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Wojo: Four is just fine for College Football Playoff

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News


Under an eight-team playoff, the Michigan vs. Ohio State slugfest would have taken on less meaning.

It seems natural, perhaps even inevitable. Predictably, the movement stirred anew about five minutes after the four-team College Football Playoff field was set.

Four is fine, but wouldn’t eight be great?! Many people say yes. I say, not so fast. Or more pointedly, not worth the risk.

In an era when major sports — notably the NFL — are scrambling to recoup diminished fan passion, reflected in diminished TV ratings, college football defies the trends. I believe that’s partly because it embraces what makes it unique, resists the cookie-cutter templates in every other sport, and protects the significance of the regular season.

Don’t fall for the fake here, folks. Some suggest expanding the playoff field is the “fair” thing to do, to include more of the “little guys,” to reward more “worthy” teams. Haha. Riiiiight.

There’s only one reason expansion to a six- or eight-team field would ever happen. It’s the time-honored motivational device commonly referred to as “money.” NCAA president Mark Emmert said Wednesday he thinks an eight-team bracket is needed so every champion from the Power Five conferences is assured a spot. Presumably, there would be three wildcard slots for runners-up or teams from the smaller Group of Five conferences.

Emmert’s statement is interesting, but skirts the truth and bears little weight. The playoff is controlled by the 10 FBS conferences, not by the NCAA. CFP executive director Bill Hancock recently reiterated there are no expansion plans, with the four-team format in the third year of a 12-year contract. ESPN paid more than $6 billion for the rights, and reportedly there’s no clause to reopen the deal. Of course, the promise of more money is always a lure, which is why there’s always a debate, even when there’s nothing to debate.

All games matter

Nobody was wronged this season, with a Final Four of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington. Penn State won the Big Ten but lost twice. Michigan had the look of a playoff team but lost twice. Oklahoma won the Big 12 but lost twice. Some of those losses came early, so the faulty theory is, they should count less.

Why? Because that’s the case in other sports? Because the Lions can start 1-3 and not be eliminated, and two months later be 8-4 with all sorts of possibilities?

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The NFL format works when dealing with paid professionals on 32 teams, not college players on 125 FBS teams. The downside is, an NFL regular season can muddle along with few games bearing major implications.

College football’s popularity keeps rising because it has the most meaningful regular season, and that’s not just a fanciful theory. NFL TV ratings are down 14 percent across all time slots, and blame has been pinned to poor quality of games, the presidential election, the concussion crisis and more.

But college football, with faster-paced, instant-impact, upset-rife action, hasn’t been hampered. According to ESPN, viewership across all devices was up 17 percent over last year’s record. ABC’s “Saturday Night Football” was up 10 percent. Ohio State’s 30-27 double-overtime victory over Michigan was the highest-rated game of the season, ABC’s highest-rated noon game ever, and one of the most-watched regular-season games ever.

If there was an eight-team playoff, the stakes for Michigan-Ohio State would’ve been lower. With both ranked in the top three, both likely would’ve made an expanded field. No, it wouldn’t have killed the fervor but it would have dampened it. Instead, it was a winner-take-all cauldron of tension that Urban Meyer called the best game he’s experienced. Jim Harbaugh and his players didn’t complain about the final rankings, recognizing a one-point loss to Iowa and a three-point loss to Ohio State counted just as much as any perception of worthiness.

Football isn’t fair

And yet, there remains this quest for some ill-defined concept of fairness. Is it unfair conference champs such as Penn State and Oklahoma get left out? If they were undefeated, sure. But it’s silly to have strict adherence to conference titles at the expense of season-long results. If that were the case, should three-loss Virginia Tech deserve a playoff spot if it upset Clemson?

I get why people want the expansion and I understand how popular it probably would be. But remember, the CFP ratings were dreary last season when the semifinals were played on New Year’s Eve, an ill-advised, arrogant decision. They’re on Dec. 31 again, but that likely will change next season, as college football learns it’s not immune to poor scheduling.

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That’s part of the NFL’s problem, an oversaturation that weakens the product and turns long seasons into injury-riddled tests of attrition. The league’s appeal is its purported parity, the notion the salary cap and draft give every team an equal chance, theoretically.

It’s not a pattern college football needs to follow. The game has been stretched far enough, for now. There’s a 40-bowl schedule, which seems ludicrous but remains lucrative enough to keep growing. And frankly, that’s how you reward the little guys. Western Michigan’s trip to the Cotton Bowl and Eastern Michigan’s trip to the Bahamas Bowl are the exact opposite of meaningless.

The advent of conference championship games was another money grab disguised as an attempt to find “worthy” champions, and while they can be entertaining, they don’t settle everything. Ask Penn State. In any expanded playoff format, title games would have to go away, along with conference divisions.

Logically, more college football would be fun. Logistically, it’s not worth the gamble. I was leery of the playoff for precisely this reason, that the Final Four concept would ratchet the interest so high, more would be demanded. If you desperately want a larger playoff, you surrender the right to gripe about rocketing coaching salaries and gaudy facilities. Sorry, that’s my rule.

College football stirs the most passion and the most nostalgia, rich in its rivalries and compelling in its imperfections. It’s inherently unbalanced because programs operate with disparate resources, from the biggest to the smallest, from Columbus to Corvallis to Kalamazoo. The game has issues but the playoff format isn’t one of them. Leave it alone and stop chasing some perceived level of fairness that’s unattainable, and mostly fictional.

Twitter @bobwojnowski