especially after the publication of his book Death to the BCS, and his longstanding support of what I used to call the “11/5 system” further encouraged BCS opponents to dream big even as he never explicitly stated the major reason I preferred that system.
As the BCS prepared to be replaced with the College Football Playoff, Wetzel seemed to back off his support of the 11/5 model in the face of conference realignment resulting in the folding of the WAC and, at the time, the potential for a merger between the Mountain West and Conference USA opening the possibility of a sixteen-team playoff following a 9/7 model, diluting the value of the regular season beyond the realm of acceptability. Once, an 11/5 system would have resulted in the top three seeds facing progressively weaker conference champions, with the four and five seeds facing either strong, BCS-challenging mid-major champions or weak at-larges or BCS conference champions, creating real separation on the top few seed lines; now, besides the collapse of the WAC, the departure of Utah and TCU to major conferences, BYU to independence, and Chris Petersen’s departure from Boise State resulting in that program regressing from “BCS-caliber threatening-unbeaten every year” to “one of the stronger mid-major teams that regularly has to fight for the Mountain West championship”, have all had the result that the four- and five-seeds would probably be facing only moderately strong teams from the American and Mountain West, sprinkled in with the occasional Power 5-challenging team or very weak Power 5 champion facing the 5 seed. It’s easy to see why Wetzel’s support drifted to the eight-team playoff with auto bids for Power 5 champions, and it’s probably a good sign for that model that it places Wetzel in agreement with the Dallas Morning News‘ Tim Cowlishaw, once one of the most virulent and prominent defenders of the BCS when I was regularly watching him on Around the Horn. How to get there, however, is another question entirely.
This week, a piece by Wetzel made the rounds on social media decrying conference championship games as pointless relics and this weekend as a pointless waste of time. They may be de facto playoff quarterfinals, but while they certainly are win-and-in games for Clemson and (potentially) Oklahoma and Ohio State, all three of them are playing teams with zero shot at making the playoff with a win and which are vastly inferior to each of them. Alabama is playing a strong team that in fact would be in the playoff if we skipped this weekend, but as the #1 team Alabama also would have a strong case for making the playoff even with a loss. “Win but stay out anyway” and “lose but get in anyway” is hardly the hallmark of any sane playoff system. Wetzel’s solution? Dump conference championship games (thus forestalling any argument about teams playing too many games) and reconstitute this weekend as the first round of a true eight-team playoff. In Wetzel’s mind, we already know that Alabama is the SEC champion, Clemson the ACC champion, Oklahoma the Big 12 champion, and Ohio State the Big Ten champion, and we don’t need additional games to confirm that or conversely crown undeserving teams with those titles, so just skip this weekend and cut right to the chase.
I think this is an asinine argument that is overly focused on the specific circumstances of this season. Sure, this year’s conference championships are mostly just additional stumbling blocks placed in the path of the most deserving teams (and the Big 12 championship is a completely pointless and counterproductive game resulting from a single year’s screwed-up scenario), but that doesn’t mean that’s all they can ever be. Suppose two teams from the same conference that don’t play each other in the regular season both finish the season undefeated. Who do you crown as the “conference champion”? Do you send both teams to the playoff? But what if that bumps out a non-conference champion that might be more deserving than either of them? What if similar situations occur in enough conferences that you can’t send all the teams from all the conferences to the playoff? At the very least, what if one or both teams wouldn’t be considered deserving of a trip to the playoff if they lost a game between them? Especially if the teams involved had one or two losses each and entered the weekend ranked, say, 8th and 11th, with only the auto bid giving either team a spot in the playoff at all?
This isn’t purely hypothetical; one need only look to last year, when Miami came within one game of entering the ACC championship game undefeated, and as it stood both Clemson and Miami came into the game with one loss both in conference and overall. Falling to #7 in the rankings following their loss to Pitt, Miami wasn’t quite guaranteed to make the playoff with a win, but nonetheless it was about as close to a winner-in, loser-out game as you could get; Miami ended up falling to #10 in the CFP rankings, when an eight-team playoff with Power 5 auto bids would have gone down to picking the #7 team at worst as an at-large. Had Miami not lost to Pitt Wetzel would have simply crowned them the ACC champion; with the loss but without conference championships, based on the CFP rankings, Miami would have only gotten in if auto bids weren’t awarded to the best Group of Five team, which would have shut out a UCF team that went on to claim a “national championship” of their own. In the Big Ten, Wisconsin finished the regular season undefeated, but Ohio State had only one conference loss and ended up fighting with Alabama for the last playoff spot when they would be left out of an eight-team playoff without conference championship games. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget about the SEC, where it would be hard to deny Auburn the SEC championship with wins over Alabama and Georgia, yet they finished the regular season with two losses overall, one of them to an LSU team ranked #17 at that point, while Auburn represented the only losses for Alabama and Georgia, in both cases at Jordan-Hare. Alabama and Georgia would have been in position to claim both at-larges even if UCF received an auto bid, but still, these were three conference championship games of overwhelming importance for all teams involved that wouldn’t have resulted in any more sensical results if they were never played.
Conference championship games are money-making enterprises for the conferences, but they aren’t just that; today’s conferences are too big for their championships to be decided by the regular season alone. The SEC, Big Ten, and ACC have so many teams that it would be impossible for them to play a true round-robin even with zero non-conference games under the regular season as presently constituted. Doing away with conference championship games and attempting to award “conference champion” auto bids regardless effectively renders conferences meaningless and threatens to produce arguments of BCS caliber regarding whether this team or that one should be plucked out of each conference. It would only work if the conferences contracted enough for each conference to play a true round-robin, meaning no more than ten teams. But how would you decide what teams to kick out of the largest conferences? As much as money has driven conference realignment, it’s also been a matter of what colleges to allow into each club, each circle of “friends”, making it as much a matter of institutional and cultural fit as anything else; that’s why West Virginia is in the Big 12 while Louisville, hundreds of miles to the west (and both in the Big East prior to the most recent round of realignment), is in the ACC. (This is especially important in the Big Ten where membership means being part of the Big Ten Academic Alliance, formerly the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a forum for academic cooperation between the Big Ten schools.) Forcing the conferences to break up means forcing them to kick members out of their club and breaking up those relationships. These days, it’s hard to imagine South Carolina not being part of the SEC or Penn State not in the Big Ten, but that’s what might end up having to happen.
But, okay. Let’s say the NCAA does away with conference championship games at the FBS level and effectively caps conference membership at ten teams. College football traditionalists and those that want to protect the sanctity of the regular season would love that; let’s go back to the conference arrangements that existed prior to the 90s round of realignment when the SEC’s addition of South Carolina and Arkansas kicked off the modern era of conference championship games and saw the dissolution of the old Southwest Conference (as described in Chapter 4 of my book, plug plug plug). The resulting conference arrangements might look something like this:
Atlantic Coast Conference
Great West Conference (old Big Eight)
|Big Ten Conference
Whoops! That’s seven conferences with a claim to power conference status, leaving only one at-large bid or spot for a non-power-conference team (which could be a problem if, say, Notre Dame and UCF are both undefeated), and that’s with kicking Penn State to the ranks of the independents (though you could conceivably put them in the Metro, keep Virginia Tech in the ACC, and make South Carolina independent). We did include a number of less prominent, Group of Five-caliber teams, and the Metro would probably fill that liminal space the Big East once filled and the American tries to fill now, and you might be able to find a way to condense the number of power conferences by getting rid of the questionable teams, but it’s still going to be a tight fit putting all the deserving teams in an eight-team playoff. Frankly, with the potential for 12 conferences total, a 16-team playoff might become practical again – but that obviates the reason for dumping the conference championships to begin with by adding another game the top teams have to play again.
Playing too many games is both the reason Wetzel dumps the conference championship games and why Cowlishaw is only reluctantly embracing an eight-team playoff (especially since the players still won’t be paid for their additional labor), but it’s still, for the most part, as hollow as it was in the BCS era. The NFL plays 16 regular season games; if that’s not a fair comparison, a team playing in the FCS championship can play 15 games, 16 if they played in the first round of the playoffs. Even at the high school level a team in Texas could easily play 15 or 16 games en route to the state championship. An FBS college football team could end up playing 16 games – 13 regular season games including a trip to Hawaii, a conference championship game, a playoff semifinal, and the national championship – but that’s exceedingly rare even with every conference now having a championship game. If adding an additional game really is a cause for concern, get rid of the twelfth game the powers that be added for no other reason than to make more money – of course that would require getting rid of a bunch of bowls that wouldn’t be able to take 6-6 teams anymore, and would put more of a crunch on conference schedules. (Although… what if non-playoff teams, at least those with four or five wins, were allowed to schedule an extra game the weekend of the quarterfinals, as logistically challenging as that might be?)
As in the BCS era, college football gives us too small a sample size for us to meaningfully crown a national champion without additional games, and the current four-team playoff arguably still makes the regular season too meaningful – which for that matter, might still be the case with an eight-teamer. Any reasonable playoff system is going to have trouble crowning a national champion with the current total number of games such a team would have to play; like it or not, a good method of crowning a national championship that meaningfully improves on the current CFP is going to have to add at least one more game. The debates over the college football playoff system are not nearly as heated as they were in the BCS era, and if anything it’s the debate over UCF that’s stoking them now; in any case, the current contracts with ESPN run through 2025-26, so any debates might be academic for another six to eight years. Anything could happen in the intervening time to further clarify the value of a larger playoff. Any debate on the practicality of it, though, shouldn’t be rooted in cockamamie schemes to institute one while keeping the total number of games constant at the expense of the current conference structure or the integrity of the regular season, which might ultimately make things worse, but on whether or not a clear, understandable national champion relatively free of controversy is worth the additional burden of an extra game on the players, whether to the powers that be (and it might not be, considering that the national championship system is probably only a priority for them to the extent it makes them money) or to the college football universe at large.