Expanding College Playoff Not on Current Agenda

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There were tense moments, yes, and some anxiety. Then when the field was announced, there was relief. Or frustration. Or some mixture of both.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby was glad to see his league's champion included in the College Football Playoff. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany was unhappy to see his champion outside the four-team bracket again.

As the fifth edition of the playoff nears kickoff, the conversation about whether and when it will expand continues to heat up. It's constant fodder for talk radio, but especially this month, in the weeks after the annual selection of the four-team bracket, with a fresh set of results to argue over, we hear calls for change.

Except where it matters.

The Power Five conference commissioners, who created the playoff and would make any alterations, say they remain largely satisfied it is working as intended. Although some say they would not be opposed to considering something different at some point, they see no reason, and insist there is no impetus, to explore significant change now.

"Four works," Bowlsby told USA TODAY by text message on Sunday, reiterating a point he has consistently made. "It was hard to get to four with lots of compromises. We should be thoughtful but shouldn't refuse to discuss."

While it's easy to grab and hold that last part, don't discount the first part. Bowlsby's sentiment has been echoed this month, publicly and privately, by many of his peers.

You think eight is great? Fine. So do many others. But four works, say the guys who matter.

And if anything, the bracket of Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma forestalled any serious discussion of substantive change. It includes three conference champions and three unbeaten teams. Two conferences are on the outside looking in, but their commissioners are not exactly clamoring for inclusion or change.

During an appearance this month at the annual Learfield/SportsBusiness Journal Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said he was disappointed that his league was left out for the third time in five years, but he essentially reiterated something he'd told reporters before the Pac-12 championship game.

"Felt then, feel now, four is absolutely the right number," Scott said then.

The same goes for Delany, whose league has missed the playoff for consecutive seasons. Delany said he believes the Big Ten has three teams that could win the national title. None will have the chance. But since 12-1 Ohio State was ranked No. 6 by the selection committee, behind Oklahoma and Southeastern Conference runner-up Georgia, Delany has declined several opportunities to lash out, even though the Big Ten's champion has been left out three years in a row (in 2016, Ohio State got into the Playoff without winning the Big Ten, but Big Ten champ Penn State was edged out by Pac-12 champ Washington).

"We knew what we were buying," Delany said. "I don't have buyer's remorse on this. We don't allow the (selection) committee or anybody else to define who we are."

Rather than advocating change to the playoff, either to the selection protocol or to the size of the field, Delany suggested the Big Ten could consider whether to scrap its divisional format and instead match its two best teams in its title game, the better to provide a push for the winner into the playoff.

"I've heard more conversation about that inside our league," he said, but he added, "Everything is not about the College Football Playoff."

Delany also noted the compromises made in creating the playoff, which he described as an attempt to balance several varied interests, as well as the need for "core consensus" on any changes; they won't come "by a 5-4 vote," he said, though the important part of that might be which five commissioners were "yes" votes. Although the playoff's management committee is composed of the commissioners of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences and Notre Dame's athletics director, the Power Five conferences wield the, uh, power (it's why the push by American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco on behalf of unbeaten UCF is unlikely to matter much).

As important, though: The commissioners will act in concert with their schools' presidents and chancellors.

"If people wanted to talk about (expanding the playoff), they could talk about it," Delany said. "But it comes really from the presidents. When we were going from two to four, it was with presidential consent. (To go) beyond that, they would have to ask us to do something.

"It's not going to come from any one of us (commissioners) because we're disappointed in a particular year."

This is a key point, too: If Scott, Delany and others are not advocating for change, it's in part because this particular year's results didn't leave too many power-brokers disappointed over the actual process.

"Had the SEC had two of the four yet again, it probably increases the conversation," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said last week at the Intercollegiate Athletics Forum. "I think that's a fair observation. Nobody's come to me and said, 'Wow, if that game outcome had been different, we'd have been pounding our fists on the table.'"

Don't misunderstand, though. Even among commissioners, there's a sense that at some point in the future they'll get there.

"What something feels like today may feel differently four years from now," the ACC's John Swofford said.

He makes one other important point: The composition of commissioners, and presidents and chancellors, is likely to change in the next few years. Delany, 70, has indicated he would likely retire in 2020. Swofford turned 70 this month. Bowlsby turns 67 in January. The people who created the playoff might not be the ones voting to expand it.

"There will be different people around the room, too, frankly, five years from now, 10 years from now," Swofford said. "Most things evolve in one way or another. I don't mean that in the sense that it evolves necessarily with growth (expansion). We'll just have to see.

"But I think we've got it right for now, I really do."

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December 17, 2018


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