clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Column: The College Football Playoff is a microcosm of American society and both need expansion

The haves do everything in their power to keep out others who are deserving while ensuring the gap between them and the have nots only grows.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff-Selection Sunday Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In this world, there are undeniable haves and even more undeniable have nots. There are those who have inherent advantages and systemically leverage them in order to stay in power and continue generations of nearly unencumbered success. Then, there are those who are forever behind the eight ball; clawing not even to reach a level playing field, but just to achieve something even tangential to level so that they can have a fighting chance to some day — against all odds — taste the success that the more privileged experience every day.

This is not on accident, this is, in fact, how the game is designed; and make no mistake about it, this is all absolutely a game. Those at the top of the heap benefit from the rules that are already on the books, and then use their influence and connections to write new rules that are designed solely to keep any upstarts from usurping the status that they believe belongs exclusively in their closed system of power.

For those at the top, this is all a zero-sum game. There is no “greater good” to think about, there is no rising tide lifts all boats, there are only winners and losers; and that does make sense on some level. This is, after all, college football that we are talking about, and baked into the entire operation is competition; in every game, one team wins and one team loses. And, at the end of every season, a week-and-a-half, three game tournament determines who is that season’s champion. You can’t have college football without winners and losers.

But this is also American society, where the ideals of the nation are supposed to be that everyone has an equal shot at success. But no where in college football or our country are things ever actually equal, and that needs to change.

Late last month, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said that he expected the College Football Playoff to expand sooner rather than later; perhaps even before the new TV contract in the 2026 season.

When discussing CFP expansion, there are dozens of ideas, from an FCS-style 16-team tournament to just adding two more teams (and two byes) to the current format. But here is where the college football establishment needs to — for once — make a decision that benefits the sport as a whole, rather than just the blue bloods at the top of the sport’s society.

Right now, there are really only about a half dozen teams that can possibly win the national title; obviously our Ohio State Buckeyes, Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, LSU, and maybe Texas if Sark is actually able to finally get them “back.” If you want to throw Oregon, USC, and Notre Dame in there to round the legitimate contenders list out at 10, that’s fine with me.

So, if going into any season, we know that the eventual champion is going to be one of 10 teams, that means that there are 120 FBS squads that will take to the field with literally zero chance to claim the sport’s ultimate prize. The system is rigged.

In seven seasons of the playoff, only 11 teams have ever earned berths, and only four of those have won a title. And while that is not all that different from the systems that preceded the CFP, the bowl system and BCS at least allowed for the illusion of access; teams could convince themselves that if they just played well enough, they could be rewarded when the season was over.

But that fairy tale doesn’t exist anymore. If you aren’t already one of the elites, you have no shot at the ultimate success; you just have to be satisfied with less. You have to come to grips with half measures. You have to be comfortable with being little more than an also-ran.

No matter how hard you work, no matter how good you are, you are stuck on the underside of a glass ceiling exclusively because of who you are. Your situation and status explicitly dictates your ability to succeed.

This is why the playoff needs to expand; this is why access needs to expand. If the system automatically disenfranchises 96% of the college football population before the season even starts, what is fair about that? What is competitive about that?

What makes this inevitability even worse is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The haves already possess all of the advantages, but as they continue to accumulate power and trophies, they become the default; they further solidify their position by virtue of system that they’ve created.

Because the Buckeyes, Tide, Tigers, Sooners, et al. are always the teams competing for the title, they are the teams that the best high school talent wants to play for. And since we all know that stars matter, when the best teams collect the best talent, the distance between them and the field only widens. So when those with all of the imaginable resources monopolize all of the marquee exposure, they inevitably build a competition-proof operation that is just too big to fail.

This is why the playoff needs to expand; this is why access needs to expand. If only certain teams are allowed to compete for a title, those are the only teams that are able to reap the rewards of those opportunities, thus strengthening their stranglehold on the system.

With every season, the teams on the outside looking in continue to make strong cases for inclusion; they do everything the committee asks them to do; but it is never enough.

Play a strong out of conference schedule? But you lost once in conference.

Win the Pac-12? Nah, we need a second SEC team.

Go undefeated? That’s cute, Cincinnati, but no G5 team is ever getting in.

With every passing playoff selection, the committee reinforces that to get into this club, you must already be in the club. The committee has created an environment that purposely withholds access, no matter how deserving teams are. And in doing so, they are ensuring that no one outside of their select few will ever be able to crash their invitation-only party.

This is college football, but this is also American society. Having access leads to opportunity, and having opportunity leads parity. It might not be immediate parity, but in the long run, having more teams able to win the title every year helps more programs recruit, compete, and eventually win. While this would clearly strengthen college football as a whole, it would also weaken those at the top; and this is why they work so hard to limit who has access to the spoils of victory.

When access is withheld, upward mobility is stifled; so the status quo remains unchallenged. This is why the playoff needs to expand; this is why access needs to expand.

Ultimately, there are far more have nots than haves, and even though I bleed the colors of one of the bluest of blue bloods, I hope that Gene Smith is right and that expansion is an inevitability.

While some argue that expansion would undermine the regular season, or that more teams don’t deserve the opportunity, they are wrong; they are viewing the whole premise of expansion myopically and reactionarily, they are thinking only of the immediate impact, and ignoring the longterm systemic changes that expansion can bring. Will we likely still see Ohio State, Alabama, and Clemson passing around the national title for a while after expansion? Probably. And they aren’t likely to be completely eliminated from the conversation any time soon. They will just have to share a little bit more than they have had to in recent memory.

But as more teams make the tournament and have access to the title, the bigger piece of the pie they claim. While it might take a while for those pieces to become a mouthful, eventually they will.

Now I understand that these types of changes can be scary for traditionalists and those who are accustomed to keeping the power to themselves, but if we want to ensure the enduring health of the sport that we love, we cannot continue to allow it to exclude the vast majority of teams that deserve all of the same opportunities that their more privileged competitors have enjoyed for generations.

This is college football, but this is also American society.