There are few things football fans crave more than resolution. In fact, aside from tailgating, there might not be any. That’s why overtime was instituted — to eliminate the ambiguity (and bookkeeping bother) of tie games. And it’s why 12 of college athletics’ most prominent suits met in Chicago this week to work out the details of a four-team FBS playoff to determine a truer national champion.
I say “truer” because no system is perfect. This one, slated to go into effect in 2014 if college presidents approve, is just better than the previous one, which was a monument to fuzzy math that discriminated against the Have Nots (e.g. Boise State) and produced too many unsatisfying matchups (e.g. the recent LSU-Alabama sequel). I mean, let’s face it, the more inclusive the process is, the less looting there figures to be in college towns the day the final BCS rankings are released.
Or maybe not. Maybe this new arrangement will create even more disgruntlement. After all, it’s easier to argue that your team is one of the top four in the land than one of the top two. But hypothetically, yes, doubling the number of contestants increases the FBS’s chances of Getting It Right, and that’s what college football zealots have been clamoring for. Something as important as a national championship should be decided on the playing field, not in the recesses of a computer.
Besides, all you have to do is look at last season to realize how entertaining this could be. Instead of a dead-end “consolation game” between Brandon Weeden’s Oklahoma State Cowboys and Andrew Luck’s Stanford Cardinal in the Fiesta Bowl, we could have had Luck vs. defensive mastermind Nick Saban in one semifinal and the high-scoring Cowboys vs. undefeated LSU in the other (preferably at a more neutral site than the Superdome, though). We also could have had scores of sofas set on fire in Eugene, Ore.; Boise, Idaho; and Madison, Wis. — enough to cause the stock price of Thomasville Furniture to skyrocket.
(OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the drift.)
Then there’s the financial benefit. A four-team playoff is expected to generate hundreds of millions of additional dollars, money that could be funneled back into cash-strapped athletic programs and perhaps save some nonrevenue sports from the chopping block. The money also could be funneled back to the players in the form of a stipend, but don’t hold your breath on that one.
As ACC commissioner John Swofford put it: “Everyone agrees that financially this is going to be good for everyone in the room.” It’s just too bad the players weren’t represented in that room. They have a substantial stake in this, too, of course, inasmuch as it’s their physical well-being that’s on the line. In recent decades, I’ll just point out, we’ve seen the maximum length of the season (postseason included) increase from 12 to 13 to 14 and now to 15 games, assuming the four-team playoff is approved. That’s almost as long as the NFL regular season.
Some might find it strange that pro football has encountered serious resistance to the idea of an 18-game schedule, but the FBS hasn’t gotten much blowback at all about subjecting college kids to greater and greater risk of injury. And the NFL, from what I understand, doesn’t have a monopoly on concussions — though you’d think it does because of all the lawsuits that have been brought against it. At any rate, it’s reasonable to ask: How many games are too many for an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old? Is 15 pushing the envelope, given the hitting that takes place in spring ball as well?
So it would have been nice if the players had a voice in “the room,” someone to express their concerns and look after their interests. They are the game, let’s not forget, just as NFL players are the game. But the focus, predictably, was elsewhere when the playoff was announced. The focus was on placating the masses and, in the words of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, “trying to balance other important parties, like the value of the regular season, the bowls, the academic calendar.”
Make no mistake, a two-round playoff will be a boon to college football, further raising its profile and filling its coffers. But it’s hard not to wonder: What’s in it for the players, aside from another week in the spotlight … and another week in harm’s way?