Opinion: Commissioners Will Pave Way for Expanded Playoff

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In an interview with ESPN this week, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco said the treatment of unbeaten Central Florida by the College Football Playoff selection committee over the past couple of years has caused him to re-evaluate his stance on whether the four-team field should be expanded beyond its current format.

"The point is, I hadn't really given a lot of thought to expansion of the Playoff, but I'm giving more thought to it, only because it seems to me that if half of FBS is pretty much going to be left out of this, then I think maybe you have to think more about it," Aresco told ESPN.

For all the talk among fans and media members about changing the current Playoff, it's a pretty good indicator of how far away we actually are from expansion that the one commissioner who should be pounding the table and screaming about the unfairness of this system is just now starting to consider something that the rest of the world has been considering since Day 1.

Of course, Aresco should be in favor of Playoff expansion. As should Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, whose conference champion was left out last year and might very well again this year. As should Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, whose conference is slipping into irrelevance as its football product struggles. As should Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, whose league is the only one thus far to have a one-loss conference champion shut out of a Playoff bid.

At this point, the only league that can reasonably say a four-team field is more beneficial to its interests than eight is the Southeastern Conference. So why does it feel like we are still several years away from having a serious discussion about a better way to do this?

One of the major fallacies in projecting when the Playoff will expand is this notion that some chaotic result is going to trigger an epiphany among the conference commissioners and cause them to scrap this thing and start over.

Remember, the nuts and bolts of the CFP system were formed through a series of meetings that took place in 2012 and 2013 in which every possible scenario was discussed. The commissioners knew going into this that the SEC would probably get two teams in sooner or later. They knew that Notre Dame could get in and take a spot from a power conference champion. They knew you could have a UCF or a Boise State go unbeaten and not get a shot.

They didn't care then, so it seems highly unlikely they'll care now.

Instead, there are two things that are more likely to shake the status quo than a name-brand team getting left out of the Playoff under controversial circumstances: signs of declining interest in the sport and the fast-approaching change in college football's leadership.

Admittedly, the first factor is admittedly more difficult to quantify. In 2017, Sports Business Journal found that CBS, ABC, NBC and ESPN all saw their average college football viewership decline year-over-year while Fox was up 23% due to the addition of its Big Ten package. Though somewhat alarming, that's not necessarily a perfect measurement either. Because of teams such as Michigan and Notre Dame, who draw big numbers when they're winning, some of those ratings could end up higher in 2018.

On the other hand, this Saturday will be the second consecutive in which ABC's coveted prime-time slot will go to matchups with limited national appeal (no offense to UCF-Cincinnati, but it's not exactly a ratings bonanza) because there were no other options. Meanwhile, any team west of Oklahoma is basically irrelevant at this point in the Playoff race and the conference championship games aside from Alabama-Georgia aren't shaping up as must-watch matchups.

The entire season, in fact, has lacked some juice, which is perhaps owed somewhat to Alabama's dominance but also speaks to the major structural problem with the Playoff as it stands.

It's simply undeniable that if there were an eight-team Playoff with automatic bids going to Power Five conference champions, Washington-Washington State would have huge meaning and the Big 12 championship game wouldn't need a Notre Dame loss to be must-watch TV.

Moreover, the bracket that would be awaiting us after championship weekend might look something like this: UCF at Alabama, Georgia at Clemson, Washington State at Notre Dame, Oklahoma at Michigan. Just from an entertainment standpoint, who's not signing up for that?

Unfortunately, rather than finding a way to make that format work, the power brokers have spent years explaining why it's not feasible: The academic schedule is difficult to navigate, the season is already too long and, best of all, that it would rob teams that lost in the quarterfinals of the oh-so-valuable "bowl experience."

All of these issues could be worked out if the commissioners wanted to take control of their postseason rather than outsourcing a good portion of it to bowl game organizers. Remember, this is a sport where they are playing the Playoff semifinals on Dec. 29 this year because the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl have priority on New Year's Day. (This would be like the Masters deciding to finish its tournament on Monday and willingly giving up the best TV time slot on Sunday afternoon to the Weed Eater Open.)

None of it makes sense, but it's going to take a new, younger group of administrators running the Playoff to see how much potential they're currently wasting. At some point, that will happen.

ACC Commissioner John Swofford hasn't committed to a retirement date, but he's turning 70 in a few weeks. Bowlsby will be 67 in January. Delany has targeted 2020 as a good date to step aside, and a number of people in the college sports industry are skeptical that Scott's tenure at the Pac-12 will last more than a few years.

In other words, the entire group of people driving these decisions could look very different by the next presidential election. And with that change will come new energy, fewer ties to tradition and the bowl industry and a longer view of what college football needs to grow its popularity.

Aresco, who is also part of that old guard as a longtime television executive before taking over the AAC, is finally seeing the light. But if it's taken Aresco this long to realize that an eight-team Playoff would be in his league's interests, the others are probably lagging even further behind.

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November 16, 2018


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