College Sports

Jim Phillips Has a Point, but There’s an Obvious Fix in the Fight for a 12-Team Playoff

ACC commish Jim Phillips has a point, but there’s an obvious way around it to still get to 12 teams.

The biggest roadblock to an expanded College Football Playoff? The ACC, which would be highly likely to benefit from an expanded playoff. While that might seem strange, commissioner Jim Phillips reasonably articulated why he’s willing to lie down on the tracks in front of the 12-team train Friday.

He’s not the only roadblock by any means; neither of Phillips’s Alliance compadres, George Kliavkoff of the Pac-12 and Kevin Warren of the Big Ten, are ready to get onboard the train as it currently is constructed. They also have issues with the format of the 12-team Playoff that has been championed by most of the rest of 10 FBS conference commissioners plus Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

But whereas Kliavkoff and Warren are holding out for relatively minor alterations of the proposed model, Phillips is taking a stronger stance. His take, distilled: We have a dozen things to worry about before even seriously addressing a new Playoff structure.

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The current CFP contract expires in 2026.Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY Sports The Arena Group

“We have a college athletics problem before we have a college football problem,” Phillips said in a Friday conference call with reporters.

His list of problems go fairly deep into the policy weeds, but most relate to the “overall disruption of college athletics.” That includes the NCAA’s hang-onto-your-butts plunge into immediate eligibility for transfers and name, image and likeness bylaw changes. He’s pushing for a “365-day review” of college football and its calendar. He’s calling for congressional legislation to help the NCAA out of the wilderness. And he wants to see the results of the NCAA’s push to overhaul its entire makeup, which will take more tangible form next week at the association’s national convention.

But one of the most striking objections Phillips raised Friday was this: There is too much football. The season is too long. Teams advancing all the way through a 12-team Playoff will play too many games. The phrases “wear and tear” and “academic calendar” came up.

This is not a new concern, of course. Qualms have been raised across decades as the college schedule expanded from nine games to 10 to 11 to 12 and beyond. They have been raised anew as the postseason grew and created the likelihood of CFP championship participants playing 15 games.

But Phillips said the ACC’s own coaches are unanimous in their opposition to adding games to the schedule. “Clemson,” Phillips said, citing the league’s most frequent CFP participant, “they don’t want to play any more games.”

The point is valid. Administrators mouthing platitudes about “student-athlete welfare” while simultaneously expecting them to play as many as 17 games are talking out of both sides of their mouths. The more likely game count for a CFP finalist would be 16, with 17 a rarity, but still. Both are a lot to ask of young people who are still expected to go to school and still not compensated like true professionals.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey raised the premise Monday before the national championship game that rule changes can reduce the number of plays per game and thus reduce the physical demands on the players. There are, indeed, several ways to shorten the interminably slow college game and play fewer snaps within a 60-minute contest, as the NFL does, but that is cosmetic surgery.

Teams still would be going through 16 or 17 weeks of practice. That means 16 or 17 weeks of hitting each other to get ready for those games and 16 or 17 weeks of film study and meetings and lifting. It also does nothing to prevent encroachment on the academic calendar, including trampling through finals weeks in December.

The better way? Get rid of conference championship games. That would free up the first week in December to start a 12-team Playoff earlier, which would mean either ending it earlier than proposed in late January or adding more breathing room in December.

Conference championship games are often useless beyond the revenue grab, which is why they’d be hard to get rid of. Most conferences have a clearly established best team in the regular season, without the double jeopardy of having them prove it all over again in a league title game against an inferior opponent from another division. The rest of a 12-team Playoff also could easily be filled out based on regular-season performance.

The number of truly consequential outcomes is small. Look at this year’s Playoff.

Michigan didn’t need to trounce Iowa in the Big Ten championship to establish its CFP credentials. Georgia and Alabama were both in the top four before meeting in an SEC title game that proved nothing. Same with Cincinnati before facing Houston in the AAC title game.

In a larger Playoff, Oklahoma State and Baylor would have been in without a Big 12 championship game. The only Power 5 leagues that would have had Playoff representation affected by title-game results were the Pac-12 and ACC—the former had Utah enter the top 12 and Oregon fall out of it, and Pittsburgh rose from 15th to 12th after beating Wake Forest.

Number of games played is a legitimate concern—one that should be given more than lip service on the way to the next cash grab. Especially when many of the players involved on Playoff teams have NFL aspirations.

A 12-team Playoff is worth having, and as Phillips noted Friday in an almost resigned tone, it will happen inevitably. When the current contract runs out in 2026 and they can change the voting parameters, making it majority rule instead of unanimity, it will happen.

But Phillips and his conference have a point about trying to contain the physical risk and academic difficulty that would come with an expanded Playoff. The easiest way to have both is to at least consider doing away with the most disposable games of the year: the conference championships.

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This story was originally published January 14, 2022 2:56 PM.

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