Opinion: Playoff Should Bring More Regional Diversity

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Ventura County Star (California)


Even now, during this brief interlude between the College Football Playoff's semifinals and the national championship, you can probably hear the chant. It's swelling from somewhere in the South — no, sorry, make that from everywhere in the South — but the epicenter appears to be Atlanta:

SEC! SEC! SEC! Which is a bad thing for college football. Stop right now. This is not — not — an anti-SEC screed.

Good on Georgia and Alabama for reaching the College Football Playoff. Congratulations to both for advancing. If the atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday will feel like an SEC championship game — well of course, they'll say, because as the slogan goes, "it just means more" — it's only because the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide won their way there, fair and square, under the current setup.

It's possible Bama and Georgia will give us a game for the ages. It's clear they'll produce a worthy national champion — the SEC's ninth in the last 12 seasons, which is a tremendous run.

But the increasing regionalization of college football's postseason is not a good development. Despite Alabama's grinding, eventual Sugar Bowl dominance, it's not inconceivable this title game could have been Clemson vs. Georgia — a battle of schools located fewer than 80 miles apart. Had a play or two gone differently in the Rose Bowl, it would have been Oklahoma vs. Alabama. Oklahoma-Clemson wasn't all that farfetched, either. You pick the matchup. It didn't really matter. From the moment the four-team bracket was announced, it was essentially a Southern regional tournament; the vast majority of the country's college football fans were outsiders looking in.

Troubling trend

Sure, it's a feature of the system — of 130 FBS teams, only four make the Playoff. But when the largest swaths of the country are regularly shut out, it's a troubling trend.

"You can't look at anything in college football as a snapshot, as a one-week or one-season snapshot," says Bill Hancock, the Playoff's executive director, denying there's a trend. "And the game has never been more popular."

But is it? And will it be? The Playoff semifinals drew very nice TV ratings, bolstering Hancock's argument. We'll see whether the championship game will be as popular. Since 2011, going back to the old Bowl Championship Series, the most eyeballs have been when teams from different regions squared off.

The highest-rated national championship game in that span featured Oregon and Ohio State in January 2015. That was also the first season of the Playoff, so it could be an anomaly. But Oregon vs. Auburn (2011 BCS national championship, 2010 season) and Alabama-Notre Dame (2013 BCS national championship, 2012 season) rated well above the rest, too — all of which featured matchups between teams from the South.

Unless you are ESPN, the goal of the Playoff is not TV ratings but to get the "four best teams." Along those lines, Rick Neuheisel, the former coach and current analyst, liked the Playoff selection committee's choices this season.

"A good thing," he called it, because in his mind the committee followed its criteria rather than gerrymandering a conference champion into the field — but don't misunderstand.

"It's a bad thing in the long term," Neuheisel continues, and his point is this: The selection criteria needs to change.

'Best' hard to quantify

What is "best" exactly? Short answer: Whatever each committee member thinks it is. It can change from year to year, or week to week.

No conspiracy theories here, and no claims of intentional bias. Probably no one watches more football than the committee members, or tries harder to separate perception from performance. But in a short season with very few good comparison points, objective measurements — like winning a conference championship — should mean much more than an intangible "eye test."

Among the Playoff's powerbrokers, there is no push for expansion. That's no as in zero.

"We've got no interest in exploring that," Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott says. "We really think we got it right with four teams in terms of balancing the regular season and the excitement of the Playoff."

'True national representation'

According to the selection protocol, when comparing similar teams, winning a conference championship is supposed to be a tie-breaker. But winning a conference championship ought to be a prerequisite; not winning one should be a deal-breaker. The selection criteria is set, though.

"I don't think it's something that's going to be reopened," Scott says.

But if one of the desired features of the Playoff is, as Scott puts it, "true national representation," maybe it should be reviewed. During that 12-year span we referenced earlier, Ohio State's victory against Oregon after the 2014 season was the only national title won by a team from outside the South (ACC powers Clemson and Florida State won the others). The Playoff is not going to expand anytime soon. The selection criteria is unlikely to be altered. Which means the increasing regionalization of the sport might not change, either.

Get ready to hear a lot more over the next few days about how it just means more. And in Alabama vs. Georgia, we might be in for a really fun show. But it would be nice if over the next few years, the College Football Playoff just meant more diversity.

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January 3, 2018


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