Three months into a football season that feels more deflated around here than it did a week ago, we hold a truth to be self-evident.
A Pac-12 team won’t compete in the College Football Playoff.
I could be wrong. There’s a chance the top dozen or so teams all become embroiled in scandals. In a world where “student-athletes” travel to China on what is supposed to be a goodwill trip and end up getting arrested for shoplifting sunglasses, no scenario is impossible.
But there’s a better chance – a 99.999 percent chance – the playoff will proceed without a representative from the Pac-12.
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Because there are five major conferences and only four playoff slots, it’s inevitable that a “Power 5” champion will be left on the sideline. Expanding the playoff from four teams to eight would solve the problem while creating other problems, such as expanding the season to 16 games for the finalists.
Before last season’s title match, Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware spoke for most of his peers when asked about the rigors of a 16th game:
“If we had to play another game after this?
“God, no,” Boulware said. “I’d literally die.”
No, Ben, you wouldn’t die, literally or otherwise. I suspect an NCAA approved arrangement to put some cash in the players’ pockets would mitigate any fears about escaping the playoffs alive, but that’s another issue for another day.
The issue in front of us is this: There are five power conferences, and room for only four teams in a playoff apparently structured to maximize controversy.
Sports administrators are not fond of those virulent controversies that leave fans exhausted – Jerry Jones versus Roger Goodell, for instance – but a controversy about shutting out a major-conference team from the College Football Playoff draws attention to the playoff.
That’s one explanation for the resistance of an eight-team format. Aside from the crime-against-humanity gruel associated with a 16-game season, is there another?
There’s a consensus the determination of a national champion is more fair with a playoff than it was in those dark 1991 days when Washington and Miami were forced to settle for a co-championship. But the format can be improved, and it can be improved in the time it takes to add four plus four.
What schools would qualify in an eight-team playoff? Start with the champions of the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. So there’s five.
Invite the highest-ranked mid-major team – in 2017, that would be Central Florida – and assign the final two berths from an at-large pool.
Schedule the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds around a seeding system that affords home-field advantage to the higher seed, then settle the final at a predetermined neutral site.
As for the elephant in the room – the wear and tear of a 16-game season for two teams – there are these convenient solutions called “bye weeks.”
The 2017 Pac-12 conference championship game is set for Dec. 1. Give the winner a bye break before the mid-December playoff quarterfinal, and the winner of that game gets another bye break before a semifinal round coinciding with the traditional New Year’s Day bowls.
Allow the semifinal victors still another bye break heading into the mid-January conclusion.
College athletes are challenged to balance schoolwork with a schedule that includes weekday practices and five or six regular-season road trips. It can be a grind, but let’s not exaggerate the severity of the grind.
Because NCAA regulations limit the amount of hours coaches can work with players, practices nowadays are quite shorter and less physically taxing than they were when Bear Bryant was overseeing his “Junction Boys” boot camp at Texas A&M.. Two-a-day workouts have been fazed out, the concept of proffering water to the thirsty has been fazed in.
The Huskies beat Colorado for the conference championship last season on Dec. 2. They lost to Alabama in the semifinals on Dec. 31. Fatigue was not a factor.
Enough already. Expand the playoffs to eight teams, ease the load with bye weeks, and a flawed format becomes a format agreeable to everybody but those with a vested interest in the team ranked No. 9.
Hey, it’s college football. There always will be controversy.