Kevin Warren is CFP expansion's biggest obstacle -- but why?
College football has an interest problem.
Not among those dedicated enough to read or write about the sport after the season is over, of course. But we aren’t the issue here.
Monday night’s CFP championship matchup between Alabama and Georgia drew 22.6 million viewers — an uptick from last year’s record-low 18.7 million. But still underwhelming when you widen the lens.
Viewership was down across sports as a whole in 2020 and early 2021. Empty stadiums don’t produce as enjoyable a viewing experience. Last year’s CFP title game also came the week of one of the most shocking political events in American history, so it seems safe to assume a few million people weren’t ready to jump back into fun and games at the moment.
Last year’s ratings were an anomaly with a guaranteed rebound. And unfortunately for college football, that rebound was quite modest.
If you exclude last year, Monday night’s game had the lowest ratings of any national championship game since 2005.
Those who found other things to do certainly missed out.
Georgia and Alabama put on an enjoyable show. The first half was dominated by future first-round draft picks flying around the field on defense. The offenses finally caught up with big plays in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs overcame one of the weirdest turnovers you’ll ever see, then rallied for their first title in 41 years.
But it’s understandable why those people chose not to invest in the first place. A rematch of the SEC championship game that was played just a month earlier was a non-starter for neutral fans.
Many believe change is needed. And the most obvious change is an expansion of the Playoff field.
Even though in all likelihood the same 2 teams would have met in this year’s final, the idea is more people will be interested if the rest of the Playoff journey has more twists and turns. If you watch games in the earlier rounds, you’re more likely to invest in the conclusion.
Playoff expansion: Everybody’s doing it
Every other sporting body in the United States subscribes to this dynamic.
The NFL added a playoff team in each conference last year. And most of Monday’s sporting conversation revolved around the Raiders-Chargers Sunday Night Football game that determined the last team in the AFC field rather than the impending CFP championship game.
A decade ago, Major League Baseball added a standalone Wild Card Game to determine the last team into the playoff field in each league. For 48 hours each October, those games give baseball a rare spot back in the sporting limelight.
College basketball, of course, got the ball rolling with the First Four play-in games setting the stage for the NCAA tournament. No one expects any of those teams to win it all — though UCLA came close last year — but it increases the audience.
Even the PGA Tour has a playoff system, for Pete’s sake.
This summer, college football seemed poised to join the postseason expansion parade.
A CFP committee working group submitted a proposal that would expand the field to 12 teams perhaps as soon as 2024. The top 6 conference champions would be in, followed by 6 at-large berths. Byes would be awarded to the top-4 conference champs, placing a needed heft on accomplishing that task.
From all accounts, getting there was merely a matter of combing through the details.
Monday afternoon, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby up and left the commissioners’ meeting where expansion was discussed.
Expansion remains stuck in the mud. And it is the so-called Alliance of the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 that’s spraying the water over the dirt.
The thing that is unclear is … why?
What is the Big Ten’s motivation?
Apparently the issue causing Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren to dig his heels into the ground is distribution of automatic berths in an expanded field.
Rather than taking the top 6 conference champs, Warren wants a model where all Power 5 league champions are guaranteed a spot, with the best Group of 5 champ getting the sixth.
And if Warren was the commissioner of the Pac-12 or ACC, I could understand that perspective. But there is almost no chance that a Big Ten champion would not find itself among the top-6 conference champs.
The only way it’s conceivable is if, say, some 8-4 team ends up winning the watered-down West and springs an upset in the B1G championship game. But if that’s Warren’s concern, he should find a way to restructure the Big Ten’s divisional alignment to create better balance instead of holding the rest of college football hostage.
Based on the June proposal, the Big Ten would have tied the SEC with 3 teams in the CFP if the 12-team format was in place this season.
Michigan would have earned a bye with the No. 2 seed. Ohio State, ranked seventh, would host No. 10 Michigan State in a first-round game on campus. Or perhaps looking to avoid a rematch, the committee would swap the Spartans with No. 11 Utah and send them to No. 6 Notre Dame instead.
Point is, in the scenario 2 Big Ten teams would be guaranteed spots in the quarterfinals. And it’s plausible there would be years where 3 B1G schools would be among the final 8. Pursuing such an outcome should be a no-brainer for the conference.
And that’s what’s so vexing about Warren’s obstinance.
If he was entrenched in a belief that the Playoff should stay at 4 teams to avoid getting watered down, that would make some sense. At least it’s based on an actual philosophy.
But the purity of the Playoff field doesn’t appear to have any bearing on the Big Ten’s official position. Neither does money. There’s a lot more of it to be made with 2 more rounds of games, including a round on campus.
It comes across as nihilism for the sake of nihilism.
Which makes it perfectly understandable that Bowlsby stormed out of Monday’s meeting. You can’t negotiate with someone who doesn’t have a rational point of view.
And even if you’re a Big Ten fan who opposes Playoff expansion, that looms as a discomfiting trait for the conference’s official leadership to possess.