B1G Debate: What Playoff format should Kevin Warren, Big Ten be fighting for?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: What Playoff format should Kevin Warren, Big Ten be fighting for?
RYAN: Playoff expansion is one of the most frustrating topics in any sport right now. To me, it seems like politics; everyone has their own agenda, every side just talks past each other and no one does anything in good faith. This all is dragging out in front of fans, too, who probably have mostly tuned it out by now. I feel like it’s the sort of thing that fans shrug their shoulders and say, “When it happens, it happens.”
I think expansion would be great for the sport. Not because it would change who wins it all each season, but because it would create even more compelling postseason matchups than we already have, not to mention it would make for a more exciting finish to the regular season. I may actually care about the Pac-12 in November! In particular, the on-campus Playoff games would be a treat. Let’s see an SEC team go up North in December. The environments would be terrific, too. We would obviously see more atmospheres like the Music City Bowl and less like the Peach Bowl.
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren is reportedly hung up on all the Power 5 conferences getting an automatic qualifier if there are 6 automatic qualifiers. I’m not entirely sure what his motivation is here, considering the Big Ten champion wouldn’t be in danger of missing out on one of those bids. Maybe he’s just trying to throw the Pac-12 a bone?
So, what exactly should the Big Ten be fighting for?
If I were the commissioner of the Big Ten (any non-SEC conference, really), I would be advocating for a 12-team Playoff with the top 4 seeds (aka the teams that get byes) going to automatic qualifiers (or conference champions). I believe this would be the best thing for the Big Ten and the best thing for college football as a whole, because we should be trying to avoid what we had this year: A conference rematch in the national title game.
The ratings speak for themselves, as this was the lowest title game (not counting the pandemic year) since 2005.
CFP title game viewership by year (excluding 2020)
2014 Ohio St-Oregon: 34.6M
2015 Bama-Clemson: 26.7M
2016 Clemson-Bama: 26.0M
2017 Bama-UGA: 28.4M
2018 Bama-Clemson: 25.3M
2019 LSU-Clemson: 26.9M
2021 UGA-Bama: 22.6M
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) January 11, 2022
Personally, I’ll watch no matter who is playing, and so will all of the other football junkies. But for the good of the sport, engaging other parts of the country (and other conferences) is the best way to grow. The South is dominating, with no end in sight. College football will keep losing a general audience if it is regional.
In the 8-year history of the CFP, an SEC team has nabbed the top spot 6 times (Clemson in 2015 and 2017 are the 2 exceptions). By having conference champions get the top 4 seeds, that means the best Georgia could’ve done this year would’ve been the No. 5 seed, meaning the rematch with Alabama would’ve been in the semifinals instead of the final. In most years, the top non-AQ will be an SEC program or Notre Dame. That opens the door for the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to get a team in the championship game.
That’s what Kevin Warren should be fighting for. It’s the best thing for college football, and it’s the best thing for the Big Ten.
What format do you think best suits the Big Ten?
CONNOR: I don’t necessarily think you’re wrong on any of that. The B1G needs expansion, whether it wants to admit it or not. Ever since we actually decided that we should have a true national championship, Ohio State is still the only B1G team to make an appearance. That’s a bad, bad look. While I don’t necessarily think a 12-team Playoff format suddenly yields Wisconsin and Iowa earning national championship berths, this is about selling hope and entertainment. The 12-team Playoff would do that.
And I agree with you that there would be something unique about seeing SEC teams travel north to play in a Playoff game. Can you imagine the ratings on Florida playing in the snow against Wisconsin? By the way, that would’ve been a real matchup in 2019.
Where I’d push back is on the automatic qualifiers. Warren can fight for them all he wants, but nothing is changing if everyone digs their heels in further. Warren doesn’t really have to dig his heels in on the automatic qualifiers thing. The B1G would be fine without it. It would still host Playoff games and get byes. In fact, if you had just taken the top 12 teams in the Playoff poll and seeded them 1-12 without any sort of automatic qualifier, the B1G would’ve had a team with a first-round bye (Michigan), a team hosting a first-round Playoff game (Ohio State) and another team playing in a coin-flip first-round matchup (Michigan State).
If “The Alliance” is the only thing preventing Warren from giving in on the automatic qualifier issue, that’s silly. I don’t expect Warren to ever see that because it would be seen as siding with the SEC. But in reality, isn’t a 12-team Playoff without any automatic qualifiers still in the best interest of the sport? Isn’t that the entire point of expansion?
(Well, that and selling a new TV contract that’ll shatter records and ultimately help cover the cost of the inevitable pay-for-play era that’s coming in the latter half of the 2020s.)
I get that there’s a desire to have as many teams in the field as long as possible. If I were the Pac-12, I’d be fighting for automatic qualifiers, but I’d also try to think about what they actually mean. In what scenario is the Pac-12 or B1G getting left out of a 12-team field without automatic qualifiers? And if this is just about getting that first-round bye for your conference champ, can’t you also make the case that your conference benefits by hosting a home Playoff game? That’s why I didn’t think it was a big deal that in the original 12-team proposal, Notre Dame would’ve had no path to a first-round bye as an independent.
And if this is about the B1G and Pac-12 holding the Rose Bowl like King Kong holding onto that girl climbing up the Empire State Building, goodness that’s silly. I love the Rose Bowl as much as anyone who grew up in the Midwest, but an epic college football venue shouldn’t dictate the future of the sport.
Compromise is needed. Warren is anything but the alpha in that room, but in this case, it actually makes sense to give in a little bit considering its The Alliance that needs change to have a fighting chance at breaking up the SEC’s party.
RYAN: I don’t think automatic qualifiers really impacts the Big Ten one way or another, necessarily. But yeah, there’s probably some measure of looking out for the other conferences and making sure they are represented. If I were the commissioner, it’s not something I would be hung up on, but I don’t think it’s crazy either. We have automatic qualifiers in college basketball. If you win a Power 5 conference, why shouldn’t you have a chance to win it all?
But if Warren really is holding up moving to 12 teams over that, well that’s just silly. Hosting CFP games on B1G campuses would be a way of leveling the playing field. Instead of playing in warm weather, we could see unfavorable conditions those first few rounds and tilt the scale towards the B1G a bit.
The money will be insane for all parties. The fans will get great early-round games, as well. Each conference will likely be represented. It’s one of those things that makes too much sense for it not to happen.
Let’s hope these objections from Warren and others are just a last-ditch effort to gain a little control and that when push comes to shove, everyone involved puts aside their own agenda and a deal gets done.