Since the 11th-ranked Golden Knights lost, Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta, this year’s committee chairman, will not have to tie himself in knots on Dec. 20 explaining how an unbeaten UCF team was left out of the CFP yet again. There remain three certainties in life: death, taxes and the CFP committee making sure its four playoff spots are reserved for teams from the Power Five conferences. The five Group of Five conferences are left to accept their one bid to a New Year’s Six bowl and be happy about it.
That’s why it was no surprise last week when a proposal by Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott to expand the playoff to eight teams this season was quickly and quietly turned down by the CFP management committee (which, if you’re scoring at home, is separate from the selection committee). It is made up of the 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who is somehow granted the same power representing one school as the commissioners who represent as many as 14. (Remarkably, there is yet another group, the CFP board of managers, which the management committee technically reports to but which did not get involved in Scott’s proposal.)
Scott’s motives in proposing expansion were pretty clear: His conference, which has placed just two teams in the playoffs over six years, won’t begin play until Nov. 6, and its schedules will consist of only seven games. The Big Ten, which, like the Pac-12, voted to cancel its season in August before reversing itself last month, will start two weeks earlier and is planning a nine-game schedule. Teams from the other three Power Five conferences all started play in September and — depending on covid-19 — will play at least 10 games.
Scott’s proposal was scuttled quickly last Wednesday at the conclusion of a Zoom call involving the members of the management committee. There was no actual vote, just a consensus. One might think that with the Pac-12 voting with the Group of Five schools for expansion, the proposal might have had a chance.
But it never came to a vote for two reasons, the first being the reason behind most decisions in big-time sports: money. The CFP’s contract with ESPN pays the schools about $470 million a year. But because ESPN has the rights to all seven CFP games — the three that decide the national championship, plus the four “consolation” bowls — expanding the field this season would not have involved additional TV money. The consolation bowls would simply have become the quarterfinals.
The second reason — one that isn’t as often discussed — was this: control. While the other Power Five commissioners might have been a bit sympathetic to Scott’s plight, those feelings were outweighed by the fear that one or more of the Group of Five teams might win a playoff game. Or two. That can’t be allowed to happen.
Go back to the 2017 season, when an unbeaten UCF team had absolutely no chance to make the four-team playoff. The Knights were sent to the Peach Bowl, where they beat Auburn, which, as luck would have it, had beaten both Georgia and Alabama during the regular season.
This very much annoyed Alabama fans and many others. Some applauded the declaration. More than anything, it was an embarrassment to the CFP, which had no real explanation for why a 12-0 UCF team wasn’t given serious consideration for a playoff spot.
One of the reasons the CFP was first conceived as a four-team playoff is that the Power Five schools remember Boise State beating Oklahoma; Utah (then a non-Power Five school) beating Alabama and TCU beating Wisconsin in bowl games. Those were embarrassing results but did no tangible damage, since Power Five schools were still deciding the national title in the stand-alone BCS championship game.
And while Power Five apologists would insist there is no way a Group of Five team could ever win a national title, what if it happened? What if an upstart merely reached the title game? ESPN would have a fit if UCF or Boise State or Brigham Young crashed its annual ratings extravaganza.
And so none of those schools will ever get that chance.
In this insane year, Major League Baseball expanded its playoff field from 10 to 16 — more money involved there. The NFL expanded from 12 to 14 playoff teams before the pandemic — again, more money. The NBA and NHL already allow more than half their teams into the postseason. But pro sports aren’t divided into power teams and non-power teams. Only baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, but it does have a luxury tax, which helps keep the playing field level. The Power Five schools have no interest in a level playing field.
To be fair, there were logistical reasons to not expand the playoff field, notably that the semifinals would be pushed back to the first weekend of the NFL playoffs rather being held than on New Year’s Day. And the Rose Bowl, which will host one of the semifinals this season, has an ironclad contract to kick off at 5 p.m. New Year’s Day whether it is part of the playoff or not. Would it be willing to serve instead as a quarterfinal? And how would the college games avoid the NFL’s now six wild-card games, which will dominate the TV ratings?
Still, if there had been more money on the table, Scott’s proposal would have had much better odds. But with no more money and less control over the little guys, it had no chance.
With UCF out of the picture, the selection committee still has to keep a wary eye on unbeaten teams like Cincinnati, SMU and Brigham Young. It’s also worth noting that Sun Belt teams went 3-0 against the Big 12 on one Saturday last month, with Louisiana winning at Iowa State, which went on to beat Oklahoma.
But let’s make this clear: None of those teams have any chance to make the four-team playoff. In an eight-team playoff, the committee might have been hard-pressed not to give an unbeaten Group of Five team a shot to compete. And that might have had long-term repercussions.
The playoff will remain at four teams at least until the end of the ESPN contract in 2025. Then, in all likelihood, someone will throw so much money at the school presidents, commissioners and athletic directors that they’ll expand to eight teams. Until then, Group of Five schools need not apply. The door is firmly locked.