Expand the playoffs

In case you missed it, the college football season has already started. Cal beat Hawaii 51-31 on Saturday in Sydney, Australia. But the real action starts tonight.

There are 16 games on the schedule, including a Southeastern Conference game as South Carolina visits Vanderbilt. There are 11 more games on Friday, including Kansas State vs. Stanford and the Colorado-Colorado State rivalry.

Then, what many are calling the greatest opening Saturday ever kicks off the season off in earnest as Alabama plays Southern Cal in Arlington, Texas; LSU plays Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, Clemson visits Auburn, Texas A&M hosts UCLA, North Carolina plays Georgia in Atlanta and Boston College squares off with Georgia Tech in Dublin, Ireland.

What this means is that half of the aforementioned teams in Saturday’s field — representing favorites in the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 — are going to suffer an opening-week loss, putting a big dent in their championship aspirations. Or, as CBS columnist Dennis Dodd puts it, the College Football Playoff starts now.

This will be year three of the four-team playoff format, which is a vast improvement over the old BCS format. It feels like a truer way to identify the best team in the country, but it’s still short of ideal.

The problem with the four-team format is that at least one of the power conference champions is always going to be left out. Expanding to eight teams — or at least six — would eliminate the nagging sense that a team left out of the playoff just might have been able to win the whole thing. Exhibit A: Stanford’s rout of Iowa in the Rose Bowl last year. Had Iowa beaten Michigan State in the Big 10 championship, it would have been in the playoff.

Unfortunately, the contract for a four-team setup goes through 2025. But pressure is mounting for a change. Many coaches favor an eight-team playoff, which would give every power conference champion a shot at the title, along with possibly the best non-power champion.

But eight teams poses a scheduling problem. The quarterfinal matchups of an eight-team field might have to replace conference championships that take place the first weekend in December. Players need time to take final exams between then and the semifinals that take place in the window around Jan. 1. And coaches need time to recruit. A six-team format with byes for the top two teams ensures that earning a top seed matters, but the play-in games would have to be squeezed somewhere into the schedule.

Those are the fine details that bolster arguments to keep the status quo. The smallest bracket that gives every team in the country a legitimate shot is a 16-team field, but that means an NFL-style 17-game season for some teams. The best team in the Mountain West Conference has no realistic chance at making a four-, six- or eight-team playoff field because strength of schedule is such a big factor in the selection process.

Expansion is coming. Balancing the demands on student-athletes against lucrative TV revenues and fan interest is important, but if change is inevitable, why put off until 2025 what can be solved today? Our national obsession with college football commands a better way to crown a worthy champion.


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