Expand the Playoff, College Football

West Virginia quarterback Will Grier is one of the latest NFL prospects to bail on a bowl game, deciding to prep for the late April draft instead of competing in the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl.
West Virginia quarterback Will Grier is one of the latest NFL prospects to bail on a bowl game, deciding to prep for the late April draft instead of competing in the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl. Photo: Tim Warner/Getty Images

My favorite nonsense sports debate at the moment is whether or not college football will eventually move to an eight-team playoff. It’s like watching someone debate whether or not they’ll get the curly fries with a cheeseburger.

Come on. Get the fries! No one in human history has ever enjoyed a cheeseburger with a sad side salad.

Of course there will eventually be an eight-team playoff in college football, expanding from the current four-team format.

How is this even a debate?

Detractors of playoff expansion have their reasons—“I love all the funky matchups. I love the Funky Cold Medina Poulan Weed Eater Bowl,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the other day, an impeccable Dadjoke reference to a 90s bowl sponsor and a late-80s Tone Loc song. But Swinney’s sentimentality here is just bizarre. It’s like being emotionally attached to Dennis Rodman movies.

Proponents of expansion, on the other hand, cite the public’s appetite for playoffs (as if this is a shock—Americans love a do-or-die tournament) and puff themselves up about fairness (in the four-team model, high quality teams, even conference winners, get left out). Everyone gets to say “UCF would be in!” “Georgia would be in!” and “Ohio State would be in!” and feel good about their spirit of inclusiveness. Of course, nobody confesses the true motivation to expand, because nobody wants to sound like a crass jerk.

But your buddy Jason is happy to sound like a crass jerk!

Really, the reason to expand from four teams to eight is the only reason anything truly gets done in college sports: Money.

It’s about the money, it always is. The four-team playoff has proven itself to be a lucrative bonanza, and the first rule of lucrative bonanzas is to try and make them more lucrative.

There will be some performative hand-wringing about how to do it—should conference champions automatically get in?—but the thing will get done because it makes too much financial sense. When it comes to $$$—that is, $$$ for conferences, schools, and coaches, not for athletes; don’t be ridiculous—college football finds a way.

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They should do it ASAP. I don’t need to tell you that the playoff format sucked all the urgency out of the rest of college bowl season, relegating it to a meaningless parade of also-rans with weirdo sponsors. (I know the playoff semifinals are technically bowls—this year the Cotton and the Orange—but be serious: nobody cares. People call them the semifinals. Period.)

Even the Funky Cold Medina Bowl bowl-loving Swinney bemoans the impact. “I hate the fact that all of a sudden now it’s not cool to go to the Gator Bowl,” he said.

Dabo’s right. I didn’t think it was possible to remove the edgy coolness from the Gator Bowl—or, ahem, the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl—but here we are.

Meanwhile, if you’re still planning a Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl party, a reminder: It’s this Tuesday, Dec. 18. That tells you everything you need to know about these games in 2018. Bowls may lack relevance, but they are convenient live programming to spread like Nutella across random weekdays in December, giving them value to networks, especially ESPN. (It doesn’t really matter if the bowl is good or not. If you could convince your dog to run around a loop with a pair of underwear on its head, I could find you a sports network to buy it.)

College players sense this meaninglessness. It’s officially a trend for potential NFL picks to bail on their teams as bowl season approaches—West Virginia quarterback Will Grier is one of the latest, deciding to prep for the late-April NFL draft instead of competing in the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl (the bowl’s prior sponsors: Blockbuster, Carquest, MicronPC, Florida Tourism, Mazda, WSJ Sports, Champs Sports, Russell Athletic. OK I’m just kidding, WSJ Sports didn’t sponsor this bowl, but we totally would, if we could do it for under $75.)

In the past, Grier’s move might outrage the college football pooh-bahs. Old-schoolers would bray about Grier letting down his school, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But in 2018 that kind of criticism is quaint. People get it. Should a player really risk his professional livelihood for a shot at branded glory in the Camping World Bowl?

I say ‘No.’

Would expanding the playoffs from four to eight prompt more top players to stick around, since a playoff bid would come with a shot at a national title? Maybe. Would giving an automatic playoff bid to a conference champion instill critical stakes in those mostly dull neutral-field made-for-TV conference championships? Seems like it would. Should they play the opening round at the home fields of top seeds? Yes please!! End the tyranny of neutral fields!

But in the end, money will be what pushes the four-team playoff to eight.

Count on it. And order the curly fries.

Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com

Appeared in the December 17, 2018, print edition.

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