SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Nick Saban is concerned about the bowl system.
He should be.
Certainly in its present form, it just doesn’t fit today’s quickly evolving college football landscape.
This is a sport that moves at a glacial pace, but let’s hope those in charge act with a bit more urgency to address some of the issues that were all too apparent on Tuesday, less than 12 hours after Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide wrapped up its fourth national title in seven years with a scintillating 45-40 victory over Clemson.
Saban is one of those who would like to keep the bowl system, but he acknowledged that’s going to be a difficult balancing act with a 2-year-old playoff that already “sort of overwhelms the importance of all the other bowl games.”
“That was my concern when we started all this,” the coach said.
Sorry, Nick, there’s no turning back at this point.
The College Football Playoff should and needs to be the primary focus of the postseason, with the bowls essentially becoming a gridiron version of the National Invitation Tournament, the reward for a good season (no more 5-7 teams, please!) but really nothing more than December programming for ESPN.
Maybe the playoff can continue to incorporate the biggest bowls at the semifinal level — providing four teams with more of a traditional postseason experience — but the powers-that-be need to make it clear they won’t be beholden to games such as the Rose and Sugar, which contracted to keep the better New Year’s Day viewing slots this season even though they weren’t hosting playoff games.
Saban is also concerned about the season becoming too long for the players, having grown to a nearly NFL-length 15 games for teams advancing to the championship.
“It was really, really difficult after a long season for us to maintain the sort of intensity that we had,” Saban said.
No one else was complaining, though, after one of the greatest games in college football history, a back-and-forth slugfest that was finally decided in the fourth quarter by an onside kick and a 95-yard kickoff return.
The finale surely left many fans longing for an even larger playoff, but Saban raised a good point in noting that three rounds of games at neutral sites just won’t work. Sure, the playoffs carry on even longer in the NFL, but every pro game except the Super Bowl is played at a team’s home stadium, with the road team usually spending no more than one night in a hotel.
Here’s a proposal:
n The four-team playoff should be doubled to eight teams. The champion of each Power 5 conference would earn an automatic bid, along with the top-ranked team from the remaining Football Bowl Subdivision leagues. The final two spots would be wild cards, the highest-ranked remaining teams regardless of affiliation.
n The quarterfinals would be held sometime around Christmas, hosted by the four highest-ranked teams at their campus stadiums. Road teams would treat it much like a regular-season game, spending just one day away from home. Perhaps there could be some sort of regional considerations, to cut down on travel for the fans.
— The semifinals would remain at neutral sites but on New Year’s Day or Jan. 2 (except when either of those dates conflicts with an NFL Sunday), incorporating the current rotation system among six major bowls: Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta and Peach. These games would be held with full bowl pageantry, including parades, charitable events and weeklong stays for the competing teams in the host cities.
— If the major bowls remain part of this system in their non-playoff years, they must take lead-in slots for the semifinal games. This season, that would’ve meant holding the Orange on the night of Jan. 1, the Cotton on the night of Jan. 2, with the other New Year’s Six bowls divvying up early and late-afternoon kickoffs on those two days.
— The championship game could remain in its present format, a week to 10 days after the semifinal games, essentially a long weekend for the two finalists before their prime-time matchup.
One thing is clear: this year’s decision to host the semifinal games on New Year’s Eve, before three other major but essentially meaningless bowl games the following day, was an unmitigated flop for everyone involved. The semifinals took a huge hit in the television ratings. The other games surrendered much of their luster.
That doesn’t figure to improve much if officials stick with this undesirable format (except for next season, when Dec. 31 falls on a Saturday and the games need to be shifted off New Year’s Day because of the NFL).
“I am concerned about how does a playoff and a bowl system co-exist,” Saban said. “How could we make it better?”
Let’s get that conversation started.