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NEW YORK – If Jim Delany’s flip-flop seems transparently self-serving, it is – and he’s OK with it.
The Big Ten’s commissioner was for conference champions only in the College Football Playoff before he was, well, not exactly against it, but OK with the concept of allowing a non-champion into the four-team field. That’s almost certainly because while Big Ten champion Penn State got left out, Ohio State got in, anyway. And the Buckeyes look an awful lot like a team that could win the whole thing.
“I argued for a different construct,” Delany said last week. “But the construct we got is a good one.”
We bring it up again to begin to answer a question that has popped up repeatedly over the last few days (to be fair, it never really goes away): Will recent events prompt a push for the playoff to expand?
Short answer: No.
It made for a nice run on Twitter, the NCAA president saying he wants the playoff to expand to eight. Except, of course, that Mark Emmert has no say in the matter. The NCAA is not involved in the FBS postseason, other than to certify the bowls.
“That’s why we live in America,” said Delany of Emmert’s position. “Everybody’s got an opinion, that’s good.”
He paused, and smiled: “He doesn’t have a vote, though.”
The postseason is controlled by the 10 conferences – in reality, the Power Five – not the NCAA. They’re not giving it up anytime soon. And they’re not expanding the playoff anytime soon, either.
“I hear it from a lot of people,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “But we’ve spent a lot of time designing this, looking at the pros and cons of different models. There’s a lot of conviction … that four was the right number, so I do not envision any discussion about expansion anytime soon.”
Scott’s stance was echoed last week in conversations with USA TODAY Sports by Delany, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey (ACC commissioner John Swofford has advocated an eight-team playoff, but is OK with four). That’s significant. There won’t be change until a majority of the Power Five decision-makers want it, and they don’t.
They’re splitting $500 million annually. While the sum would increase if they expanded, it’s unclear by how much (and if part of the increase might be offset, potentially, by other factors; as one example: would conference championship games continue?). There are concerns: more wear and tear on players, more missed class time, a devaluation of the regular season and so on.
Whether or not these are legitimate depends on perspective – but they’re legitimately held, anyway, by many across the college landscape. Delany likes to describe it as “too much ice cream isn’t good for anybody” – the idea being, eight might be too much of a good thing, with unintended consequences.
“I understand the entertainment value of an eight-team playoff,” Delany said. “But we’re just really three years into a 12-year arrangement. It only took about three months to start this discussion (about expanding), and I’m sure I will be viewed as too conservative on this point. But that’s how I feel. That’s how our (Big Ten) members feel. That’s how our coaches feel, that’s how our athletic directors feel and that’s how our presidents feel. So I’m going to reflect that, for sure.”
Of course, it’s worth recalling that the Bowl Championship Series was never, ever going to be scrapped for a playoff, either. For a long while, the commissioners were so resistant to even discussing the possibility, they actually referred to a playoff as “the ‘p-word’”). And then suddenly the BCS was gone. After the 2011 season a playoff was necessary.
LSU and Alabama played in an all-SEC rematch and the conference commissioners suddenly saw the virtue of doubling the access and having a small tournament. So there won’t be an eight-team bracket – until there is.
But in the third year of that 12-year contract, there is no impetus for change, and here’s why:
The first two editions of the playoff featured conference champions only. One conference got left out each year, but that’s simple arithmetic: four slots, five Power Five conferences.
While this season marked the first non-champion in the field, it didn’t change the math: four conferences were still represented. Other than the Big 12’s recurring angst – the condition may be chronic – the system has not yet been significantly stressed with the selections in any year, including this one.
“I’d say most people generally think we have the four best teams,” Scott said.
And despite his former stance that the field should be reserved for conference champions, Delany doesn’t disagree. If there’s debate over Ohio State’s selection instead of the Big Ten champion Penn State, it ends up largely an internal Big Ten matter – and the commissioner seems OK, either way. Delany even noted the possibility that Michigan would have made the field rather than Penn State – two teams that didn’t win the league ahead of the champion.
“I don’t have favorites,” he said.
For real controversy – the kind that might eventually prompt expansion – we’d probably have had to see multiple teams from one conference in the bracket. This year, if Ohio State and Penn State had both made the field, the Pac-12 would have joined the Big 12 on the outside looking in.
If that happens more than a couple of times, the commissioners might start getting antsy. It’s one thing to know some league will be excluded each year. It’s another if two (or more) get left out, and if it begins to become a trend.
But that hasn’t happened yet, not even once. Until then, bring up expansion, and Delany will begin talking about frozen dessert again.
“I think what we have here is good,” he said. “It’s hard, because there’s not unlimited ice cream.”
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