After three years and 12 participants, the impact of the College Football Playoff is being felt. For the first time in seven years, the Big 12 will have a conference championship game, a decision made “100 percent on our ability to optimize the likelihood of getting a team into the CFP,” said commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
It’s one example of the changes that conferences, athletic directors and coaches are making to adapt to the CFP era. But will it improve the Big 12’s chances? The value of a conference championship came into question last season after Penn State, the Big Ten champion, was snubbed in favor of Ohio State, a team the Nittany Lions beat during the regular season. It’s part of the challenge for teams entering the fourth year of the playoff, where there remains more questions than answers.
“It’s gotten so obsessive to a point,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “It’s the game. That’s the passion people have, and the playoff has made it that much greater. It’s made you aware of scheduling that much more, and all of the things that go into it, a different framework of how you have to do things, and putting your team in situations and scenarios and environments that you can handle it when you get there.”
According to coaches, the selection committee’s criteria can feel like a moving target, though most, including Fisher, support the current system and trust the selection committee members. But they are becoming more vocal with their proposals and ideas as to how college football should change in the CFP era, touching on topics including conference championships, selection criteria, scheduling and expansion.
Alabama coach Nick Saban is clear about what he thinks should be most important.
“It has to be on the body of work,” Saban said, “the total body of work. When I played, we won the Mid-American Conference championship and we were 6-5. We surely didn’t deserve to go someplace just because we won the championship.”
Saban said he’d like to eliminate the six-win mark for bowl eligibility and see all teams play only Power 5 opponents, which would likely force the playoff to expand.
“If we’re going to have the system that we have now,” Saban said, “I liked it better when they just picked two teams and everybody else went to a bowl game. If we’re going to have a playoff, then to me we should have a playoff, and a playoff would probably mean more teams, but then you wouldn’t have bowl games. Politically and economically, that’s probably never going to work.”
Diminishing the value of the postseason outside the playoff and major bowls is a common topic of discussion for coaches. Last year, Saban predicted the bowl system would struggle to coexist with the CFP, and now he says that has begun to come to fruition, as the New Year’s Six bowls overshadow the rest. Saban said that will continue to have an impact on players like Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette, who decided to work toward their NFL careers instead of playing in the Sun Bowl and Citrus Bowl, respectively.
“That’s going to happen a lot,” Saban said. “That’s not good. That’s not good for the game. I’m not criticizing the players; I’m just saying it’s not good for the game.”
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said the biggest change to date has been in the nonconference scheduling, and compared it to making decisions in the stock market: Should programs schedule up or down?
“Because originally they said we need you to schedule up,” Gundy said. “They said this four or five years ago, and our conference really stressed to our presidents and ADs about preseason scheduling if you want to have a chance to get in. Last year, Washington didn’t play anybody and got in. So it brings up the same topic again: Do you say, ‘I want to be 3-0 and if I run it, I’m in no matter who I play?’ Or do I want to take that risk of playing a team that I could lose to, and essentially maybe not get in?
“I’d rather be 3-0,” he said.
A weaker nonconference lineup is likely a gamble, though, as the 12 teams that have played in the CFP had an average strength of schedule rank of 27.2, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Another common refrain from coaches is that the playoff has turned the sport into an all-or-nothing proposition: Make the playoff and compete for a national championship or your season is a bust.
USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin, who played in the first BCS national championship game with Tennessee in 1998, said it can be tough to motivate teams that fall short of national championship aspirations and wind up in a lower-tier bowl.
“In college football, if you’re not in that first four, you kind of feel like, ‘OK, it’s over. We’ll go play our bowl game.’ And you try to motivate your guys and staff, but young men, they’re smart, they’re competitive as well,” Martin said. “They kind of feel like they didn’t make it, so they weren’t successful. I’d like to see more teams in it to see how that works out.”
He’s certainly not alone.
Stanford coach David Shaw said the CFP has somewhat unfairly redefined success.
“There are going to be some really, really good teams that go 9-3,” Shaw said, “but they will not get the accolades and recognition they deserve because they were a young team that beat a couple of really good teams but they’re not going to the playoff so you don’t think they’re good enough.”
In spite of being left out of the CFP’s top four, Penn State coach James Franklin didn’t necessarily agree.
“You could make the argument for some programs that they’ll create some of that, where if you don’t make the playoff, the season is a loss, but I wouldn’t say that,” Franklin said. “For the majority of programs, getting to a really good bowl game is still an unbelievable experience. Obviously everybody still has the goal of getting to the playoff, but we had the same issue before, where you’d have teams that obviously were excited about being in a bowl game, and you had other teams that felt like they should be in a better bowl and were disappointed and the game played out that way. We’ve had that issue for a number of years. Is it magnified a little bit now? Probably.”
Some of the differences are more subtle and might not be as noticeable to fans.
“It’s created an environment much like basketball,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “It’s a little unfortunate now that everybody is going to be judged by how many CFP appearances did they have, much like a basketball coach is judged by how many Final Fours or Elite Eight or Sweet 16s did he have in his tenure. There are a lot of good coaches out there, but after five years, if you’re a major program, ‘Oh, he didn’t make the playoff in five years, we need a new guy.'”
“If we’re going to have a playoff, then to me we should have a playoff and a playoff would probably mean more teams …”
Alabama coach Nick Saban</cite>
The biggest question, and one not likely to be addressed for some years, if at all, is that of expanding the playoff.
“In my dream scenario,” said Texas coach Tom Herman, “you would have, if you want to keep it at five Power 5 conferences, you would have an eight-team playoff with five conference champions.”
Shaw said playoff expansion is “unavoidable.”
“I’ve said it to multiple people, people on the committee and some of the higher-ups. They said for years we wouldn’t expand the college basketball playoff, and it’s been expanded multiple times. You can’t tell me that won’t happen after years of watching this thing,” Shaw said. “Every year we’ve had it, there’s a minimum of one team, if not two teams, that can say they have every right to be in the playoff. We’ll figure out a way to make it happen.”