Hugel: An Expanded Playoff Could Save College Football in 2020

Dec 7, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; LSU Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron celebrates with wife Kelly Orgeron after a victory against the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2019 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The first chip to fall came on Wednesday when the Ivy League announced that it would be suspending all fall sports for the 2020-21 school year. 

And still, there were plenty of people who thought the Ivy League’s decision didn’t matter based on the entire landscape of college sports. 

On Thursday, the Big Ten, the biggest money-making conference, announced they would be playing fall sports with a conference-only schedule. The Pac-12 followed, then the ACC. The Patriot League on Monday announced they’re canceling all fall sports and will explore the idea of spring football. At the junior college level, spring football is now the plan. 

Decisions from the SEC and Big 12 have yet to come, but we can only imagine that they will do the same as other groups go conference-only. 

Given the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in football hotbeds like Texas, California, Florida and Arizona, it was only a matter of time before schedules would have to be readjusted so the entire season wouldn’t be in danger. 

Yes, we’re losing out on non-conference matchups like USC-Alabama and Oregon-Ohio State, but there is still a lot of hope for the 2020 season. 

All of that hope lies in a singular question: what should be done about the college football playoff? You know, that thing that makes schools millions of dollars and is one of the most exciting sporting events of the calendar year.

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told USA TODAY Sports that “the committee will select the best four teams based on the protocol.” 

Yet, in a season where each team will most likely play eight to nine games (or less), is choosing the “best four teams” really fair to the entirety of the FBS?

Clemson already had an easy schedule, but you take away their rivalry game with South Carolina and it gets even easier. They could very well go undefeated in the ACC. 

In the SEC, Florida has to go up against LSU and Georgia even in a conference-only schedule. Florida might not be a top pick to make the playoff, but they could definitely make a push during a normal season. Would two losses to two of the best teams of the last few years shut them out of consideration?

Without even looking at the fairness of schedules, there are several reasons for the committee to expand the playoff this year. The most obvious one is money. Universities have already lost a massive amount of money due to the cancellation of last year’s spring sports (no NCAA basketball tournament) and an abridged college football season. 

The Power 5 schools will survive a conference-only season through TV revenue and reducing the absurd salaries on their coaching staff, but the NCAA should look to make as much money as they can without having to cut too many more non-revenue sports. 

The Group of 5 schools are the ones more in trouble here. Northern Iowa, who plays in the FCS, was going to receive $650,000 for playing Iowa in their season opener. That’s about half of what they spent on their entire athletics department just last year. That was major money for UNI, but now they’ll be taking a serious hit financially. Even some schools like Boise State and UCF who have been in contention for the playoff in the past but play in smaller conferences could take a bigger financial hit. 

Opening up the playoff to more teams would allow for more games to be played. Schools would gain a ton of money from TV revenue, which also helps the NCAA in the long run. 

While UNI might not make the $650,000 they were due from Iowa, competing in the FCS playoffs could expedite their losses and allow for less of a loss than expected. 

With the likely loss of many smaller bowl games, expanding the playoff would allow the NCAA and ESPN to have more games than originally thought in a conference-only season.

The second reason is time. 

Conference-only schedules are essentially a last-ditch effort for college football to be played in the fall. By attempting to play in the fall, conferences and schools are allowing themselves time to move games around on their schedules due to possible positive COVID-19 cases on teams or simple over-usage by playing week-to-week. 

An expanded playoff could be held in the spring if the season were to start later in the fall (say, October?) just a few weeks after conference championship games are held. 

Pushing the season to the spring would put universities up against an imaginary clock with a combination of a second wave of COVID-19 and the school year ending. Even worse, if the season were to be played in the spring, it could ultimately be canceled without completion and millions of dollars would go down the drain. 

The NCAA and its corresponding conferences need to do everything in their power to complete a season, expanded playoff or not, and beginning in the fall allows them to do so.  

Expanding the playoff has always been a conversation from the first time it took place in 2014. Allowing for more games to occur during a shorter regular season would be a win-win for everybody involved, including the non-revenue sports at universities. If it leads to blowout games, then they can scrap the idea for the future. If games are competitive, they could look to continue it in 2021-22 and beyond. 

There’s no better time to experiment with it than now.

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