College football is our most argumentative sport. In this era, there’s no hotter college football argument than whether the playoff system should expand.
Well, all of the major arguments against expanding the Playoff are bad. They’ve been bad for a while, and they’re still bad now. Let’s take a moment and look at them again, argument by argument, and say why they’re bad.
First, here’s the list of good arguments against expanding the Playoff:
1. Expansion would put more physical strain on unpaid labor.
So make the regular season shorter. Or expand roster sizes. Or better yet — and hear me out here — just pay the players.
And now, for the list of bad arguments:
1. Expansion will erode the sanctity of the regular season, when every game is already like a playoff game.
This is a pretty popular take, even among some coaches. Dabo Swinney said before the title game, “Everybody wants to expand these playoffs. We’ve had a playoff since September.”
After all, college football’s regular season is the shortest of any major sport.
But we need to be honest with ourselves. Every game clearly isn’t a playoff, and the regular season can’t be that sacred if most of the games don’t matter already. If every game is a playoff, how come UCF didn’t qualify after winning every single game two seasons in a row? Is the regular season that sacred if half of the teams in FBS are eliminated before the opening kickoff, despite what the Playoff claims, and another 30 are eliminated by Week 4?
If we only consider games that may have an impact on the Playoff race to “matter,” then only a few dozen games per year matter. There is no sanctity in SEC/SoCon Challenge week, and most out-of-conference games for major programs are boring mismatches that only become important in the event of a stunning upset. If we want every game to matter, we need to actually make every game matter.
Nobody was watching Northwestern or Pitt in late November. But if they had a chance to steal a Playoff bid by making a conference title game? Suddenly, those games would become compelling! If anything, expansion would make more games matter.
2. Expansion could lead to mediocre teams winning it all and the best teams not getting rewarded.
It’s possible a lesser team could win some years, but somehow that hasn’t dulled the interest in literally any other postseason in sports.
Besides, we don’t really crown the “best” team in college football. That’s a nebulous concept in a sport with such a limited sample size. Plenty of teams have played the best football week to week and not gotten title shots. 1984 national champ BYU wasn’t even the best BYU team of the 1980s. Was 1990 Colorado the best team in the country? Almost assuredly not. And the farther back in history we go, the more ridiculous some of the title claims get.
If you want to make sure the team that plays the best football over the course of the full season wins the championship, kill the postseason and make a shiny belt for the top-ranked team in S&P+. You don’t want a championship game anyway. You want a spreadsheet.
No. 1 seeds repeatedly fail to win the Playoff, and seven-ish teams per year are Playoff-caliber. The gap between the top team and the next handful can be small. Weird how that might happen in a sport with a short regular season and limited intersectional play.
3. Expansion would disproportionately benefit conferences like the Pac-12 or Big Ten, at the potential expense of the SEC, whose fans and commissioner have been slow to embrace a bigger playoff.
Even if that’s true, who the hell cares?
In the early days of college football, when the rules of the game promoted a mass-momentum bloodsport that favored Yale, Harvard, and a few other Northeastern powers, the rest of the sport got together to work to change the rules.
In the 1950s, the NCAA had legislation that prohibited athletic scholarships. That system favored urban, wealthy, and Midwestern schools that had more work-study jobs to use to prop athletes up and help them pay for school. So Southern schools (and some smaller Northern ones) worked together to change the rules.
In the ‘80s, when some schools realized mass NCAA control of TV revenues disproportionately hurt them, they worked to change the rules and won at the Supreme Court.
The list goes on and on. This sport has always worked in regional blocs.
4. The four-team Playoff’s already on a long-term contract that runs through 2025.
Can you imagine someone involved in college football breaking a contract? When has that happened, other than literally all the time forever?
ESPN and the FBS conferences could draw up a new deal whenever they wanted.
5. If we expand to eight teams, folks are just going to holler about the ninth. If we expand to 16, they’ll fight about the 17th. Nothing will satisfy everyone.
Definitely true. Expanding the Playoff will not end arguments, because arguments are as much a part of the DNA of the sport as marching bands, tailgating, and recruiting scandals.
People complain about the teams on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, too. This lasts about 30 minutes, until most of us remember those wronged teams were either promising mid-majors few watched or middling power conference teams with losses to directional Michigan schools.
Right now, championship-quality, 11-1 teams can miss the Playoff. Including them is more important than including some 12-loss basketball team.
6. Expansion would threaten what makes college football unique
I am sympathetic to those who worry about the creeping NFLization of college football, or how the Playoff dominates all coverage at the potential expense of other interesting stories. Keeping college football weird is important, but in a world where the Playoff dominates, expansion means more chances for the weird to hit the mainstream.
Besides, the Playoff didn’t stop people from paying attention when a giant cow attacked a dog at one bowl game as a Texas fan yelled GET HIS ASS at the cow. It didn’t stop people from falling in love with a game sponsored by Cheez-It that had six interceptions in the first half.
7. Expansion would further sully the sanctity of the bowls.
Bowl games are great. Almost no bowl games have national titles on the line, and that hasn’t stopped them from being great or getting big TV ratings. The people most worried about this are yellow blazer-clad grifters who run bowl games. You probably aren’t one of those.
As long as bowl games are skipping bowl games, don’t worry about players sometimes doing it too, or about the games not having big enough stakes.
8. Expansion would further cut into players’ exam study time, and academics are just too important.
Division III, supposedly a bastion of academic purity, has a 32-team playoff that runs all through December. FBS, which is already polluted by TV money and scholarships brought to you by Dr. Pepper, can handle eight teams.
Are there any other big arguments I missed?
If you’ve got them, drop them in the comments or tweet them to me.