Tom Oates: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany needs to convince peers to increase CFP field to eight teams
OK, Jim Delany, you’re up.
The time has come for you to earn that $3 million the Big Ten Conference pays you every year. Your league is looking bad and only you have the power to fix it.
How bad? Another College Football Playoff field has been selected and once again the Big Ten is on the outside looking in. This is the second consecutive year the conference hasn’t had a team in the four-team field and the third consecutive year its champion failed to get a nod from the CFP selection committee.
A playoff seemed like a great idea at the time, but what fun is it when your teams are consistently left out? The SEC and ACC have hogged the bids in the first five years of the playoff and the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 have had to fight one another for the remaining spot or two every year.
This can’t be what Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten and arguably the most powerful man in college athletics, had in mind when he and the commissioners of the other four power conferences pushed through the first playoff for FBS teams. The idea received near-universal acclaim at the time, but five years later the playoff essentially has turned into the ACC/SEC Challenge.
The committee showed how unimpressed it was with the Big Ten this season when champion Ohio State, with only one loss, finished sixth in the final CFP rankings, one spot behind a two-loss Georgia team. Yes, the Buckeyes’ four-touchdown loss to a 6-6 Purdue team was hard to get past, but if the committee had any respect for the rest of the Big Ten it might have been more willing to overlook that hiccup.
Clearly, the Big Ten needs to do something or it risks becoming less and less relevant in college football. With that in mind, here is a short to-do list for Delany:
First, the playing field must be leveled. The SEC and ACC are playing eight conference games and the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 are playing nine, leading to inequities in resumes that the committee is ignoring. And as painful as this is to write, the Big Ten needs to soften its non-conference scheduling because the SEC and ACC are playing more cupcakes than the other power conferences and the committee seemingly has put strength of schedule very low on its list of criteria.
Second, Delany needs to push for an eight-team playoff as soon as possible even though the television deals for the four-team playoff run through 2025. The champions of the five power conferences should be guaranteed spots in the eight-team field and there should be three at-large spots, giving a bid to virtually every team with a realistic chance at winning the title.
Delany’s response when asked about the Big Ten’s absence from this year’s playoff field was surprisingly tepid for a commissioner whose league is getting roasted nationally.
“We were a little disappointed, but we’re not going to allow a committee’s opinion of us to shape how we feel about ourselves,” he said this week. “We had a terrific year.”
That terrific year will end with Big Ten teams playing in nine bowls, none of which matter. Meanwhile, the CFP will have Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, giving it a familiar look.
Since the first playoff in 2014, the SEC and ACC have received a bid every year, with the SEC getting two bids last year. The Big Ten and Big 12 have landed bids in three of the five years and the Pac-12 has had two. Three schools — Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma — have usurped 12 of the 20 available spots, with the Crimson Tide making it all five years and Clemson four.
When the CFP became a reality, Delany urged Big Ten teams to beef up their non-conference schedules by playing at least one power five opponent per year and eliminating FCS opponents from the mix. Then the Big Ten went from an eight-game to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016, though largely for TV purposes.
Delany figured playing tougher schedules would impress the committee, but he miscalculated. The committee has shown no inclination to penalize SEC and ACC teams for playing friendlier schedules than teams from the other conferences.
Not only are the SEC and ACC the only conferences playing eight league opponents, giving them one less chance at a loss, they are also feasting on FCS teams. The SEC and ACC ranked first and second, respectively, in the number of FCS opponents on their schedules this season, the SEC with 15 and the ACC 14. By comparison, the Pac-12 played nine, the Big 12 eight and the Big Ten only two.
Since the committee doesn’t seem to be weighing strength of schedule heavily, its message to teams has been loud and clear: Avoiding losses is more important than who you’ve beaten.
Delany has already backed off his scheduling mandates for tougher non-conference schedules, but said this week that playing nine conference games is “set in cement.” He also said there has been discussion recently about changing the format for the Big Ten title game to match the two best teams in the conference instead of the division champions, which would be a logistical nightmare.
The Big Ten needs a better solution than that anyway. Delany helped to create a situation where the Big Ten needs to be almost perfect to get a bid and the best way around it is for him to start working toward an eight-team playoff.