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College Football Playoff Seems Set at Four For Now

A large playoff would not be a good thing for college football.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I was long an advocate for a playoff before we actually got one in college football, and I am delighted that we got one. Some of the implementation details aren't perfect—turns out weekly ranking announcements aren't such a great idea, for instance—but the CFP was a resounding success.

What I've also long advocated is preventing the playoff from getting too big. When a postseason has little exclusivity, you run the risk of a team like 2014 UConn winning the basketball tournament despite being nowhere close to the year's best team. March Madness is fun, but it's also kind of its own thing that doesn't find out who the best team is.

I could see going up to six teams in the CFP to alleviate discrepancies like we saw this year where every Power 5 champ has no more than one loss, but that's it. No more. In fact, it'd be best to have those two extra slots be optional and only happen when we do have such a situation. Having a very small playoff keeps the regular season's importance high while also crowning a champion that feels more deserving than many of the ones we got during the BCS era and prior.

Earlier this week, CFP selection committee member Condoleeza Rice spoke at a conference at her alma mater Stanford, and when asked, she wa in favor of keeping the playoff at only four teams:

"I feel pretty strongly about four now because I thought that the rivalry weekend -- that Saturday after Thanksgiving -- almost felt like a play-in game," said Rice, a professor and former provost at Stanford. "Now the Iron Bowl, Alabama has to beat Auburn. You could imagine the circumstances in another year where the Civil War, Oregon really has to beat Oregon State. There are questions whether they will. ...

"I agree that if it got much larger, I don't think you would have that momentum coming out of the regular season, so it's the best possible scenario."

It's nice to know that a committee member feels that way, but ultimately, those members have no say in how the playoff actually runs other than picking teams once a year. It's actually a bit of a worrying quote, since she acknowledges the chances of further expansion of the field.

Fortunately, Larry Scott was also there and supported the same sentiment:

Scott said he didn't see "any movement to expand beyond four," citing the extended academic calendar, the toll it would take on the athletes and the importance of the regular season as some of the main reasons.

He said the only way the Power 5 conferences would even consider expanding the playoff is if they were guaranteed spots in it, which would detract from the drama and anticipation of the season.

"I think we're all lamenting regular-season college basketball not being more popular right now, at a time when March Madness has never been more popular," Scott said. "To me, that's a great example of the field being so big that the regular season doesn't matter anymore.

Scott, being one of the Power 5 commissioners, does have a real say in how the playoff actually runs.

I still think that the bit about the toll on players and the calendar and all that are a red herring. The first bowls happen more than a week ahead of New Year's. If they wanted more rounds, they could put one around Christmas and still have the semifinals on January 1. Besides, basketball players who make deep tournament runs miss nearly an entire month of class from conference tournaments through the Final Four.

Nevertheless, he's right that guaranteed spots for conference champions is a bad idea. Consider the 2005 season, when 8-4 Florida State (AP rank: 22) won the ACC and 10-2 Georgia (8) won the SEC. Actually let's just stick with the ACC, because it's easy. In 2009, the champ was 10-2 Georgia Tech, ranked ninth in the AP. In 2010 it was 11-2 Virginia Tech, ranked 12. That VT team lost to I-AA James Madison, don't forget. In 2011 it was 10-3 Clemson, ranked 14. That was the Clemson team that lost to West Virginia 70-33 in the bowl. In 2012 it was 10-2 Florida State, ranked 13.

None of those teams were in serious discussion for being the best, so likewise none of them deserved to be in a small tournament designed to produce the best team. Should they have been in a gigantic tournament designed to be a singular, entertaining TV event a la March Madness? Absolutely! But that's not what the CFP is, nor should it be.

It's refreshing to see one of the power brokers acknowledge in public that March Madness has removed a lot of the meaning from the college basketball regular season. I love the tournament as an event, but if you're not a diehard, its expansiveness really makes it hard to care about college basketball before about February other than the occasional top matchups and rivalry games.

The college football regular season is tremendous drama every week for three months. Its short nature means every game matters for anyone who wants to compete for a title. No team is guaranteed to survive a single loss and still play for the championship. Maybe you will—hey, Ohio State—and maybe you won't—sorry, TCU and Baylor. Regular seasons with 30-something games like college basketball up to 162 for MLB are long enough that every team can overcome a bad week here and there. Not so in college football, at least as long as just four teams get a shot to play for the championship.

The weekly pressure cooker is unique to the sport, as even its pro counterpart with only 16 regular season games expanded its playoff too much and sometimes gets 9-7 teams as champions. Nothing else is like it, and if we lose it from college football by having a 16-team playoff or something, we won't have it anywhere.