Is the current Playoff system effective? I asked B1G coaches, and they're not in agreement
CHICAGO — The B1G is in purgatory.
Complete and total purgatory. For the first time in the conference’s history, it faced a B1G Media Days after having missed out on the College Football Playoff.
B1G commissioner Jim Delany, however, did not want to talk about that. Instead, he addressed the room full of reporters by saying something that threw me for a loop.
“Who could have possibly predicted the unprecedented success of our teams last year, with its coaches, on the field, in the stadiums, on TV, and in the classroom. I honestly think it was one of the finest seasons in modern football, here or elsewhere,” Delany said. “And let me explain my thinking, citing some data.”
I’ll save you the long, drawn-out quote and just give you the bullet points of why “it was one of the finest seasons in modern football.”
- Only Power 5 conference with in-stadium attendance increase
- B1G won highest percentage (77) of its non-conference games of any FBS conference
- 7-1 bowl record
- 5 teams of top 21 teams in Associated Press poll
- 4 of top 6 most-viewed ABC games involved B1G teams
- 8 of top 12 most-viewed FOX games involved B1G teams
- 5 of the top 6 most-viewed FS1 games involved B1G teams
- 5 of top 10 on all networks involved B1G teams
Here’s the problem. The B1G benefitted in basically every department last year — money being the big one — except perhaps the only one that actually shapes national reputation. The Playoff.
Making a bunch of money and getting tons of national exposure is all well and good, but the B1G has a Playoff problem right now. Ohio State getting left out last year after a pair of goose egg performances was not a 3-year stretch stat that Delany cared to talk about.
But there’s more to it than that. I wanted to ask B1G coaches how they felt about the overall effectiveness of the current system. So on Monday afternoon in Chicago, I asked five different B1G coaches with varying perspectives how they felt about the Playoff and whether or not it needs fixing.
Their answers said a lot.
By now, you already saw how Jim Harbaugh answered my Playoff question (I was actually the reporter who Harbaugh searched the room trying to find before asking him).
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“The first thing that comes to mind is more would be more. More would be better in Playoffs,” Harbaugh said. “Let’s go to 8, and let’s eventually get to 16.”
Yeah, that’s a bit wild, even for Harbaugh. He also said that he’d like to abolish the conference title game (save your joke about Michigan not ever making a conference title game). Harbaugh would probably already have two Playoff appearances in a 16-team field.
That was the most radical approach to the current system that a B1G coach had. Scott Frost actually had a suggestion that would probably have a lot of support nationally. His perspective was interesting obviously as someone who experienced an undefeated season at UCF, but also as a former Oregon offensive coordinator on a team that played in the first national championship of the Playoff era.
Frost, as you could guess, is all about the 8-team field.
“I think getting it to four teams was an improvement, but it’s hard to look at last year’s college football season and not feel like an 8-team Playoff was where we should go. And that’ll always be my opinion,” Frost said. “I think it should be the five conference champions and three at-large teams. That would give us a prized conference championship champion that plays well at the end of the season a shot. It might give a team like what we had at UCF last year a shot. I think you can start that Playoff earlier in December…I don’t think it takes away from the regular season and the importance of those games.
“As great as the evolution of the Playoff has been, I’m always gonna be an advocate for eight teams.”
But Frost and Harbaugh were the only coaches I talked to in Chicago on Monday who advocated for expansion.
Chris Ash experienced the Playoff system when he was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2014 and 2015, so he knows what it was like to barely make the field, and what it was like to barely miss it. The Buckeyes would’ve likely made the field with an expanded field both when Ash was there in 2015, and last year when they barely missed out.
But expansion? Ash isn’t a fan.
“I think it works right now,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of people that would prefer that it gets expanded. Seeing the time demands on these student-athletes — they don’t get a break — and if you expand it, the only thing you’re doing is adding more time to these student-athletes and I don’t agree with that.
“I think what has been created with the 4-team Playoff has worked. It’s given the teams an opportunity to the teams who deserve to get in to get in, and the best team has won. Is everybody going to be happy if it goes to 6 or 8. Somebody is always going to be left out. There’s always going to be conversations and debate. The only thing you’re doing is adding more time demands of the student-athlete, which I don’t think is fair.”
Ash added that while he likes the current system, he does believe there are tweaks that can be made from a scheduling standpoint. He’d like to see all conferences follow a universal guideline when it comes to the amount of conference games played, the amount of FCS opponents played and the amount of Power 5 opponents in non-conference play.
James Franklin would make the same tweaks as Ash, while also leaving the field at four teams. He explained why it’s long overdue to get everyone as close to equal as possible as it relates to scheduling.
“One of the biggest challenges of the current system that we’re in is that it’s subjective,” Franklin said. “I think whenever you have a subjective system like we do, you want to control as many of the variables as you possibly can. Right now, we’ve got a group of people trying to decide who’s going to make the Playoff and they can’t compare apples to apples.
“If we can get to a point of everyone playing under the same scenario, I think that’d be best situation.”
It was a bit surprising to hear Franklin say that he supported the current system despite the fact that his team was barely left out of the field following a B1G Championship in 2016. Still no 2-loss team has ever made the field. And including 2016 Penn State, no team that started outside of the preseason Associated Press top 25 has made the field.
Like Penn State, Western Michigan started outside of the top 25 in 2016, yet P.J. Fleck’s unbeaten squad didn’t sniff the Playoff. So does he think more like Frost or Franklin?
Somewhat surprisingly, Fleck isn’t exactly advocating for whole-sale changes.
“I think it’s the best thing to happen to college football. I really do,” Fleck said. “There’s nothing more exciting than finding out who’s going to be in the College Football Playoff. I think one of the challenges on when you start your schedule and when people are scheduling, what you’re trying to figure out is what is the Playoff committee really truly valuing…but I think the NCAA is making a lot of elite decisions, especially with the new redshirt rule. I think we’re really at a good place in college football. The game’s safer than it’s ever been.
“The College Football Playoff has brought a completely new dynamic.”
If you were keeping track at home, that was two B1G coaches who want to see the field at least doubled and three who like the current system, but would like to see some universal scheduling policies put in place.
It’s a fair question to ask at this point. Is the 9-game conference schedule killing the B1G? The conference has yet to even score a point in a Playoff game since that went into effect in 2016. In fact, Frost’s 2014 Oregon squad is the only team that made the national championship with a 9-game conference schedule during the Playoff era.
The problem, however, is that rule isn’t getting any closer to uniformity. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said at SEC Media Days last week that the conference has had “healthy conversations” about the idea of moving to a 9-game conference schedule, but that change doesn’t appear imminent.
And as far as expansion, Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said that there aren’t any internal conversations to do that.
So what will change for the B1G? Is the conference destined to fight an uphill battle with its scheduling — don’t forget the conference almost universally avoids FCS opponents while the ACC and SEC regularly schedule them — and hope that this trend turns around? Maybe.
Or maybe B1G coaches need to get on the same page about what works and what doesn’t. That’s not a conversation about attendance, having a most-viewed game or putting teams in the AP top 25. It’s a tougher one, and one that demands addressing if this continues.
There’s only so much time you can spend in purgatory.