College Football Playoff drought has Big Ten athletic directors pushing for change

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Rosemont, Ill. — For the first three years of the College Football Playoff, things were good for the Big Ten.

Ohio State made it in 2014 and went on to a national championship. Michigan State made the field the next season and in 2016, despite not winning the conference championship, the Buckeyes were back.

The last two seasons, however, the Big Ten has been shut out, making it three straight seasons the conference’s champion has been left out.

Ohio State was the last Big Ten team to make the College Football Playoff in 2016. A Big Ten champion hasn't made the field since Michigan State in 2015.

That isn’t sitting well with the powers that be. Commissioner Jim Delany has indicated there should be open discussions about looking at how the field is determined and possible expansion, and it’s an opinion that is shared by at least some of the Big Ten athletic directors.

“I’m open to the consideration and looking at it and thinking about it,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said at the Big Ten’s spring meetings. “Anytime our Big Ten champion is left out of the playoff what, three years in a row, that’s something that needs to be discussed. Because I obviously believe that you go through and you win the Big Ten championship in this league you’ve accomplished something that deserves to put you in position to play for the national championship.”

Those championships, however, have not carried a lot of weight recently with the selection committee. In 2016, it was Penn State that didn’t make the field. In 2017 and 2018 it was Ohio State that won the Big Ten, but couldn’t find its way into the field.

That’s three years of an event five years old where the Big Ten’s best did not play for a national championship. The Pac-12 has missed out on the playoffs three of the five years while the Big 12 hasn’t been in the field twice. The SEC and the ACC have been part of all five playoff, with Alabama and Clemson each winning two national championships.

So, it’s good for two conferences but the disparity has some ready to more closely examine things.

“Absolutely,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said when asked if changes should be discussed. “I’ve gone on record. It concerns me that everyone has not been included, and I’ve stated this before: I think we certainly should take a look at it. I think we need to revisit the criteria that were set up to start with. We adjusted all of our scheduling accordingly. So, yeah, I think we need to take a look at it and it sounds like the commissioners have discussed it anyhow.”

That scheduling change came before the 2016 season when the Big Ten shifted from eight conference games to nine and eliminated FCS opponents from the schedule. The FCS restriction has been relaxed since, allowing teams to play a team from the FCS during seasons when they have only four conference home games.

It was an effort to improve strength of schedule and enhance the conference championships. Both were among the main criteria for selecting playoff teams.

However, that hasn’t helped the Big Ten in recent years, even as the ACC and SEC play eight conference games.

“Well, we can’t control what other conferences do,” Alvarez said. “We can’t tell someone what we think is right or wrong. We made the decision in our league for a number of reasons, one of them was for the playoffs and make it more appealing for your fans, your games more appealing for your fans. I think the inventory that we presented for TV … was very appealing because we weren’t playing, for the most part, FCS teams. The first part of the schedule we started playing conference games in there, made that look much more appealing. We played more night games.

“I think all those things came into play with the TV contract and then if we want to be players in the playoff then the strength of schedule was one of the primary criteria.”

How that might change in the future remains to be seen. At meetings last month, possible expansion wasn’t discussed but trying to better understand the criteria for selecting teams was.

Still, the notion of expanding the field won’t be going away.

“My personal opinion is that expansion is probably inevitable,” Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said. “I think at some level that is a good thing. I do think there are very real concerns about how long you make the schedule and how many games you play, and there are concerns about spreading that too much over two semesters.

“I think in the greater scheme of things it’s probably good for the game and good for the teams involved.”

But expanding the field isn’t a slam dunk with the Big Ten’s athletic directors.

Ohio State has been in the playoff twice and won the 2014 national championship, but athletic director Gene Smith is wary of some of the downfalls of extending the season.

“I see the value of studying it. I think it’s worth looking at,” Smith said. “But I think there’s a lot of problems around it, I really do. I think you need to look at the wear and tear. When we won the championship in the inaugural year, I’m not so sure our guys could’ve gone another game. We played Michigan. We turned around and went to the (Big Ten) championship game. We turned around and played Alabama, and then you turn around and play Oregon. Most people don’t understand the toll that takes on a young person’s body. … And you’re playing at the top of the pyramid against the best.

“I’d be a little bit concerned about student-athlete welfare from a health and safety view. So I’m not sure how it would work. I would hope there would be some gaps so that they could breathe.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau