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Let’s Expand The Playoff! Part 1 - The Goals Have Changed

Life’s not fair. That’s why sports should be.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Orange Bowl-Alabama vs Oklahoma Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

To figure out where you are going it helps to know where you’ve been. Football as an entity has a long, storied history on its own and the college flavor is rich with lore and trepidation. To understand my ultimate argument, therefore, it’s helpful to figure out how we got here in the first place. Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

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In ancient Greece, a violent game called episkyros was popularized by the Spartans and spread through various Greecian city-states. One of the most team-intensive games of its time – and also one of the few gender-inclusive activities available at the time – it involved two teams of twelve players scrumming along a white line called a skuros as each side attempted to throw a ball over the scrum and force the opposing team backwards via where the ball landed. Each side had a skuros drawn behind them, as well, and the first team to allow the ball to land behind their respective skuros lost. The sport was fun, the goals were simple, and it was a nice distraction from the doldrums of…being a Greek person in the Classical Age.

1893 Missouri Tigers Football Team
University Archives - University of Missouri

On November 6th, 1869 the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) and Rutgers College (now known as…well, Rutgers) decided to play a game they had developed based on the episkyros model that also incorporated soccer and rugby. The first game utilized “Rutgers Rules” and, naturally, Rutgers won 6-4. The following week they played under “Princeton Rules” and, naturally, Princeton won 8-0. Thus concluded the 1869 season of college football. Both teams were crowned champions. The sport was fun, the goals were simple, and it was a nice distraction for white, educated males to take part of in the years after the American Civil War.

Thanks to Rutgers hitting the road and playing the sport against anyone who would be willing to play, the popularity of the sport soon spread from the northeast to the Midwest to the south, then finally west across the plains and to the Pacific coast. Theodore Roosevelt saved the (then) deadly sport by eliminating the scrum while Walter Camp, Pop Warner, John Heisman, and countless others developed new strategies to help the game evolve. 1902 marked the first installment of the Rose Bowl and, soon after, other bowls – Sugar, Cotton, Orange – sprung up as well. Suddenly the goal of the game was different; play as many games as you could, yes, but also be deemed good enough to be selected for a bowl game. The sport was fun, the goals were simple, and a new pastime was slowly embedding itself into American culture.

1960 Missouri Tigers Football Team

Eventually an invention called the television was introduced to the world. College football games had been on the radio, yes, but those were regional broadcasts and most people on the east coast knew nothing about the sport as it occurred on the west coast. TV helped broaden the scope of monitoring the sport and new polls – Downtown Athletic Club, Associated Press, and even the Coaches themselves – were created to help inform the fans of what the national landscape held thanks to the fact that they had an opportunity to see games that they didn’t have access to before. Suddenly, the college football country was united and teams across the nation were ranked based off of what reporters covering the sport saw and talked about with their peers. Most still didn’t see any games outside of their region but the possibility – and the communication technology – was there. Suddenly, the goals of the game were different: Beat a bunch of teams in your region, hope to be good enough to be invited to a bowl game, and then also hope that you were good enough that a group of guys – most of whom never saw you play – thought you were the best team in the nation. The sport continued to grow, the goals are more nuanced now, but the regional popularity of the sport continued to take hold.

1984 Missouri Tigers Football Team

In 1984 the Supreme Court held that the NCAA television plan – stipulating that they alone negotiated contracts and chose which teams were broadcast – violated the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts by restraining open competition and trade. Suddenly, football found a new purpose: revenue generation for each individual school. Television networks jumped on the opportunity and negotiated rights with schools and conferences all over the country. That led to a seismic leap in demand of inventory to put on TV, which in turn led to an explosion in bowl games to broadcast. Remember, in 1940, there were five bowl games: Rose, Orange, Sugar, Sun, and Cotton. Between 1950 and 1980, seven bowl games were added to the schedule. From 1980 to 2010 – the era where NCAA v Board of Regents was decided – 20 bowls were added. 2019 featured 40 bowl games with more on the horizon.

Missouri v Kansas
2007 Armageddon at Arrowhead
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

An additional aspect of tv inventory demand led to another innovation: the championship game. In 1992 the seven major conferences and Notre Dame formed the Bowl Coalition, an attempt to pair the #1 and #2 teams in the AP standings in a final game to end the season. That same year, the SEC decided to split into divisions and have a conference championship game. In 1994, the Big 8 absorbed four Texas teams from the Southwest Conference to create the Big XII, and in their first season (1996), the Big XII also had a conference championship game. Eventually, the BCS established a guaranteed championship game between the top two ranked teams, and by the mid-2010s, each conference saw the value of conference championships and added divisions and championship games. The sport was as popular as ever but had now become an open-faced business. Because of this, the goals had once again morphed: make as much money as possible by making a bowl game, win your division, win your conference, and hope that the polls think you’re one of the two best teams in the country so you end up in a matchup where you can play for a title.

The Playoff has changed the goals of the game once again but the culture has yet to catch up. For decades, fans have clamored for a playoff to legitimize college football’s champion, and in 2014 we finally got it. However, it disrupted every aspect of the sport as we know it. Because ESPN owns the rights to the Playoff – and ESPN also controls a large chunk of the discourse that occurs in the college football zeitgeist – the majority of discussions with good and great teams is centered on the 4-team invitational that occurs at the end of the year. That’s fine – it’s what we all wanted, after all! – but it means that the goals of yesteryear are not as valuable as before. Oh, did you steamroll your rivals and win your conference? That’s cool and all, but you lost one game in your non-conference so you probably won’t be in the Playoff and we’re not talking about you...or, if we are, it’s about how your conference sucks so bad that the conference champion has no shot at making it to the 4-team Playoff. Did a plucky underdog finally put it together and go undefeated? Oh, they’re in a Group of 5 conference? Ha! Not interested, not important. The Playoff means that winning conference championships – or just being a G5 team – is no longer worth the attention because the only thing that matters is the Playoff. And that’s not a bad thing at face value, but it is a bad thing that 4-6 teams - out of a national roster of 130 teams - are the only teams that matter in a given season.

Imagine a world where every conference champion – plus the next six highest rated teams – got to participate in a 16-team Playoff. Suddenly, every division race matters. Now every conference champion is a known commodity and talked about. Now there are, at minimum, 16 teams that matter and the discussion revolves around the entire sport rather than a handful of elite teams. And, yes, there will be a ton of G5 teams massacred by elite recruiting teams in the first round of a 16-team Playoff, but at least they got the chance to matter in the sport.

College football is a business now and has been for awhile. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; but it is bad business to have entire aspects of your business - chock full of loyal consumers - not count towards anything. Having more than half of the participants in a sport not matter to the ultimate goal of the sport is detrimental to maintaining the popularity and growth of the sport itself. If the goal of college football is to make as much money as possible while making it into the Playoff, then the Playoff - the entire point of playing the sport, as dictated by the sport itself - needs to expand to give fair accommodation to all the money makers across the country.