Remember how the four-team set-up was going to have a long-term deal in place to keep things at four teams and appease the college presidents and skeptics of a larger playoff? ACC Commissioner John Swofford kicked up a lot of dust Wednesday by floating the idea of expanding the tournament to eight teams (which is a terrible idea for a variety of reasons, but more on that shortly). To be clear, he didn't actually "call for" an eight-team playoff, though he came close:
Speaking at Wednesday’s weekly Durham Sports Club meeting at the Croasdaile Country Club, Swofford said an eight-team playoff, "in terms of the number of teams, would probably be ideal." ...
"I do think it has a great deal of potential," he said. "The question is asked a lot, 'Why not eight?' or 'Will it become eight in a few years?' I can tell you why not eight, right now: The presidents made the decision as to how far we can go with the playoff, and the bookends are exams in December, and the presidents don't want football to become a two semester sport. Those concerns are education-based. So I think they're appropriate." [Emphasis added.]
What Swofford really appears to be saying is that barring the educational concerns, eight teams would be ideal. (I don't endorse the idea that there are really that many educational concerns, but I'll take it if that's the only thing staving off bracket creep.) Furthermore, Swofford thinks those concerns are "appropriate." That's not exactly a clarion call for adding more teams to the bracket.
But in discussing why an eight-team bracket would be ideal, Swofford hits on a point that's going to be used over and over in the playoff disputes to come -- and it's perhaps the worst possible reason to expand a playoff.
"You have four teams that get a chance to play for the national championship, which is twice as many as before, but whoever’s fifth or sixth is not going to be happy."
There are a couple of problems with this, the first being that it doesn't really solve anything. We had two teams in a championship event (and it was a real championship event, whatever critics want to say), but there were frequent disputes over who was No. 2 and who was No. 3 -- so we went to four teams. Now, there are going to be disputes over who is No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6. Go to eight teams, and there will be disputes about who is No. 8, No. 9 and No. 10. If you use that as a reason to go to No. 16, then there will be an unhappy team at No. 17, etc. It's literally a solution that never ends. College basketball went to 64 teams, then had so many arguments that it went to 65 and now has 68 teams.
In other words, at some point you have to say, "enough." We can argue about where that is, but the standard can't simply be "the next team down the line is going to be angry" -- because the next team down the line is always going to be angry. There's the argument that team No. 65 or 69 has a lot less room to argue than team No. 5, but fans of team No. 69 might disagree with you.
The question of the size of the playoff has more to do with a balancing act than a simple "yes-no" formulation. It really comes down to this: How do you get as many deserving teams as possible into the playoff without letting in teams that don't deserve to be in the hunt?
Because there is no way to simply let five teams in. (Though you could let six teams in.) That's why the strength of team No. 5 is not the only aspect that's relevant to this debate. You have to consider all eight teams that would be involved in a larger playoff. So let's take a look at who would have been the No. 8 team over the last 10 years, using the final edition of the BCS rankings.
2011: Kansas State
2009: Ohio State
2008: Penn State
2006: Boise State
2005: Miami (FL)
2004: Virginia Tech
All of those teams -- at least the ones that I can remember clearly -- were good teams. But if I were to make a list of teams in each of those seasons that could have credibly argued that they were the best team in the nation week-in and week-out, very few of the No. 8s would make the cut. A few might, but they would be the exception rather than the rule.
You also can't do any of this without taking into account the impact on the regular season. Our current system still incentivizes teams to try to go undefeated, and certainly to take no more than one loss. Don't go undefeated, and your fate is in the hands of what other teams do and what the selection committee thinks of you. Lose more than one game, and you're likely out.
An eight-team playoff changes all of that. Over the last decade, an average of 2.6 two-loss teams a year would have gotten into the playoff, versus 0.4 in a four-team playoff world. If you're still trying to make every single game of the season a life-or-death game for each team, going to an eight-team playoff isn't the ideal way to do it. I personally like that aspect of college football -- lose once, and the entire season could get dynamited. Lose twice, and it certainly will. If I were simply to pull for what's best for South Carolina, an eight- or 16-team playoff would be the best way to go, given that last year's season-ending ranking of No. 4 (after the bowls) was the highest year-end ranking in program history. But I think that the sport is more important than my school's fate.
In any case, if you're going to argue for a larger playoff, don't just focus on whether No. 5 or No. 6 is comparable to No. 4, because those aren't the only teams you're letting in. You also have to answer why No. 8 is comparable to No. 4, or at least as deserving -- or why it's worth overlooking the fact that No. 8 isn't. You have to at least deal with the question. The same would be true if it were an eight-team playoff and we were looking at going to 16 -- you can't just say that team No. 9 is comparable to team No. 8, because that ignores the other seven teams that would get in.
There is one argument from Swofford that I find somewhat compelling.
There will be some conferences that won’t have a team in the playoff.
Given the fact that every team (including Florida State) eventually goes through a rebuilding season, you can see why this would be something the ACC commissioner might be inclined to argue about. But it's a valid point. In all likelihood, both Ohio State and one of the Big 12's
one two TRUE CHAMPION(s) are not going to get in this year. And if they do, it will be at the expense of another conference champion.
There is a case (in my mind) for going to a six-team playoff with a one-week bye for the No. 1 and No. 2 teams. Things are a bit different than when I first proposed this -- there are just five power conferences now, and there were six AQ leagues back then. (This says more about how long I've been blogging than I care to admit.) And I don't entirely agree with everything I said then, but that's neither here nor there.
You could make some tweaks to it. The Power 5 champions and the highest-ranked at large team, with a Group of 5 champion qualifying if it reached some sort of threshold (say, Top 10). That keeps an incentive for scheduling strongly -- only the highest-ranked at-large team gets in -- and doesn't do much to devalue the regular season, because any team with multiple losses who got in would likely do so only by winning its conference title. Every conference game, at least, would still have massive ramifications on a team's postseason fate. My only concern, of course, is that the framework would then be in place for an easy jump to an eight-team bracket.
I've climbed down a bit from the ledge on the playoffs. I don't think an eight-team playoff is an existential threat to college football. (Sixteen is a different matter.) I still think the sport is better when only the truly elite teams have a chance to win.
You might think differently, and that's fine. Just don't justify it by saying that the next team down the line is just as worthy as the last team to get in. It's a lot more complicated than that.