The College Football Playoff worked out well for the Big Ten in 2014, as Ohio State won the national championship despite being the last team in as the #4 seed. Under the BCS, the Buckeyes would have had to settle for a Rose Bowl berth instead of playing for a national championship.
Since then, Big Ten teams have been a big zero in the playoff. 2015 Michigan State and 2016 Ohio State were both shut out in their semifinal games, while no Big Ten team qualified for a playoff spot in 2017 or 2018.
Not that the Big Ten’s absence has hurt the playoff; it’s considered a rousing success, except for the concept of New Years Eve semifinals. (Between conflicts with the last workday of the year and celebrations that evening, the semifinals have now been moved to the Saturday before New Years when they aren’t actually held on New Years Day.)
So much so that now expansion of the playoff to include six or even eight teams is a very real proposition in future years. Everybody agrees that more playoff games would be extremely popular; the only question is how to make it happen.
Playing the quarterfinal games on campus seems to be the only area of consensus. The logistics of accommodating tens of thousands of fans make neutral sites rather unwieldy. If fans can drive four hours to a neutral facility, neutral sites can work. If people have to spend hundreds of dollars on airfare, the economics of neutral site games begin to collapse. The New Years’ semifinal games at bowl games have encountered the same logistical challenge; demand is high only if at least one team is within driving distance of the bowl game.
Jim Delany of the Big Ten is on board with the idea, now that the Big Ten has missed out two straight years. That seems to move playoff expansion from being simply idle speculation to seemingly likely. It’s now less of a question about if as it is about when and how. Do you have each Power Five conference champion paired up with the best “Group of Five” champion (i.e. Central Florida the last two seasons) and two wild cards? Or do you just select at least one “Group of Five” school with the rest being wildcards?
Any playoff expansion has to accommodate a program such as Central Florida, which has gone undefeated the last two seasons. But I struggle with the idea of giving conference champions an autobid; a four-loss Northwestern team shouldn’t get a playoff berth merely by pulling off an upset in the Big Ten championship game.
Of course, one casualty of playoff expansion could be conference championship games. Is college football willing to have a national champion playing in 16 games? Do you abandon conference championship games (which sometimes end up being rematches anyway) in order to schedule the first rounds of the playoff in early December?
Even if the conference championship games survive, the Northwestern example might force conferences such as the Big Ten to follow the Big Twelve’s “best two teams” model instead of having divisions. This year, for example, Michigan and Ohio State would have met again in Indianapolis. Of course, that would have made this year’s game in Columbus irrelevant.
And if you get rid of divisions, how do you handle scheduling? Scott Dochterman of the Athletic has proposed an eight game model for conference scheduling: three every year protected rivalries and alternate the other ten opponents, two years on with home-and-homes and two years off. I’d suggest a little wrinkle with rotating teams every year so you play each team within two years.
And if you are eliminating one conference game, each school would be required to schedule a Power Five opponent. Iowa’s annual game with Iowa State limits the Hawkeyes ability to schedule other Power Five conferences and still have seven home games each season. This would also be a great option for Nebraska, who could still play a national non-conference game against the likes of Arizona, Oregon and Tennessee while adding games against former Big Eight rivals such as Kansas, Kansas State or Iowa State.
I’m a big fan of more national non-conference games, because those games are what helps you rate each conference’s relative strength. It also sets the perception that the Big Ten is a national conference, not just a bunch of midwestern cold-weather schools. And it would be easy to formally recognize a Great Plains scheduling quadrangle of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Playoff expansion is coming; it’s not a question of if but when and how.