I am a lifelong sports fan and have an interest in sports history and writing about baseball, football, basketball and golf.
The College Football Crisis
On September 2, 2022, the College Football Playoff Board of Managers unanimously voted to expand the College Football Playoff format from four to twelve teams. The new format is set to begin in 2026, however, an attempt is being made to move the timeframe forward to as early as 2024. This is a move that couldn’t come too soon based on the current situation in Division I college football.
In the summer of 2022, it was announced that Oklahoma and Texas are planning to move from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference (SEC), and USC and UCLA are relocating from the Pac-12 to the Big 10 Conference.
These moves were made in the wake of similar moves by other schools over the past few years. They represent the most shocking indication that schools no longer have any loyalty to a particular conference or are concerned about the adverse effects they may have on the conference they're leaving. In the case of USC and UCLA, there also does not seem to be any concern about the geographic distance between those schools and the other Big 10 schools.
It seems that in the current college football landscape, there really are no rules. Long standing cornerstone schools in a conference are leaving seemingly overnight. Schools will align themselves with any conference in the country when it appears financially advantageous to do so.
These latest moves appear to be a power play by the Southeast and Big 10 Conferences to separate themselves from the other so-called Power 5 conferences (Big 12, Pac 12, and Atlantic Coast Conference). They essentially want to monopolize the current four-team college playoff.
So why is college football in this dilemma? What has led to this situation where it seems that the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing bigger every year and there are fewer and fewer haves?
First, I am going to explore the causes for the deterioration of the postseason bowl games. Then I will examine the ever-growing problem with the current four-team playoff format.
There was a time not that long ago when bowl games were a big deal. New Year’s Day was the best day of the year for college football as all the best teams would play in what seemed to be very important games. I remember when the only bowl games on New Year’s Day were the Cotton, Orange, Sugar, and Rose Bowls. Each of these games featured a champion from one of the major conferences, and the Rose Bowl had the Pac -12 Conference champion against the Big 10 Conference champion.
Now on New Year’s Day, it is often hard to find even one game that is compelling or has something substantial on the line. What has happened to the bowl games?
College Football Playoff
Probably the biggest culprit in the demise of the bowl games is the College Football Playoff. Since the top four ranked teams play in the Playoff, they are not eligible to play in the bowl games. If the champion of the Big 10 Conference is ranked in the top four, they would play in the four-team playoff instead of the Rose Bowl. This leaves the Rose Bowl with an also-ran team as a substitute for the conference champion.
This has been a big blow to the top bowls (Cotton, Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta), which had previously almost always hosted the top ranked teams. The four-team playoff has probably had much less effect on the second-tier bowls, which would not have had any of the top ranked teams in the first place. The second-tier bowls have probably been affected by the trickle-down effect as that also-ran team in the Rose Bowl may have played in a second-tier bowl before the playoff format.
Conference Championship Game
A second deterrent to the bowl games is the conference championship games. In the last few years, virtually every conference has been broken into two divisions. The two division winners would then play in the conference championship game. Money must clearly be the driving force behind these Championship games. Otherwise, they make no sense at all.
The problem with these conference championship games is that they often feature one team that is highly ranked and probably the best team in the conference against an opponent with maybe an 8-4 record. If the higher ranked team wins, the game means absolutely nothing other than further cementing that team as being an elite team. However, if the lower ranked team wins, and that happens more than you might think, the situation within the conference becomes a lot more complicated.
Now the lower ranked team becomes the conference champion and is now eligible to play in a major bowl game. This leaves a major bowl with a less attractive conference champion that may barely be ranked in the top 20.
Of course, this conference championship game essentially ruins the season for the higher ranked team and spoils what may have been an intriguing bowl game matchup. You wonder if the money made on these games is often offset by the losses in future bowl games that are now less appealing.
Too Many Bowls
Nowadays, it seems that there is a bowl game in every stadium in the country that is warm enough to host a game. There are even bowl games in colder places like New York and Boston. Every major company in the country seems to have its name on some bowl game. In 1970, there were 11 bowl games. In 1980, there were 15. In 1990, there were 19. In 2000, there were 25. In 2021, there were 39 bowl games, not counting the three playoff games.
Back in the 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, most of the teams that qualified for a bowl game had records that were significantly better than .500. However, under the current bowl structure, any team with at least six wins against football bowl subdivision opponents can qualify for a bowl game. So, some teams with a 6-6 or maybe even a 6-7 record will play in a bowl game. In 2021, 82 of the 130 Division I football bowl subdivision teams played in a bowl game or a playoff game.
While the College Football Playoff and the conference championship games have hurt the top-level bowl games, this large increase in the number of bowl games have hurt the second-tier bowls. It used to be that getting selected to play in a second-tier bowl was still an honor. The Gator Bowl, Liberty Bowl, and Sun Bowl were prestigious bowls for many schools.
However, in today's “everyone gets a trophy" world, the honor of being selected to play in a bowl game has been greatly reduced. In fact, many of these meaningless lower tier bowl games hit the finances of the institutions involved. Typically, all bowls require the participating schools to purchase a significant number of tickets (10,000-20,000). If the fans and alumni of the school don’t buy many tickets, the university is stuck having to purchase the remaining tickets. Since a lot of these games are very unappealing to the school’s fan base, this can amount to a lot of tickets, which can quickly eat up the modest purse that these lower tier bowls offer.
As an example of the growing lack of interest in these bowl games, in 2006, a total of 1.7 million people attended the 28 bowls games that were played that year. In 2019, a total of only 1.64 million people attended the 40 bowls games that were played that year (source: Statista).
The bowl system is broken from the top down. From the Rose Bowl that must settle for a second-place team to the Hawaii Bowl or Myrtle Beach Bowl that last year featured teams with no better than a 6-6 record. Fan interest is down, the games hold very little importance, and in many cases, the schools themselves would prefer not to be invited to the game as they will likely be left covered in red ink.
Some may conclude that the bowl system may seem broken, but that is because it has been replaced by the four-team playoff. That’s where the excitement is. That’s where the money is. However, the four-team playoff presents its own set of issues
The four-team college football playoff first began at the end of the 2014 season. The four highest ranked teams at the end of the season, as determined by the College Football Selection Committee, would qualify for the playoff. Prior to that time, a two-team playoff had been in place since 1998.
The goal of the playoff system is to ensure that the top ranked teams face off at the end of the season. Prior to having the two-team playoff, the final rankings would be determined after the bowl games, with no assurance that the two highest ranked teams would play each other. This would often lead to controversy where you may have two undefeated teams at the end of the season both claiming to be champion.
However, the four-team playoff seems to have evolved into a situation where a very small number of teams have taken over, leaving most teams with little or no hope of reaching the playoffs. Ever since the playoffs have been in place, they have been virtually controlled by the Southeast Conference, Clemson and Ohio State.
There has only been one game won in the playoff by a team other than a SEC school, Clemson or Ohio State. That was when Oregon beat Florida State in the semifinals during the first year of the playoff; they would lose to Ohio State in the final game. Since these playoffs were created, SEC schools have won five of the eight championships. The others were won by Clemson (2) and Ohio State.
Alabama (SEC) has been in the playoffs seven out of eight years, and Clemson has been in six out of eight. Ohio State has been in the playoff four times. Not surprisingly, the preseason rankings for the 2022 season had Alabama at No. 1, Ohio State at No. 2, Georgia (SEC) at No. 3 and Clemson at No. 4. Even the four-team playoff has become predictably boring. I suppose the fans of those few teams love the format.
Since the biggest bowl game payouts go to the teams and conferences represented in the four-team playoff, and since the biggest TV contracts will go to the conferences with the most high-profile teams, it is easy to see how the rich keep getting richer.
In today's world where seemingly all the bastions of wealth and privilege are being torn down, the four-team playoff has allowed for the creation of a very small exclusive club of teams that seem to have all the power and wealth. It is not a healthy competitive environment when so many teams are essentially excluded from realistically competing for a national championship.
This is why the expansion of the playoffs to 12 teams had to be put into place. It will at least give teams in conferences, other than the SEC and a few select programs, the opportunity to compete in the playoffs.
The decision by the College Football Board of Managers to expand the playoff to 12 teams was a necessary and important step to expand the opportunities for many more schools to reach the playoff. By at least having a realistic chance of competing in the playoff, it also may give these schools a little boost come recruiting time. Recruiting is and will be the key for the Pac-12, Big 12, and ACC conferences to be able to compete with the SEC and the emerging Big-10 Conference
However, I believe that the Board of Managers should have a gone a step further with their expansion plans. An expansion to 16 teams would seem to make more sense and provide a more balanced playing field. Under the current 12-team format, the first four seeds would receive a bye in the first round and would only be required to play after the field was reduced to eight teams. This would give the first four seeds a big advantage where they would play one less game. Not only does this benefit them in that they don’t have to win as many games, but they also benefit by being less fatigued and possibly less injured than the 5-12 seeds. Expand the playoff to 16 teams and require all the teams to win four games to win the championship.
The other change I think that should be made along with expanding the playoff to 16 teams is to eliminate the conference championship games. The first round of the playoff could be played the week when the conference championship games are currently being played. The higher seeded teams could possibly host the games, or they could be played in a neutral site. By making this change, you replace games that are often not that significant with playoff elimination games.
In addition, one of the big concerns in the past of expanding the Playoff has been the need to add more weeks of play to the season. But by starting the playoff in what is currently the week of the conference championship games, the 16-team playoff would only require one additional week of play in comparison to the current four-team playoff.
Division 1 (football bowl subdivision) level college football appears to be at a crisis point. The most prestigious schools and the most powerful conferences seem to be taking steps to seize complete control of the College Football Playoff and the road to the National Championship. Long standing major conferences like the Pac-12 and the Big-12 are being gutted and left for dead. The ACC is almost certainly on high alert that the two super conferences will soon be coming for the one thing they have of value, Clemson.
It is no wonder that teams like Texas and Oklahoma want to go to the SEC, which clearly is the conference of champions. From 2006 to 2022, five different SEC schools have won the national championship, and the SEC as a conference has won 12 titles.
USC and UCLA wanting to go to the Big 10 also makes sense since they appear to be best positioned to challenge the SEC for college football dominance. With programs like Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, and Wisconsin to go along with Ohio State, the Big 10 is the only conference that comes even close to having the number of high-profile programs contained within the SEC.
But where does this leave the remaining teams in the Pac-12 and Big- 12 Conference, and where does it leave the Atlantic Coast Conference sans Clemson? Maybe the decision to expand the College Football Playoff will help to stem the ever-growing gap between the top teams and conferences and everyone else. But if it doesn’t, there will soon be many schools who will find themselves demoted from a top tier conference to a conference looking up at the two super conferences. For those schools, college football Saturdays will never be the same.
For schools like Oregon, Washington, TCU, Oklahoma State, Florida State, and Virginia Tech, the hope is that a solution is coming that will keep college football relevant for many teams instead of just a select few. Then we will be able to continue to echo the long-ago voice of College Football -Chris Schenkel, “Is there a better way to spend an autumn afternoon than college football?"