PASADENA, Calif. – If they began anew, all bracketed and filleted in a final group of eight, sure, Stanford might win the national championship. Who couldn’t envision Christian McCaffrey hoverboarding through the Clemson and Michigan State defenses, or Kevin Hogan using guile and disposable weaponry against befuddled old-schoolers Nick Saban and Bob Stoops? If college football had an eight-team playoff, David Shaw would own a fair chance of hoisting the trophy, then celebrating with his wife at Chick-fil-A, a new family custom.
“I mean, that’s a great night,” said the Poobah of Palo Alto.
But while Shaw prefers an eight-team system that he and everyone else in his sport believes is inevitable — an old proverb: where there is more money, there are more games, even when the players aren’t paid a dollar more — expanding the postseason from its current four-team mechanism would be astonishingly hypocritical and greedy.
On one side of the mouth, the embattled football industry is vowing to do everything possible via technology and advanced neurological studies to protect human brains.
On the other side of the mouth, the same industry would add another layer of postseason games to a season that starts with summer two-a-days before three months of games and daily practices, a conference title game and a College Football Playoff that would involve three more games for the two finalists. That’s 16 games, an entire NFL regular season.
On one side of the mouth, college administrators emphasize the sacred importance of academia and don’t think athletes should be preoccupied in a time-consuming, five-month-plus endeavor apart from regular classwork.
On the other side of the mouth, college administrators are only happy to politicize, play conference leapfrog and form a Power Five divisional structure. This allows only 66 schools in those leagues (plus stubbornly independent and NBC-funded Notre Dame) to compete for the largest slices of a total bowl pie that last year reached $505.9 million in payouts. With so many stinking riches at stake, the administrators suddenly don’t care as much about their football stars missing library time.
The reason Shaw wants an eight-team playoff is simple: As coach of the only Power Five league champion that didn’t make the Final Four — only fair considering Stanford has lost twice while Clemson is unbeaten and Michigan State, Alabama and Oklahoma lost once — he feels left out. Even while employed at a university ranked in the nation’s uppermost educational elite, if not No. 1, Shaw wants another round so the rejected fifth team has a shot to redeem itself in the CFP. That wouldn’t appear to jibe with the mission statement on The Farm, assuming administrators there are averse to students-athletes playing deep into January. A jilted coach keeps lobbying anyway, claiming to be cool about his current circumstance but not hiding his true feelings well.
“I think the four-team playoff is great, but I’ve always thought that it’s a beginning. I’ve said that over the first five or six years, what we’re going to do with this thing is poke holes in it, find out what works, what doesn’t work. But I do believe at some point it’s going to be an eight-team playoff,” said Shaw, whose Cardinal didn’t get a bad consolation prize with a Rose Bowl date Friday against Iowa.
“I think it’s going to be unavoidable. I’m not upset by any stretch of the imagination. I just know that this year is part of the process where you have teams in Stanford and Iowa and Ohio State — that you can make a case could be in [an eight-team] playoff — and it would be a phenomenal playoff. I just believe eventually it will become an eight-team playoff because it’s the only thing that makes sense. We’ve done all this work to separate the Power Five conferences, and now to say we have four spots for a Power Five conferences doesn’t make any sense. So I think at some point we’ll make it eight.”
And they will, I’m sure. They will because ESPN wants it, the Power Five want it, and the network already has invested $7.3 billion in a format that absolutely is better than its farcical forerunner, the Bowl Championship Series. Before, the system was rife was injustices. This way, the champion proves its worth on the field, such as Ohio State in the inaugural CFP last season, ignoring an early-season loss and a No. 4 seeding to crush No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon by an aggregate 84-55. Nor has a peep been heard, either, about the qualifiers this season. In a sport where controversy used to come as readily as the coin flip, the four-team system works.
Let it be. And next time Shaw wants to avoid being the odd coach out, he should make certain his players are awake for an 11 a.m. kickoff at Northwestern and don’t fumble away two late snaps against Oregon.
What must change, and won’t, is the decision to play the two national semifinal games on New Year’s Eve. Beginning today, the semis are set for Dec. 31 no fewer than eight times through 2025. This is as arrogant as it is dumb, trying to buck the social traditions of a nation. Bowl and TV execs actually think millions of Americans will rearrange traditional day-to-night celebrations (or work schedules) solely to watch Clemson vs. Oklahoma in Miami followed by Alabama vs. Michigan State in Arlington, Texas.
“We’re establishing a new tradition,” said CFP executive director Bill Hancock. “We’re going to change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve.”
Oh, the hubris, assuming college football automatically will flip viewing interests of the 40 million who watched New Year’s Eve programs last year on ABC, NBC, Fox and CNN. What college football and ESPN have done is devalue their own product, which last year drew audiences of 28.2 and 28.3 for the semifinals on New Year’s Day — at the time, the highest numbers in the history of American cable TV. A lot of people still will be watching, of course, but many more would be watching if they weren’t locked into:
“Pitbull’s New Year’s Revolution.”
“Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest.”
“New Year’s Eve Live With Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin.”
“A Toast of 2015” with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb.
“New Year’s Eve Game Night With Andy Cohen.”
“Frankly, these games would be a success if they were played on the Fourth of July,” Hancock said.
We’ll see. The idea of viewing one game at 1 p.m. and the other at 5 p.m. won’t be a massive distraction on the West Coast, where enough time will remain before midnight. But folks in the Eastern and Central time zones have to think deeply about their lives for late-afternoon and evening kickoffs.
Would they rather party with Pitbull or Nick Saban?