Christian Barmore looked tired the morning after for good reason.
The Alabama defensive tackle had spent the previous night living in the Ohio State backfield, wrecking Buckeyes dreams. His demeanor during a Tuesday morning Zoom call with the media: There was nothing left to give. As it should have been after No. 1 Alabama won the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship, the program’s 18th national title.
But an immediate question begged itself as we enter the backstretch of the CFP contract: What if the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Barmore had to drag his body our there for one more game?
“Anywhere, 100%. I know we’re celebrating, but we’re ready for whatever,” he said. “It could be the next game on the schedule.”
Barmore’s ambition is admirable. He and his teammates’ ability to play an extra game is a sticking point when considering expansion of the four-team CFP field. An eight-team bracket would mean the two championship teams would be playing 16 games in a normal season.
Seven years into the 12-year CFP agreement with ESPN, there seems to be almost universal agreement the four-team playoff will be expanded in the future. FBS coaches voted Tuesday showing “overwhelming support” for an expanded playoff during the annual American Football Coaches Association convention.
OK, so expansion is on the table. But when, how and how many teams?
Before we even go there, does more teams mean better games? Not necessarily. If you’re tired of the narrative — the same teams playing mostly blowout games — a bigger bracket doesn’t necessarily solve anything. Exhibit A: This year’s playoff.
Try to envision a championship game in an eight-team bracket on Monday didn’t include some combination of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State
“I have mixed emotions about expansion,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said.
Expansion doesn’t guarantee access
Start with this assertion: If bracket expansion is about access, most of that access will continue to go to the Power Five. Those conferences wouldn’t agree to expansion and the increased riches that go with it just to give the Cincinnatis a break.
Sure, the Group of Five would have a likelier path, but let’s look at an eight-team playoff based on the final CFP Rankings of the 2020 season.
(1) Alabama vs. (8) Cincinnati
(4) Notre Dame vs. (5) Texas A&M
(2) Clemson vs. (7) Florida
(3) Ohio State vs. (6) Oklahoma
Notice anything? The Power Five picks up three more playoff spots, and the SEC gets three teams in. With the ACC getting two (Notre Dame was aligned in 2020), that only leaves three spots for everyone else. Does allowing a three-loss Florida in the chase sound exciting?
“In the last month, it had become pretty clear [the playoff] is a [Power Five] invitational,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said.
That became clear again this year. Only 12 teams have played in the CFP in its seven-year history. Only six teams have won a playoff game. Only four have won more than one. However, there hasn’t been a year when a team being left out has delegitimized the playoff.
The playoff-or-bust mentality has impacted the quality of other bowl games with players increasingly opting out. Florida resembled a “scout team” in the Cotton Bowl, Aresco said, with numerous starters opting out for the NFL Draft and amid the impact of COVID-19.
Health and safety must be considered
An eight-team bracket means two teams would be playing the equivalent of an NFL regular season. That’s a health issue — a significant one. But we’ve learned during this pandemic season that influential, power college leaders will rationalize anything.
NCAA president Mark Emmert crowed Monday about the association’s progress in head trauma awareness in his “State of College Sports” address at the NCAA Convention. We’re almost at the point where any expansion of bracket will have to be negotiated with athletes who are gaining more leverage each day.
Think of the optics if the commissioners hurry to an expanded playoff while name, image and likeness is slow to be implemented. That sort of gold rush will taint the system even further.
Barmore will play, but is it fair for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields — with his NFL ambitions — to work through his hip pointer for an extra game? #WeWantToPlay loses meaning when schools are left with increased head trauma liability. The presidents who will have to approve an expansion will intensely scrutinize that point.
The players certainly didn’t sign up for playing during a pandemic in their letter of intent. If those leaders judged outrunning a pandemic was worth it, adding an extra game to chase more revenue doesn’t seem that big a step.
“You’re going to run up against, ‘OK, how many games should our student-athletes play?,'” Aresco said. “It is a huge one, and it’s something we overlook because we’re all very competitive. You could argue, why not expand it further?”
Finances may be a sticking point
The financial “need” for an expanded bracket goes both ways. College athletics has taken a tremendous economic hit during the pandemic. There is some thought that a bigger, richer bracket would help ease than financial pain. Maybe.
In the middle of a pandemic, it’s doubtful ESPN would tear up its existing CFP contract and pay more for games that are declining in ratings. ESPN is locked into five more years of the 12-year CFP contract at a cost of approximately $3 billion. Assuming that most media rights deals are backloaded, that figure might be larger.
Like a lot of businesses, ESPN has its bottom line to consider. To extend that deal and pay more doesn’t seem to be make financial sense.
However, ESPN likes cost certainty, too. It has it with the ACC 20-year deal that goes out to 2036, and it just inked a big-money deal with the SEC for all of its games. The ACC deal is already considered undervalued in some circles if only because the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 are up for renegotiation before then.
Networks will have hard and strategic decisions to make with the Big 12, Pac-12 and CFP contracts all up at the same time in 2026.
To that point, a new round of conference realignment could be sparked if any of the big stakeholders want to renegotiate long-term deals before then.
So what might work?
1. A six-team playoff: Expand by two teams (not four), adding two play-in games with the top teams receiving byes. That begins to address Group of Five concerns and lessens the possibility of top teams being able to “afford” late-season losses. Lose late and Alabama may have dropped to the play-in game this past season. It also reduces the increased financial burden on ESPN.
2. Move the CFP National Championship off Monday night: The CFP won’t go anywhere near the NFL during playoff weekends. Monday continues to be a stand-alone TV spot for the title game. But ratings have tanked. There has to be a way to make the games more popular. What about Friday night in prime time?
3. Reduce the playoff-or-bust mentality: All of the following may happen organically, but if not, options begin with reducing the number of bowl games, which creates more demand. With the expected, eventual addition of name, image and likeness rights, allow sponsors, apparel companies or even the network to pay star players bonuses for participating in non-playoff bowl games. That may help stave off massive opt outs only reducing those to potential early first-round picks.
4. Create more transparency: The current selection process is the most secretive of the wire-service poll era (since 1936). Is it too much to ask the 13 CFP Selection Committee members to release their top 25 votes week to week? They certainly should be made public on Selection Sunday. The players, coaches, media and public deserve to know.
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