The College Football Postseason’s Existential Crisis

There were a lot of fun things you could take away from the run of college bowl games that just completed last night and set the stage for next Monday’s national championship game, but none of them get at the gut-level issue tugging at the strings of college football’s postseason.

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Maybe it’s Central Florida capping a perfect season by beating the team that beat both Alabama and Georgia, yet not allowed to play for the national title—thereby making the “title” seem rather illegitimate in the eyes of some of us. Or maybe it’s the Big Ten’s dominance, raising questions as to why their champion was not allowed in the bracket.

Maybe it’s the SEC’s sweep of the Playoff semis or maybe it’s wondering why on earth Oklahoma ran the ball three straight times on their first possession of overtime when they had the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and the certain knowledge that a touchdown would have beaten Georgia.

All worthy fodder for conversation and text thread debates, but for me the biggest takeaway was the memory of Ohio State defensive back Denzel Ward sitting in street clothes during the Cotton Bowl. Or the reports that Penn State head coach James Franklin was limiting the carries of his star running back Saquon Barkley in the Fiesta Bowl. The reason–Ward and Barkley are both projected as top 10 overall picks in the coming NFL draft. Ward wanted to protect his status. Barkley wanted to play all-out, but his head coach took the longer view and protected the kid’s economic future.

This isn’t anything new. Last season, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette, both running backs projected as first-round picks, sat out their team’s bowl game. Both will be playing in this weekend’s NFL wild-card playoff games. It’s hard to fault them for their decision. But when it was announced they weren’t playing, the natural follow-up question was—where does it end?

Last season, Stanford and LSU were both playing in minor bowl games that were disappointments for the program. Some observers took the view that if teams were in major bowl games or the Playoff itself, it wouldn’t happen. But now it has. One player has sat out a New Year’s Six bowl, another has seen limited playing time and it isn’t going to stop there.

Proponents of expanding the playoff have cited instances like any of the above as a reason for bringing more teams into the bracket, the theory being that then the players won’t sit out. But why? All of the players—McCaffrey, Fournette, Ward and Franklin on behalf of Barkley, have made correct decisions based on the financial reality of football. And the financial reality of a lucrative NFL payday doesn’t change whether the game impacted is the Bahamas Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, a Playoff semi-final or the National Championship Game itself.

Is it really fair to ask the sport’s best players to continue to risk injury in even more playoff games? Even if a player like Barkley doesn’t get hurt, the simple wear and tear on his body in playing these extra games against elite teams has to diminish his ultimate NFL earning power, even if the diminishment takes place on the back end of a career.

You aren’t going to solve the problem by paying players to compete in a postseason tournament. The most obvious reason is that there is simply no way college football can pay enough to compete with the value of an NFL contract.

There’s also going to be a public perception problem if only kids on the playoff teams get paid—you think some of us threw a fit over insider bias for the SEC this year, wait until there’s that much more money on the table.

Finally, there’s practical legal issues pertaining to Title IX. Can schools include cash stipends as a part of the scholarship for a handful of teams in one sport without spreading the wealth to women’s programs. The only way the NCAA takes this step is if they want to spend a lot of time in court.

Most fans tune out the non-Playoff bowl games. I’m not one of them—I watched all the New Year’s Six games this year and do so every year, along with several of the games on the bowl undercard. But I’m in a minority. The only way the sport can address that is to turn college football into “December Madness” and invite up to 16 teams. And if you do that, any player guaranteed to go in the top four rounds of the NFL draft, will bow out. They’d be crazy not to.

This is where college football is at with its postseason. They are headed to a drastically watered down product with the best players sitting out. Or, if the best players don’t sit out, as fans we have to ignore the fact that kids are putting the economic futures at risk for the sake of lining the pockets of the NCAA one or two more times.

I wish I could sound more optimistic or even propose a solution, but I think the future of this sport on the national stage is very bleak. Gamblers will always be drawn to it and that alone will keep it viable, but it’s going to be tough to go beyond that or for the ultimate champion to have any more credibility than it did in the days when it was decided by vote.

College football’s natural “running lane”, so to speak, was built on the regular season and rivalries with nearby schools. The effort to nationalize the sport, with far-flung conferences and multi-round postseasons have the sport out of its element. And nothing survives outside of its element for long.