ROSEMONT, Ill. – After four months of games, college football sets its biggest stage.
And each of the last two years, the Big Ten has been stuck on the sideline.
The conference was shut out of the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons and that didn’t go unnoticed. Outgoing Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is open to discussing the playoff’s four-team format and multiple conference athletic directors support that push as well.
“It concerns me that everyone has not been included and I think there, I’ve stated this before, I think we certainly should take a look at it,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said Tuesday at the Big Ten headquarters outside of Chicago during the annual spring athletic directors meetings. “I think we need to revisit the criteria that were set up to start with.”
The Bowl Championship Series, which pitted two teams against each other for the national championship for 16 seasons, was replaced by the four-team playoff in 2014 and the Big Ten was represented the first three years of the new format. Ohio State won the inaugural CFP title but that was followed by two poor showings by the conference. Michigan State was blanked by Alabama in a 2015 semifinal and Ohio State was shut out by Clemson the following year.
The SEC and the ACC were the only Power Five conferences represented the first five years of the playoff. Alabama went every year and carries the banner for the SEC while the ACC featured Florida State the first season and Clemson, the defending national champion, each of the last four. Meanwhile, the Big Ten champion – Penn State in 2016 and Ohio State each of the last two seasons – didn’t reach the playoff the last three years.
“I’m open to the consideration and to looking at it and to thinking about it,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said Monday of playoff expansion. “Anytime our Big Ten champion is left out of the playoff … that’s something that needs to be discussed. Because I obviously believe that you go through and you win the Big Ten championship in this league, you’ve accomplished something that deserves to put you in position to play for the national championship.”
Delany, who oversaw monumental changes in three decades as Big Ten commissioner, is scheduled to retire in June 2020 when his contract expires. After being hesitant to push to expand the playoff beyond four teams, in December he told The Athletic “The Big Ten would be happy to discuss structure issues with colleagues,” as related to the current playoff format, which has a 12-year deal with ESPN through the 2025 season.
“My personal opinion is that expansion is probably inevitable, and I think at some level that’s a good thing,” Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said Tuesday. “I do think there are very real concerns about how long you make the schedule and how many games you play and there are concerns about spreading too much over two semesters.
“At the same time, it’s such a small number of teams so if you’ve got two teams playing one extra game – it’s not 300 or 50 or 60, it’s two teams playing one extra game. I think in the grand scheme of things it’s probably good for the game and good for the teams involved. If you move it from four to eight, you really pick up one extra week or game played.”
Alvarez, the former longtime coach at Wisconsin, spent three years on the CFP selection committee and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was part of it each of the last two years. They know what goes into identifying the top four teams and reasons for possibly expanding the field. Smith also has concerns, including health and safety. And if the playoff grows, he hopes for a break between games for the players.
“I also think you need to look at the wear and tear,” Smith said. “When we won the championship in the inaugural year, I’m not so sure our guys could’ve gone another game. We played Michigan. We turned around and go to the (Big Ten) championship game and play (a 59-0 win against Wisconsin) and we turned around and played Alabama. And then you turn around and play Oregon. Most people don’t understand or respect the toll that takes on a young person’s body.”
Scheduling in the regular season also factors into which teams make the playoff. The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 all play nine conference games while the SEC and ACC have eight. On Nov. 17 last year, Ohio State rallied to top Maryland 52-51 in overtime on the road and avoid an upset. That same day, Alabama rolled to a 50-17 win at home against FCS opponent The Citadel.
“Well, we can’t control what other conferences do,” Alvarez said. “We can’t tell someone what we think is right or wrong.”
The BCS gave college football a national championship that didn’t come down to a vote. The CFP doubled the numbers of teams with a chance and talk about it featuring a bigger field started before the modern format crowned its first champion. That chatter isn’t going away and expanding the field to eight seems like a possible next step but one that will only lead to it speculation about it growing larger.
“I do think there’s got to be some sort of reasonable limit to the thing,” Beekman said. “Shutting out too many of the Power Five conferences too often – I don’t think it’s wise decision making and I think eight gets you to a reasonable number. There will absolutely be pressure at some level (but) there’d be people having us play year-round. There’s always that slippery slope.”