Ex­pan­sion holds the key

Adding teams to play­off field may go long way to bring­ing par­ity to col­lege foot­ball

Baltimore Sun - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Ralph D. Russo

NEW OR­LEANS — Col­lege foot­ball has never had real par­ity.

The play­off for­mat was cre­ated to give more teams a chance to win the na­tional ti­tle, but in re­al­ity it has high­lighted how few pro­grams can even dream of do­ing so.

Play­off ex­pan­sion is brought up as a way to level the play­ing field. Even though four teams of­ten seem like more than enough, the cur­rent play­off struc­ture ex­ac­er­bates the im­bal­ance that lim­its the sport’s growth.

The big­gest im­ped­i­ment to par­ity is tal­ent dis­tri­bu­tion. De­mo­graph­ics, cul­ture and pop­u­la­tion shifts have cre­ated a mas­sive dis­par­ity of that heav­ily fa­vors south­ern schools. When it comes to re­cruit­ing, each year the rich just get richer.

Play­off ex­pan­sion would al­low ev­ery team — though some more le­git­i­mately than oth­ers — to tell re­cruits: “Come here and you can play in the play­off.”

There are many pro­po­nents of an eight-team play­off in which Power Five con­fer­ence cham­pi­ons re­ceiv­ing automatic bids along with at least one team from the other five FBS leagues.

This year’s elite teams in­cluded LSU, Clemson and Ohio State. Ok­la­homa made the fi­nal four, but was clearly not in that class. The Tigers from the SEC and ACC met Mon­day night in the sixth Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off cham­pi­onship game.

Clemson was try­ing to make it three na­tional ti­tles in four sea­sons. LSU was look­ing for its third in 17 years, and the SEC’s 12th in the pe­riod.

This will be the fifth straight sea­son the ti­tle game will match two teams from the South­east. In­clude the Bowl Cham­pi­onship Se­ries days and seven of the last nine na­tional cham­pi­onship games have fea­tured only teams from the Deep South.

Not ev­ery­one sees South­ern dom­i­nance as a po­ten­tial prob­lem for col­lege foot­ball.

ESPN’s Rece Davis said the very best teams in col­lege foot­ball now have a long reach when it comes to re­cruit­ing the bluest of blue-chip­pers.

“I think what’s hap­pen­ing is that the sport is be­com­ing more na­tional, but it’s do­ing so with brands that are re­gional only be­cause they have state names at­tached to them,” Davis said. “But Alabama is a na­tional brand. LSUis go­ing to be­come that. I think Clemson has be­come that.”

Ohio State is in that class, the one school above the Ma­son-Dixon line con­sis­tently re­cruit­ing at that level. Ge­or­gia has moved to­ward that class while not be­ing able to get past SEC West pow­ers Alabama and LSU.

Me­dia, both tra­di­tional and so­cial, al­lows all schools to put their brands in front of play­ers who live out­side their tra­di­tional, re­gional re­cruit­ing ter­ri­tory.

That should give some hope to fans of Ok­la­homa, Michi­gan, Notre Dame, Ne­braska and other pro­grams that once rou­tinely con­tended for na­tional ti­tles.

There are other ob­sta­cles, and all roads seem to lead back to re­cruit­ing.

Joe Klatt, a for­mer quar­ter­back at the Univer­sity of Colorado and cur­rently a Fox an­a­lyst, said col­lege foot­ball has struc­tural is­sues that work against com­pet­i­tive bal­ance.

“We op­er­ate as col­lege foot­ball and we try to crown a cham­pion of col­lege foot­ball. And yet we have leagues op­er­at­ing in very dif­fer­ent ways,” Klatt said.

Schedul­ing is the most ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence be­tween leagues, but it’s not just that.

Cur­rent re­cruit­ing rules help South­ern schools pro­tect their turf, Klatt said. Un­lim­ited un­of­fi­cial vis­its by re­cruits ben­e­fit schools with lots of ta­lented play­ers close to their cam­puses.

Tweak­ing those rules could help bal­ance the scales a bit. As could the NCAAal­low­ing play­ers to earn money from their names, images and like­nesses, Klatt sug­gested.

Be­ing the best player at Penn State might be more lu­cra­tive than be­ing the third or fourth best player at Alabama.

The grow­ing di­vide is not just be­tween con­fer­ences — the gap is widen­ing within leagues, too. The very best teams have sep­a­rated from the rest — whether its Clemson in the ACC, Ohio State in the Big Ten or Ok­la­homa in the Big 12.

Ex­pan­sion seems in­evitable. And change is likely com­ing to rules re­gard­ing com­pen­sa­tion for name, im­age and like­ness, but, again, it will take a while.

For now, ma­jor col­lege foot­ball will re­main a sport in which a small up­per­class com­petes for the na­tional cham­pi­onship and the rest rel­ish the con­so­la­tion prizes.

DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP

Play­off ex­pan­sion may help more teams have a le­git­i­mate shot at the na­tional ti­tle.

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