John McGrath

John McGrath: Expand college playoffs to 8 teams – and kiss a Frog

When it comes to college football teams suffering snubs at the hands of clandestine voting committees, my typical response is a shrug.

Unless a team has won every regular-season game, controversy is in the mix. So here’s a thought: Don’t lose, and the committee will sort out the rest.

But the exclusion of TCU from the inaugural College Football Playoff finds me, well, not aghast — I’ve got no dog in this hunt, aside from my suspicion the Horned Frogs have the coolest nickname in sports. I’m just bewildered.

Last week, after the committee released its penultimate rankings, the Frogs were put at No. 3. Because four teams advance, it appeared only Iowa State, a 34-point underdog, stood in the way of a semifinal berth for TCU.

The Frogs took care of business, and then some. They gained 722 yards, and held the Cyclones to 236, in a 55-3 victory.

“There wasn’t much the Frogs could do to help themselves against the Cyclones,” a wire-service report noted, referring to Iowa State’s 2-10 record, “but they avoided the type of clunker that could have caused the committee to downgrade them.”

TCU was downgraded anyway, from No. 3 to No. 6. The Frogs produced a 52-point drubbing and dropped three spots, an example of the sort of train-wreck scenario that was supposed to be avoided once computer-driven polls were given back to humans who happen to follow football.

Then again, humans are only human, and it’s possible they exchanged TCU’s place in college football’s final four for a school that is much more of a brand name: Ohio State, which clobbered Wisconsin, 59-0, in the Big Ten championship game.

Ohio State’s vault into the playoffs — from No. 5 to No. 4 — is not an issue. Injuries forced the Buckeyes into starting third-team quarterback Cardale Jones, and he threw for 257 yards. Their defense smothered Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate and among the best running backs in the history of a conference famous for its talented running backs.

The Buckeyes are riding an 11-game winning streak. They deserve to join Alabama, Oregon and Florida State as semifinalists.

But I’m still trying to understand how TCU was booted out of the playoff field after beating a conference opponent by seven touchdowns and a field goal.

TCU’s downfall, it appears, is that the Frogs are not undisputed owners of the Big 12 title trophy. The Frogs shared it with Baylor, thanks to the Bears’ 61-58 shootout victory over TCU in October. Denied a chance to prove themselves in a conference championship game — the Big 12 doesn’t have one — the Frogs’ domination of Iowa State obviously wasn’t as impressive as Ohio State’s obliteration of Wisconsin.

Ohio State is worthy of a semifinal berth, but so is TCU and, for that matter, Baylor. The logjam almost makes me pine for the Bowl Championship Series, the abomination that annually offered college football fans a flat swig of Postseason Lite.

Solutions?

Here’s mine: Add four teams, and turn the College Football Playoff — its director, Bill Hancock, emphasizes the singular — into the College Football Playoffs.

Hancock is steadfast in his insistence that the four-team format will remain unchanged for 12 years, until the NCAA’s $7.3 billion television contract with ESPN expires. Contracts containing 10 figures are formidable documents, but it’s not though we’re talking about the Magna Carta here. A TV contract can be revised.

A four-team playoff is an improvement over a two-team playoff. An eight-team playoff is better yet, and installing it, while maintaining the bowl-game tradition so fundamental to college football, would be seamless.

Opponents of playoff expansion will tell you the season already borders on too grueling for athletes, and their argument has merit. Something would have to go, which is convenient, because something needs to go: The conference championship game.

Oregon’s no-sweat victory over Arizona underscored all that is wrong with conference championship games. Despite a compelling story line — a rematch between the Ducks and the team that beat them with the help of a bogus unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty — there were thousands of empty seats at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

Oregon had a score to settle, but college football fans don’t care about rematches in December, especially rematches requiring them to invest in an expensive weekend during the middle of the Christmas shopping season. Fans with the wherewithal to travel are girding for bowl games.

If conference championships are discontinued, the problematic addition of an extra playoff game to the schedule becomes not so much of a problem.

As for the rest of us, what sounds more enticing? A rematch of Oregon-Arizona at Santa Clara, or a first-round playoff game between the Ducks and, say, Mississippi State at Autzen Stadium?

The location is significant, by the way. Neutral sites are an inconvenience for fans. Award home-field advantage to the higher seed in the first round, and then proceed to the bowls.

Granted, there still will be grumbling. If an eight-team format were in place this season, Ole Miss, ranked No. 9 by the playoff committee, would miss the cut — even though the Rebels beat Mississippi State in their regular-season finale.

So be it. Ole Miss finished 9-3. At some point (three losses, for instance), the “We Wuz Robbed” narrative is nothing more than hot air.

TCU, on the other hand, was robbed. The Frogs, who came within a last-second field goal of a perfect season, had reason to presume a 55-3 victory wouldn’t bounce them from the national championship race.

But that’s what happened, because only four teams can qualify for playoff berths. Four teams is too few; eight is enough.

If it takes 12 years for brighter minds than mine to realize this, may heaven help us all.

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