The college football season has finally dwindled down to the final game — Monday’s national championship between Alabama and Georgia.
With the 2021 season nearly in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look at the questions facing college football’s postseason as we forecast its future.
What will the playoff field look like in five years? What’s the best way to ensure the top players stick around for bowl games? And what other issues should fans be considering when it comes to the postseason?
The ESPN college football staff attempts to answer all these questions ahead of the national championship game.
After another year of semifinal blowouts, what is your preferred playoff format and why?
David Hale: The blowouts are far less of a big-picture problem for college football or its TV partners than the fact that the same teams are always playing in these games. Expansion is needed — partially for competitive reasons, but mostly to create more meaningful games all season. But the fact that the current system also creates a “rich get richer” scenario, expansion might also make a real dent in the number of competitive games, too, by giving bigger stages to more teams. Notre Dame-Oklahoma State would’ve been a fantastic playoff game this year, for example, and the revenue and prestige that came from it would’ve only helped the Irish and Cowboys long term. I’m all for 12 — and possibly even 16. But there also needs to be a tradeoff to make it work, starting with nixing the cupcake regular-season games and including more financial incentives for the players.
Paolo Uggetti: Even though the conference commissioners seem to be at odds about this very thing, I think we can all agree that 12 is the ideal number. Personally, I’d love it if there was a way to make eight work, but we all know that would only lead to having this discussion all over again and ending up at 12 anyway. It’s not a zero-sum game, though. Twelve would make more bowl games matter, but would add more games to a player’s schedule, too. The trickle-down effect needs to be accounted for, whether by adjusting schedules or compensating players fairly because they’re being asked to, you know, work more. But yes, expand please and thank you.
Adam Rittenberg: I had always preferred eight teams to 12, but now I can see a case for an even bigger postseason, or at least something that will make more postseason games truly meaningful for the players. Will that prevent opt-outs? Not entirely. Will it prevent All-SEC national title games? Certainly not. But a playoff has to be more national in nature than the current one. Every true playoff system aims for geographical representation even at the expense of actual competition. That’s why eight teams (six conference champions, two at-larges) would work, but I’m more open to 12-, 16- or 24-team models than ever because of the overall issues with college football’s postseason.
Kyle Bonagura: If only there were an NCAA-sanctioned playoff system for college football that has been used successfully for years. Oh, wait. This isn’t that hard. College football is too stuck on trying to preserve tradition, which sounds good in theory until you factor in the reality that the traditional postseason system has never been good. It wasn’t the structure that appealed to fans or players or anyone else, it was that football is easy to enjoy whenever and wherever it’s played. Imagine the response if any other sport in the country decided to do away with a real playoff system in favor of what is in place in college football. It would not be taken seriously for even half a second.
Bill Connelly: The smaller-school playoffs are enormous and feature lots of blowouts, and they’re still really fun because of the engagement levels and the simple fact that, even if we still end up with some lopsided scores and predictable champions (something that isn’t guaranteed in a larger format), we’ll end up with a lot of super-engaging, high-intensity battles as well. I always say it’s about the journey more than the destination, and the journey will be more fun with more fun teams involved. Expand, baby.
Opt-outs and transfers: A damper on bowl season or a blip in what remains a fun series of games?
Chris Low: Don’t hold the players to a different standard than the coaches, who are leaving for millions of dollars. That said, I’m for doing whatever we need to do to see as many of the best players in college football as we can possibly see during the biggest celebration of college football — the postseason. So, yes, watching the likes of Kenny Pickett and Kenneth Walker III play one more time on New Year’s Day would have been a blast. I understand why they didn’t play, but as a college football fan, I’m bummed I didn’t get to see them play one more time. But, then, I also remember a time when Michael Jordan played three years of college basketball. Guess I’m old and spoiled.
Connelly: Despite missing Kenneth Walker III and Kenny Pickett, Michigan State–Pitt was still intense, still had solid fan engagement and still had a fun/heartbreaking finish. If the players on the field are engaged and care about the result, it’s going to be worth watching. Of course I would love to see all of the sport’s stars one last time before they leave for the NFL, but we’re putting more in the players’ hands, and the sport will be better off for it long term, even if bowls themselves feature a little less star power.
David Wilson: More than anything, it’s just reality. The money is too big for players to risk it.
Uggetti: Let he who would not to do the same if he had millions waiting for him in the NFL cast the first stone.
Hale: The entire college football calendar is in need of a massive overhaul, and thinking outside the box could help solve these problems. For transfers, the sport desperately needs to create a “transfer window” similar to international soccer. Players leaving midseason is bad for everyone involved, but particularly so at bowl time (not to mention the recruiting woes it creates for coaches). But here’s the really big idea: Move the bowls to the beginning of the season. Make all teams eligible. The weather will be better nationally, so more venues become options. It’s Week 1, so there are no opt-outs. Games are scheduled less than a year before they’re played, so we can create interesting nonconference matchups that don’t need to be planned for 2043. Then set up “bowl week(s)” like the opening round of the college basketball tournaments — wall-to-wall games that become must-see TV and won’t compete with the NFL. And, most importantly, if the bowl games are played in Week 1, they actually mean something! And if we expand the playoff (as we should), then the larger field helps fill the void of lost bowl games in December.
Rittenberg: They’re a bit of a bummer, especially for historic bowl games such as the Rose and Peach. But as others have noted, both games turned out great, and the Rose was historic with the offensive numbers. Ultimately, we just need more bowl games that are part of the CFP to limit the number of significant opt-outs. Hale is way smarter than me, but I don’t see the logic of bowl games at the start of the season. There needs to be a general acceptance that these games are more about younger players and the future than a true reflection of the teams that just completed their seasons.
What is the best way to mitigate against opt-outs?
Wilson: Allow non-CFP bowl games to serve as essentially sneak previews for next season. Drop any issues with eligibility and don’t make it count against players. If players opt out, backups or freshmen could play without burning a redshirt. Fans get a whole new team to root for and coaches get an opportunity to experiment. That would be worth watching.
Mark Schlabach: I agree with Wilson on letting everyone play and not burning redshirt years. Let the incoming early enrollees play. If a quarterback or tailback opts out, let coaches get a sneak peek at the young players behind him. If we’ve reached a point where paying players is widely accepted, then just pay them. Offer appearance fees and bonuses for bowl games. Give another $5,000 to players on the winning team — a bonus presented by a brand sponsorship. If a player runs for 200 yards, give him $5,000. If a player passes for 300 yards, another $5,000. Everybody gets rich in the new world.
Rittenberg: Every non-CFP game should be doing thorough analysis of NIL possibilities, what’s realistic and ultimately what could work. Schlabach is right (I just threw up in my mouth a little), as bowls should offer financial incentives for bowl playing and winning. Would every player demand the same deal, or could bowls structure NIL agreements only for top draftable players who would strongly consider opting out? I also wonder what dollar amount or incentive would be enough for, say, a projected third-round pick to play in a non-CFP bowl. But the leg work should be happening for all bowl games, unless they can accept the opt-outs and that some games will feature younger teams than the groups that played during the regular season.
Bonagura: If the goal is to mitigate opt-outs, then paying players for bowl participation is the most obvious way to accomplish that. Moving the calendar up could make an impact for some, but if players are worried about sustaining a serious injury, then a few weeks won’t matter.
Uggetti: The idea of turning bowl games to kickoff games in August is intriguing in theory. But part of the fun of bowl season is that it feels like a culmination of teams’ season-long stories. The players should be paid, especially now that sponsors can technically use NIL to do so, but there will always be players who see the value they can make by staying healthy for the NFL draft and opt for that instead. In a sport that’s now more player focused than it has ever been, it’s just the way it is and the way it’s going to be. That being said, don’t kid yourself: We’re all still watching the games.
What is the biggest issue facing college football and its postseason?
Hale: The postseason problems for college football aren’t really problems — they’re symptoms. College football has to address player compensation. It has to figure out how to create a fair partnership with players that affords them a chance to transfer but doesn’t incentivize them to do so midseason. And for that matter, it needs to find a way to do the same with coaches. It needs to engage fans from beyond the same five or six schools. It needs to expand the footprint of quality programs (an issue that begins with where the best recruits are found). It needs to find better ways for conferences to work together for the good of the sport rather than a blueprint where we’re likely to see SEC championship game rematches every few years (or perhaps more frequently than that). College football needs to start solving its big-picture problems, and if it can, the postseason issues will follow accordingly.
Low: Figuring out a way to address NIL deals to where the gap between the haves and have-nots doesn’t only become wider. And to think that NIL deals aren’t going to become a part of the recruiting process (they already are) is as laughable as thinking that Nick Saban is going to out-troll Lane Kiffin on Twitter next year.
Schlabach: Not to sound like an old guy, but the transfer portal has really thrown a bunch of coaches for a loop. Not only have they spent the past two weeks trying to recruit high school players to finish off their recruiting classes, they’re having to re-recruit their own players from leaving. I’m all for players’ rights and freedom to move, but I’m telling you that the gap between the haves and have-nots is only widening, and the portal has a lot to do with it. Alabama added Jameson Williams when it needed another receiver. Georgia added Derion Kendrick when it needed a cornerback. They’re going to cherry pick the best players from non-contenders to bolster their rosters. It’s free agency.
Bonagura: The emphasis on the playoff above everything else is not good for fans or healthy for the sport. The idea of inclusivity doesn’t stem from the idea it’s needed to find a better way to crown a champion or limit postseason blowouts. It makes sense because it would lead to broader appeal across the country. I’ve yet to hear a logical argument for how a system that leads to more regionalization is a good thing for the overall health of the sport.
Rittenberg: To echo Stanford coach David Shaw, you can’t have a playoff system everyone feeds into without conference schedules and other factors that are more uniform throughout the sport. The entirety of the sport also has to be celebrated more, as others have noted here. Programs can still have great seasons without making the CFP, and a larger CFP will allow more teams to check those historic boxes in their profiles. I would say a slight reduction in total number of bowls would be OK for me, but I know I’ll get slammed for that. Not saying we go back to 15, but somewhere around 30-35 would allow the possibility for more vetting on the front end of which teams, coaches and players really want to be there.
What is your favorite part of the CFB postseason?
Connelly: Sponsor-themed Gatorade (or whatever) baths.
Schlabach: Mayo baths. Come on, Connelly.
Low: Reminiscing about all those wonderful memories as a kid when you got up on New Year’s Day and knew it was wall-to-wall football with living-room coaching clinics from uncles, great uncles, cousins and anybody else visiting at my grandmother’s house.
Uggetti: The absurd celebratory rituals. Imagine having to explain to someone completely unfamiliar with the sport why a coach got mayo dumped on him, why another won a very, uh, detailed trophy, how Cheez-Its are involved, or why a french fry bath is par for the course? Good luck.
Bonagura: The same part that is my favorite of the regular season: There is football on TV to entertain me. Very few regular-season games have real stakes, and we enjoy them just fine.
Rittenberg: Watching my bowl predictions, made the day the matchups come out, repeatedly combust throughout late December and into January.