“Sixteen just seems to be out there,” Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director, said at the Big Ten media days. “You can’t ignore it.”
A 16-team college football playoff — four rounds to determine the national championship, the likes of which have never before been seen at the FBS level of this sport. Twelve teams were voted down, and while the number eight is still out there, many believe that a playoff that small wouldn’t solve the exclusivity issue that the current iteration faces.
But what would a 16-team, no-bye playoff look like as we watch the tectonic plates at the very foundation of the sport continue to shift this year?
The first question is how the 16 teams would be decided if this were to come to fruition. Do we go back to the AP Poll decisions from the BCS days? Or is there still a CFP committee — one that might be less controversial in a world in which more than four teams get a chance to take on the big stage each year?
Do conference winners get an automatic bid — and, more importantly, what are the conferences? If, as we’ve written about, we’re headed toward a completely different conference structure in which the Big Ten and SEC dominate the sport while the Big XII and ACC become sort of second-tier conferences (and the Pac-12 may be long gone by then), do the much larger the Big Ten and SEC each get two representatives if the number of participants in each conference warrants such an imbalance?
In a world of a 16-game college football playoff, four extra weekends would be added to the regular season. Four extra 60-minute periods, more physically demanding and emotionally draining than most games each team will face throughout the regular season, four more opportunities for career-ending injuries or tanking draft stock.
With the recent shirking of traditional conferences and, with that, a lot of tradition, a 16-team playoff could be the end for conference championship games. It’s a relatively easy game to cut, made easier by the concept that it’s more likely than not that the two teams that would have played in such a game will now both be in the hunt for a national title in such a playoff and may even end up playing each other at some point in it.
And we can’t forget the health risks, the end-of-season exhaustion, and the full-time student status. Realistically, there would need to be cuts to the regular season or postseason to make this an option for college football. Right now, the most games a team can play is 15, and the majority play 13. If conference championships remained along with a 16-team playoff format, teams could play up to 17 games in a season, which would dilute the actual product at the end of the season, particularly without ample recovery time between the end of the regular season and the bowls and tournament, as we have now. So either an 11-game season with extra weeks off for the team would be implemented (and with TV deals, I don’t see that happening), or conference championships will cease to exist. (For God’s sake, conferences are about to cease to exist, anyways.)
With the best 16 teams playing in a playoff each year, the rest of the bowl games kind of get screwed over, ratings-wise. Assuming that the first eight games of such a postseason tournament are all bowl games, as the first two are in our current interaction, how will the rest of the bowls find a place in the sport and the sponsors to pay for it? Sure, bowls are tradition, but if the money’s not there, I’m not sure what our future stretches between Christmas and New Year’s will look like.