Jim Harbaugh is absolutely right. College Football Playoff needs to expand, and not by a little.
The Michigan coach said Monday at the Big Ten media luncheon in Chicago that the FBS playoff needs to grow from its current format of four teams to 16 teams.
“Thoughts on the playoff system,” Harbaugh said, “I guess the first thing that comes to mind is more would be more, more would be better in the playoffs. Four in right now. Let’s go to eight and eventually get to 16.”
That was the boldest statement among the seven coaches who spoke Monday. Harbaugh pointed to how the Football Championship Subdivision playoff “model has been successful.” The FCS has a true tournament feel and has grown from its initial four teams in 1978 to 24 teams since 2013.
But beyond citing any existing model, Harbaugh is right on a gut level. College football is one of the highlights of our national sports calendar, so what’s wrong with making it last longer and making it mean more?
Name me one tournament in major sports that isn’t great? And for anyone ready to mount an argument about supposedly watering down the regular season, save it. Because, after all, we wouldn’t want to water down a season at a place like Georgia, which plays two of its first three games against juggernauts like Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee.
Even if the CFP grew to 16 teams, it would mean only 12 percent of the 129 team in FBS would make the tournament. That’s a tiny number compared 38 percent, or 12 of the 32 teams, that make the NFL playoffs.
First-year Nebraska coach Scott Frost also was on board with expanding the CFP, although he prefers eight teams that would consist of the Power 5 conference champions and three at-large teams.
Frost gave a very detailed explanation of what he liked about the evolution of the national championship format since 1997. That’s the year he was Nebraska’s quarterback and saw the Cornhuskers and Michigan both finish undefeated and split the mythical championship because they weren’t part of the bowl alliance and couldn’t play each other.
“Obviously, that changed and the BCS happened and the best two got to play,” Frost said. “I thought that was an improvement. Getting it to four teams is an improvement. But it’s hard to look at last year’s college football season and not feel like an eight-team playoff is where we should go. And that’ll always be my opinion.”
Last years, Frost coached Central Florida to a 12-0 record but the Knights didn’t earn a spot in the CFP despite being the only undefeated FBS team.
“I think it should be the five conference champions and three at-large teams,” Frost said. “That would give a surprise conference champion that plays well at the end of the season a shot. It might give a team like we had at UCF last year a shot.
“I think you could start that playoff earlier in December and not have to make the semifinal like a bowl experience. That would allow the season to end about the same it does with the national championship game. I don’t think it takes away from the regular season and the importance of those games. As great as the evolution of that playoff has been, I’m always going to be an advocate for eight teams.”
Penn State coach James Franklin was the strongest opponent of expanding the playoffs, mostly for practical reasons regarding the length of the season.
“People talk about expanding the playoffs and things like that, I don’t necessarily – I’m not on the same page with that,” Franklin said. “This game, we started out playing 10 games, then we went to 11 games, then 12 games and now with the payoffs you’re talking 15 games. That’s a lot of games. We haven’t expanded the rosters.”
Franklin said he likes the current system, though he did lobby for one change: Uniformity.
“I think one of the things that I think is probably the biggest challenge with the system that we’re in is it’s subjective,” he said. “And I think whenever you have a subjective system like we do, you want to control as many of the variables as you possibly can.”
Franklin advocated the same rules for every FBS team, including the same number of conference games, whether FBS teams can play FCS or not, and the same number of out-of-conference games against Power 5 teams.
“So, I think if we could control some of the variables that’s going to allow the people that have a very challenging job already, that’s going to help them,” Franklin said. “So, when they’re comparing one program to another or one conference to another, some of those things don’t have to be factored in.”
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com