Thoughts of the Day: June 11, 2021

A few thoughts to jump start your Friday morning:

WHY AN EXPANDED COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF MAKES GOOD SENSE

Thursday, a proposal was submitted by a working group to expand the College Football Playoff from the current four to 12 teams. In this proposal, the top six conference champions and six at-large teams would make the playoff. There will be no automatic bids and no limit on the number of teams from one conference.


In this format, the top four conference champions would get first round byes and the four first round games will be held on campus approximately two weeks after conference championship games. Second round – or quarterfinal – games will take place on January 1 or January 2 and will be integrated into the bowl system.


There will be some tweaking to the proposal for sure. It’s hard to imagine the Pac-12, which has only had two teams in since the playoff system began in 2014 (Oregon 2014, Washington 2017), will agree to anything that doesn’t include an automatic bid for its conference champion. The same holds true for the Big 12, which didn’t get its conference champ in last year. There is that teensy matter of the Group of Five. To get their agreement – and if their concerns aren’t addressed you can bet there will be lawsuits – at least one of their conference champs will have to be included.


The earliest the expanded playoff could take place would be 2023 although the new playoff might not begin until after the current contract with ESPN expires in 2025. If you’re the type that wagers on such things, put your money on sooner and not later. It will take time to clear up all the details, but one thing for certain, an expanded playoff is going to be a good thing for college football.


You can forget those extremely silly arguments that expansion will only make the regular season less meaningful and turn college football into a miniaturized version of the NFL. Sure, there will be more teams involved but remember this: There are 30 teams in the NFL, more than half of which make the playoffs. There are currently 130 Division I football teams so we’re talking 12 teams – that’s less than 10 percent of the overall total – will be involved in the playoff.


Now that we’re over and done with NFL comparisons, let’s talk about why the regular season is not going to be diminished by expansion.


Start with the current four-team format. You can all but pencil in Alabama and Clemson. Since the CFP got off the ground in 2014, Clemson and Alabama have been in the final four six times. Clemson missed in 2014 but has made the playoff every year since. The only year Alabama missed was 2019. Ohio State and Oklahoma have made it four times each.


If you go by the Athlon Sports preseason magazine projections, the top four teams at the end of the 2021 season will be (1) Alabama, (2) Clemson, (3) Ohio State and (4) Oklahoma. Lindy’s flops Oklahoma with Georgia but its top three is the same as Athlon. In projecting the top four teams for the next three seasons, ESPN goes with (1) Alabama, (2) Clemson, (3) Ohio State and (4) Oklahoma.


The usual suspects are in the playoff every year, which is why interest in the semifinals and national championship game has declined. Typically, we know who three of the four playoff teams will be by the first weekend in November, so only a very few teams have a shot at that fourth slot. Only once has one conference placed two teams in the playoff (2017 when Georgia was the SEC champ and Alabama was selected at-large over Big Ten champ Ohio State and Pac-12 champ Southern California.


No Group of Five team has ever made the playoff. UCF won 27 straight games (2017-18) and didn’t get in. Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina both went unbeaten in the regular season last year and didn’t get in. I don’t know if any of those teams could have made it to the championship game in an expanded playoff format but at least they would have had a chance.


Since playoff expansion means more teams than the usual suspects have a chance to win a national championship. If there is one thing the NCAA Basketball Tournament proves it is the nation loves a Cinderella story. The chance that a team from nowhere will not only make the Final Four but may someday win it all appeals to a quite sizeable group of fans who are always cheering for an underdog. Cinderella has come close a few times in the last decade. Butler crashed the Final Four party twice as did Gonzaga. Wichita State and VCU have also shocked the world by making the Final Four although neither made it to the national championship game.


Back in 2006 when Florida won the first of its back-to-back NCAA titles, Billy Donovan was asked what is it like to be the best team in the country. Donovan surprised a lot of people by answering that he wasn’t sure the Gators were the best team when you took into account the entire season, but for three consecutive weekends and the six games of the NCAA Tournament the Gators went unbeaten and were the last team standing when they played “One Shining Moment.”


In an expanded College Football Playoff, there is no assurance whatsoever that we will see a Cinderella, but with 12 teams there will always be the possibility that one can go 4-0 and climb to the top of the mountain. The fight to be one of those 12 teams in the playoff field will make November far more exciting, not to mention put added pressure on the conference championship games.


Under the current four-team format, it only takes one upset loss to knock a team out of conference championship and playoff contention. With expansion, a team that might have lost a game or two can get hot at the right time and still have a chance to play for the national championship.


I’ll use an example many Gator fans can appreciate. In 1984, with the NCAA bearing down on Charley Pell and Florida, the Gators started out 1-1-1. Then they got hot, winning eight in a row. At season’s end, Florida was the one team in the country nobody wanted to play. Pell, who was fired due NCAA pressure, had assembled what amounted to an NFL team with one of the greatest offensive lines in college football history led by future College Football Hall of Famer Lomas Brown. With the Great Wall serving as the football equivalent of an eclipse – they blocked out everything in their path – future first round NFL running backs Lorenzo Hampton, Neal Anderson and John L. Williams ground opponents into the turf. On those occasions when freshman walk-on QB Kerwin Bell was asked to throw, future NFL receivers such as Ricky Nattiel, Ray McDonald and Frankie Neal were typically wide open. The defense was nasty. That team had more than 35 future NFL players.


It’s worth mentioning that Florida team even though they couldn’t participate in a bowl game because they are the perfect example of how a team can lose early and then find its mojo. With an expanded playoff format, a team can endure early season disappointment and still have a chance to be around at the end.


If there is a downside to an expanded playoff, it will be the enormous pressure on Power Five coaches to make sure they are one of the top 12 teams. As former Gator tight end Ben Troupe points out, a coach making $7 million can offer the excuse that it’s next to impossible to elbow your way into a four-team playoff in which three of the teams are all but decided before the season even begins. Expand the playoff, however, and it’s tough to justify that big salary if you aren’t one of the top 12 teams.


My Conclusion: Purists will argue that expansion means a three-loss team could win the national championship, but what’s wrong with that? If an unbeaten team that’s been No. 1 all season can’t win the most important game of the season – particularly against a team that lost three in the regular season – then it shouldn’t have been No. 1 in the first place. I’d rather see an expanded playoff that offers a second chance to a team that perhaps lost a game or two early on because of injuries or a first chance to a team like Boise State than go on with the same teams dominating every year. Even with expansion, Alabama and Clemson might still wind up in the championship game most years, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with them needing to win one or two more games to get there.


OVER, UNDER, AROUND AND THROUGH THE SEC

Arkansas: The Razorbacks (49-11), the No. 1 team in the NCAA Tournament, will be hosting North Carolina State (33-17) in super regional play in Fayetteville this weekend.

Georgia: According to the Atlanta Business Journal, freshman QB Brock Vandagriff has an endorsement deal with apparel brand Onward Reserve lined up once the NCAA approves name, image and likeness legislation. Onward Reserve is owned by prominent Georgia booster TJ Callaway.

Kentucky: Former Ole Miss linebacker Jacquez Jones made it official Thursday when he transferred to Kentucky. Jones led Ole Miss with 75 tackles last season.

LSU: The Tigers (38-23), who surprised 14th-seeded Oregon in the Eugene regional, will start Landon Marceaux (7-6, 2.44 ERA) on the mound Saturday in the Knoxville regional against No. 3 seed Tennessee (48-16).

Mississippi State: The 7th-seeded Bulldogs (43-15) will face 10th-seeded Notre Dame (33-11) in the Starkville regional, beginning Saturday … Former MSU great and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is switching from Adidas to Jordan Brand, a deal that will make Prescott the highest paid NFL athlete on the Jordan Brand roster.

Missouri: Former Montana State offensive lineman Connor Wood (6-5, 300), who has 20 career starts to his name, is transferring to Missouri.

Ole Miss: Ole Miss (44-20) expects to start lefty Doug Nikhazay (11-2, 2.39 ERA) tonight in the Tucson super regional against No. 5 seed Arizona (44-15).

South Carolina: Former Gamecock Johnathan Joseph is retiring after 15 seasons and 32 interceptions in the NFL. He was selected to the Pro Bowl twice.

Tennessee: A lot of Tennessee baseball season ticket holders are furious that they are squeezed out of tickets for the Knoxville super regional because UT is allowing boosters to buy as many as eight tickets.

Texas A&M: Cornerback Elijah Blades, who opted out of 2020, has entered the transfer portal. He’s finishing up his degree in summer school so he can transfer as a graduate. Blades played in seven games in 2019 with six starts.

Vanderbilt: The No. 4 national seed Commodores (43-15) will open their Nashville super regional against 13th-seeded East Carolina with Kumar Rocker (12-3, 2.65 ERA) on the mound.


ONE FINAL PITHY THOUGHT: Under the expected NCAA legislation change that will make it possible for college athletes to make money off endorsements, Georgia freshman quarterback Brock Vandagriff is said to be on the verge of an apparel deal with a company owned by UGa megabooster TJ Callaway. This is nothing more than sanctioned cheating and it’s going to make a level playing field for recruiting more difficult if not impossible because boosters are going to be able to buy recruits for their school. Vandagriff hasn’t even played a game. How will teammates who have been busting their butts for three or four years feel about an untested rookie getting money? And there is also a dark underbelly to this name, image and likeness legislation. Who is going to police the folks who pay players? What happens if gamblers get a player to throw a game or two after getting their hooks in him from what appears to be a legitimate endorsement deal? That’s not extreme thinking. That’s a very real possibility. NCAA president Mark Emmert, of course, is probably sitting on a toilet somewhere reading a magazine instead of providing the kind of leadership that this situation calls for.

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