Column: Now is the time to expand the College Football Playoff

WASHINGTON — The only reason I wish I was at Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship game — a Clemson 44-16 shellacking of Alabama — is so that dateline could read WHEREVER THE HECK WE ARE, Calif.

The absurdity of holding a national title game between teams from Alabama and South Carolina in an NFL stadium with all the character of a sidewalk, located in a California suburb nowhere near where anyone actually wants to be, dominated the week. But this year’s playoff had other flaws, and showed just how much better it could be with a few simple changes.

First, expansion needs to happen. I’ve seen suggestions of six teams, but eight really feels like the best number to accomplish the fundamental purpose of a playoff system.

After all, what is the purpose of a national championship that doesn’t offer the chance for every undefeated team to compete? After two straight perfect regular seasons and two straight American Conference titles, UCF still has absolutely no shot of making the Top 4 (they finished this year at, yes, No. 8). Consecutive undefeated seasons don’t even give them a chance to play for a national title. If Navy did the same thing, in the same conference, they’d still be relegated to some effectively meaningless bowl game. All the non-Power 5 teams would be better off playing in the FCS, where at least they’d be able to earn their way to something.

But the Knights weren’t the only team that showed us why the playoff needs to be expanded. Was Oklahoma really better than Ohio State? Probably, but why do we have to choose? Do we not think that both teams had great seasons, that if they played their best game, both might be capable of beating any team in the country? Then why don’t they both have a chance to play in the playoff?

More to the point, in an eight-team playoff, wouldn’t OU-OSU have probably been better than any of the three games we actually got?

Isn’t the entire point of evolving past the two-team BCS to pit those teams who’ve earned the chance via their record (Notre Dame, UCF) against those who we believe may be even more talented despite their losses (Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia) on the field to determine a champion?

Isn’t that what we wanted when we wanted a College Football Playoff?

The powers that be clearly understand this and the mounting pressure to expand the field, which led to an odd pre-emptive strike via a statement before Monday’s title game.

In regards to expansion, Chairman of the CFP Board of Managers Mark Keenum said, “It’s way too soon — much too soon — to know if that is even a possibility.” Really? Why? Every fan I know has been discussing the idea of expansion since Year 1. I understand that the school presidents haven’t discussed expansion seriously yet, but is there anything keeping them from doing so?

The current deal constructed with ESPN runs through 2025, but there’s nothing prohibitive against expansion within that agreement. The big conferences get paid bigger bucks for their representation, but at least one of them is getting left out every year, and an eight-team field would likely include at least seven power conference teams.

One complaint of expanding the field is that it would devalue college football’s regular season. But under its current incarnation, that really isn’t true. It’s already an imperfect fit with only four spots available and five major conferences. Expanding to eight teams would add more intrigue to conference championship games, as constructed, with two-loss conference champions having a chance to get in that simply doesn’t exist now.

I understand the reticence to expand the field — once you do, there is no going back. Just look at the professional leagues, which would never now reduce the number of teams in their respective postseasons. But those playoff systems are also more exciting, and actually give a large group of fan bases reason to be invested in the possibility of a title deep into their respective seasons.

There is also a very real case to be made that any additional training and injury risk to unpaid college players is unfair to ask of them. That’s a more fundamental issue with the NCAA, but until there is structural change when it comes to paying players (or, at the very least, allowing them to use their market value to get paid outside the universities), this must be noted.

Now, back to Santa Clara (I know, I’m sorry, I don’t want to be there either). This is another area where the FCS gets it right. Higher seeds get home games in the early rounds, while the title game is played in the same place every year. Lucrative bowl contracts may prevent the first part of that from happening in the CFP (though maybe at least round of 8 games could be at home). But — and I say this as a kid who grew up in the Bay Area and loves college football — that’s not where the championship game should be played.

There are plenty of great college football towns around the country, from Baton Rouge to Columbus, from Madison to Eugene. Wouldn’t a game in one of these cathedrals be a better advertisement for the sport itself as anything played in a sterile, NFL stadium? Just ask any of the fans who were at the game Monday night … that is, if they’ve made it back to San Francisco yet.

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