Clemson offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst is a semifinalist for college football’s top scholar-athlete award and earned his undergraduate degree in financial management. He has worked micro internships at Cisco and Merrill Lynch and is pursuing his MBA.
Combine that intellect with College Football Playoff experience few can match and you have a sage voice that merits attention as the sport ponders expansion of the four-team championship tournament.
The 12-team bracket proposed in June? The concept that many of us, including me, applauded for its innovation and inclusion? The model that appeared fast-tracked for approval last Tuesday?
While still on the table, the idea has received considerable pushback — for quite valid reasons.
Speaking at the ACC’s preseason gathering in July, Bockhorst personified the player-safety issues that must be addressed before any expansion of the season. Subsequent events, most notably the defections of Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 to the SEC, have cast doubt on the process that crafted the 12-team proposal.
“Something this significant, for a sport as popular as college football, should be handled in a deliberate and thorough manner, and that is exactly what’s happening,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock told The Associated Press’ Ralph Russo after Tuesday’s meeting of the playoff’s management committee in suburban Chicago.
Yes, but that methodical approach surfaced only when ACC commissioner Jim Phillips and his colleagues at the Big Ten and Pac-12, Kevin Warren and George Kliavkoff, a trio that leads 40 of the 65 Power Five football programs, tapped the brakes.
Otherwise, the 12-team model could have been green-lighted Tuesday and launched in 2023. Now the earliest season for any expanded playoff is 2024, with 2026, after the CFP’s original 12-year contract with ESPN expires, a more realistic debut.
“I love opportunities [but] I don’t know if 12 [teams] is the right number. I think that’s the question for everybody,” Virginia athletic director Carla Williams said.
Indeed, while playoff expansion remains likely, there is growing consideration for a more conventional eight-team bracket.
“I’d like to see a little more opportunity, whether that’s eight or 12, but I will certainly listen and defer to the commissioner on that one,” Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock said. “I think letting more in would be good, and then you just have to balance the number of games [and] player safety. Do you keep bowl games as they are? Do you keep conference championships as they are?”
A semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy, Bockhorst is eminently qualified to address questions about the season’s length. Clemson has made the playoff in each of his four seasons, reaching the final twice in the span.
“I think if we’re going to talk about expansion of the playoff, we also need to consider shortening the regular season,” Bockhorst said in July. “As an offensive lineman, when you start getting up to 14, 15 games, that’s quite a few snaps. Given the situation we were presented with last year with lack of depth, the snaps add up quickly. That’s some wear and tear on your body that’s hard to describe. I’m not here to get anyone’s pity, but it’s much easier said than done. That’s where I stand.”
Rest assured those comments were heard by Clemson president Jim Clements, the ACC’s representative on the playoff’s board of managers. The board is comprised of 11 university CEOs, one from each of the Bowl Subdivision’s 10 conferences, plus Notre Dame’s John Jenkins.
Under the 12-team model, the two playoff finalists would play 16 or 17 games, depending on whether they received the first-round bye reserved for the four highest-rated conference champions. Fifteen is the maximum with the current four-team system. Sixteen would be the cap with an eight-team model.
Trimming the regular season from 12 to 11 games would cost athletic departments millions in revenue and their surrounding communities millions in hotel and restaurant business.
For example, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce told The Times-Dispatch’s Mike Barber last year that Virginia Tech football fans generate about $20 million annually for local establishments, or about $3 million per home date.
Then there’s the ACC’s recently announced alliance with the Big Ten and Pac-12, a centerpiece of which is more nonconference football games among the three conferences. A shorter regular season would torpedo that concept.
Conference championship games also are lucrative.
In the most recent fiscal year not affected by the pandemic, 2018-19, the ACC reported $15 million in revenue from conference championships on its tax filing. Bank that a vast majority came from football.
The Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau told Forbes.com’s Ray Glier that the economic impact of a sold-out SEC title game is about $41.5 million for the city.
Are those who run the college football enterprise, and their television partners, willing to give up the 12th regular-season game, or conference championships, in exchange for a 12-team playoff and accompanying financial windfall?
As intriguing: How tense are interactions among some of the 10 FBS commissioners, plus Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who serve on the playoff’s management committee?
A subgroup of Swarbrick, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson fashioned the 12-team plan, which includes the six highest-rated conference champions and six at-large selections. Not coincidentally, Notre Dame and the SEC stand to gain the most from the model.
The Fighting Irish desperately want to remain football independents, and six at-large teams would enhance their CFP access. Meanwhile, the SEC’s Sankey helped unveil this plan knowing his conference was poised to invite Oklahoma and Texas, additions that will make the already powerful SEC even more likely to land multiple at-large bids.
Absent the Houston Chronicle breaking the OU-Texas news in late July, the 12-team playoff might have been approved before anyone else learned of the impending moves.
As you would imagine, none of this amused Phillips, Warren and Kliavkoff, whose conferences had no voice before the 12-team bracket was proposed.
Well, now they are being heard, if only behind closed doors, and how that maneuvering unfolds will be fascinating, especially since the CFP wants unanimous agreement to expand.
Can all the issues swirling around the 12-team model be resolved? Is an eight-team format a palatable compromise?
If so, how many conference champions would be assured a bid? Four? Five? Six? None? Could Notre Dame’s access be so limited that the Irish caved on independence and joined the ACC? How would fans react if CFP officials couldn’t reach consensus and retreated to the four-team status quo?
Spoiler alert: poorly.