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Expanding the playoffs in college football? A better idea might be to go in the other direction

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
The Clemson Tigers celebrate their 44-16 win over the Alabama Crimson Tide in the CFP National Championship at Levi’s Stadium on Monday in Santa Clara.
(Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

The debate over college football’s best team has been settled, the question answered by Clemson’s decisive victory over Alabama on Monday night.

But the final score won’t do anything to quell a louder argument roiling the game.

An ever-growing number of fans, coaches and the media want the playoffs expanded from four teams to eight. University presidents who oversee the current format have pushed back against the idea.

“It’s way too soon — much too soon — to know if that is even a possibility,” said Mark Keenum, chairman of the College Football Playoff board of managers. “If a decision were to be made down the road, the presidents would be the ones to make it and we are not there.”

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As the four-or-eight debate rages on, there might be a third option: Go backward.

Back to two teams. Back to a structure that treats the title game like icing on the cake, a grand party held the week after traditional bowls get their time in the spotlight.

There are many millions of dollars wrapped up in the status quo and, as Washington coach Chris Petersen said recently, “Everything comes down to money … right?”

But a closer look at the last few seasons, with the Tigers and Crimson Tide rising above everyone else, suggests the old two-team, Bowl Championship Series wasn’t so awful.

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“There’s so much attention on the playoffs, I can see why a lot of people in the media would like to see the playoffs expand,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “But there is an expense to that.”

To start, it might be useful to ask if bigger is necessarily better.

This season, the quarterfinals of an eight-team bracket would have included Alabama versus Central Florida, which fell to three-loss Louisiana State in the Fiesta Bowl. It would have matched Clemson against a Michigan team that got swamped by three-loss Florida in the Peach Bowl.

Are fans really eager to see those matchups? Last season would not have been much better.

Clemson would have played USC, which got steamrollered by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. Oklahoma would have faced Auburn, which ended up losing to Central Florida.

Reverting to two finalists would eliminate the clutter that Monday led to Clemson becoming the first 15-0 team since 1897. Coaches worry that long seasons pose a risk to athletes still in their teens.

“Can his body take another two games?” asked Urban Meyer, who recently stepped down as Ohio State’s coach. “Do you have to increase it to a 14-game schedule or whatever? Fifteen? Sixteen?”

Downsizing would also address an issue that has changed the nature of the game.

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Said Saban: “Look, I think there’s been a unique thing about college football that a lot of people get a lot of positive self-gratification from being able to go to a bowl game.”

The Alabama coach was talking about not only the Sugar and the Rose, but also the Holiday and the Las Vegas. The growth of the playoffs in recent years has served, he said, “to minimize the importance of those games. Maybe to the point where those games won’t even exist.”

This was a fairly dismal postseason, marked by too many blowouts and too many games where there was hardly any scoring. The juxtaposition of the playoffs did not help.

The semifinals drew lower television ratings in part because the schedule forced them to Dec. 29 instead of New Year’s Day. The big bowls — the Rose, Fiesta and Sugar — languished in their wake.

The same thing will happen next season.

And the growing list of players who skipped the postseason altogether, choosing to prepare themselves for the NFL draft, suggests the system is losing appeal.

With a two-team bracket, CFP voters could still issue their weekly rankings, providing fodder for the debate that adds spice to the final weeks of the regular season.

Championship contenders could be determined and discussed ad nauseam through early December, leaving the bowls some room to breathe.

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The title game could, once again, rotate among the major bowls. That would bring the game back to Pasadena, where the Tournament of Roses has decided to not bid for the championship.

A slimmed-down format certainly has drawbacks. Twice in the CFP’s first five years, a No. 4 team has risen to win the title. There have been bitter arguments about teams left out of the bracket.

Maybe that explains Petersen saying: “I think most want [the playoffs] expanded. I mean, I think that would be really cool for college football.”

But, more often than not, the CFP selection committee’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams have reached the final. And in an equation that has no absolute answer — fans still argue over the NCAA basketball tournament’s 68-team field — the sacrifice might be worthwhile if it can revive the magic of the bowl season.

At least Saban seems to think so. Though his team was a fourth-seeded champion last season, he recently said: “I was opposed to going from two teams to four teams.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter


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