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Let’s talk fun ways to replace conference title games with Playoff games

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The best way to expand the Playoff is to let it absorb something else college football went a long time without.

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Brutus the Buckeye at the Big Ten Championship Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

The Playoff should expand beyond four teams. I think eight is a good number, because it would be easy and allow inclusion of non-powers who’ve been spurned for decades. We can haggle over the exact best format, even if we’re never going to settle on a number that makes everybody happy.

There’s a problem, though: An expanded Playoff makes the season longer for minimally compensated labor.

Shortening the regular season is unlikely in FBS. It would mean around 122 of 130 teams losing a game, which many can’t afford. That would have a downstream effect on FCS programs that need paycheck games.

The solution that’d be best for the most groups is ending conference championship games and playing expanded Playoff games the week after the regular season instead, with the Power 5 champions and the top Group of 5 champ getting automatic bids.

I’ve thought this through, including the business obstacle in your head right now. We’ll get to that.

First off, college football doesn’t need conference championship games. They have existed for just a tiny slice of history.

They didn’t start until the SEC debuted one in 1992. Some conferences didn’t have them until 2018. Meanwhile, almost all levels have had large playoffs for decades — playoffs are actually more historically intrinsic to college football than conference championship games are.

People who reminisce about how great college football was are likely yearning for an era when there were few or no conference title games.

Most of the time, these games lead to the same outcome that the standings would’ve created on their own.

The only FBS league where that hasn’t been as true, according to my review of old standings, is the Big Ten. That’s because of imbalanced divisions that inflate the record of the typically weaker West’s champ. For example, Northwestern and Ohio State would’ve shared the 2018 Big Ten title by record, and then Ohio State smashed Northwestern in the championship game. We did not need a head-to-head meeting to make clear Ohio State was better.

Title games are a good way to hash out a champ when teams don’t all play each other. Skipping them won’t necessarily mean more Playoff messes.

Consider again Northwestern and Ohio State in 2018. It would’ve felt weird to award the Wildcats a shared title with the Buckeyes just because both were 8-1 in the league. Without championship games, that kind of thing would be possible.

First, keep in mind conferences doled out co-championships for generations, so this would be nothing new. And in an expanded Playoff with an auto-bid, it might not matter anyway. The committee can just put the highest-ranked team in the field. The lower-ranked co-champ still gets to hang a banner.

The business side of axing conference title games makes sense, probably even for the conference you’re thinking about.

TCU coach Gary Patterson made a key point in 2015:

I think you would probably make more money on the playoff games in December than you would with the conference championship games. Other than the SEC, there were a lot of empty seats that I saw at those conference championship games.

The SEC would kiss goodbye one huge ratings game and ticket-seller per year. That would make the league’s TV package less attractive.

But the money in an expanded Playoff could easily outstrip that loss. Power conferences already each make about $54 million per year on the Playoff’s deal with ESPN, plus another $6 million per team they get into the field. (That number was as of 2017, and it’s probably still going up.) We don’t know what they’d make if the Playoff added four more games, because ESPN and the Playoff would have to negotiate.

But it would be a lot – certainly more than CBS has been paying the SEC ($55 million) for entire seasons of a package that includes the conference championship game. The SEC will eventually get a lot more money than the $3.67 million per game it’s been getting from CBS, but you don’t have to strain to see an expanded Playoff approximating or beating that money, especially for the SEC, which would’ve gotten two teams into an eight-team Playoff in three of the Playoff’s first five years, including three in 2017.

I’ve been talking a lot about the SEC, because which other powers are going to care about losing their title games for a big Playoff payday?

The Big Ten has a bad divisional structure, and conference members showed by adding Maryland and Rutgers that money is always their driving factor. The Pac-12’s game draws about 75 attendees per year on a weeknight. The ACC’s is frequently lopsided and lightly attended. The Big 12 is mostly worried about making the Playoff, which would now be larger, and the conference already plays a full round robin.

An expanded Playoff could take several forms, and all of them would be better uses of this weekend than conference title games.

Here are some options ranging from commonsense to “well, college football’s had bigger monstrosities before”:

  1. An eight-team Playoff with the Power 5 champs, the top Group of 5 champ, and two at-large bids. In this system, four of the current New Year’s Six bowls could host Playoff quarterfinals. The two semifinals are played on campus.
  2. Same, but with the order reversed. Put the quarterfinals on campus and the semifinals at New Year’s Six bowls. With campus games earlier in December, it’ll be easier for students to attend.
  3. A 10-TEAM PLAYOFF, with the Power 5 champs hosting games on the former Championship Weekend. Their opponents are the next five highest-ranked teams, including a G5 rep. (If Notre Dame is ranked highly enough, it could bump a P5 team down.) After that, the two bottom seeds play a quarterfinal, while the other three teams get byes into the semis. Is it a mess? Yes. Is it fun? Unquestionably. Welcome to college football.

That last plan risks the season getting one game longer for an underdog that makes a run all the way to the championship, but maybe a longer year for one team is OK.

And this doesn’t need to hurt the bowl games at all.

We could make it so teams that lose quarterfinals are eligible for regular bowls later in December, after a committee re-rank. For these teams, the schedule would work exactly the same as it does now.

This might not work for every conference, and that’s up to each individually.

Group of 5 leagues make less money on the Playoff ($16 million per league in 2017) than their power counterparts. If they want to be eligible for a G5 auto-bid, they can keep collecting whatever the new pile of Playoff money is.

But if they’d rather skip it and keep a championship game, that’s fine. There’s precedent in FCS, where the MEAC and SWAC forego the playoff to have their champs play the Celebration Bowl.

Or, another idea: Keep things flexible. A conference could decide to only have a championship game if it doesn’t have anyone in the Playoff hunt.

The exact structure is open for tweaking, but my driving philosophy is that playoffs are good, and we should have more of them.

(Plus, getting rid of championship games makes divisions less necessary. This would be great news for pod scheduling dorks like me.)