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John Niyo: In season like this, College Football Playoff leaves us begging for more

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Miami Florida St Football

Miami running back Jaylan Knighton (4) reacts to scoring a touchdown against Florida State in the second half of an NCAA college football game.

It's still Infrastructure Week in college football.

That hasn't changed, and it may not yet until another bridge collapses, probably somewhere between Cincinnati and Tuscaloosa in early December.

But after Tuesday night's unveiling of the third installment of the College Football Playoff rankings, and with a few weeks remaining in what has been an unpredictably fun regular season, what is clear is the opportunity here.

There's a need for more than four. Eight isn't enough, either. And for anyone who thinks exclusivity is the reason for all the excitement surrounding this fall's stretch run in college football — whether it's the looming Michigan-Ohio border war or the Bedlam brewing in the Big 12 or even those undefeated Bearcats scratching at the door — these rankings should make you think again.

As much fun as fans of Michigan State and Michigan are having right now — both 9-1 with a legitimate shot at a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game — imagine if there were more of it in store for one side of that rivalry, if not both.

UM, MSU have work to do in College Football Playoff rankings

And as much as the people running this sport seem to enjoy strawman arguments and artificial debate — the CFP top 7 remain unchanged this week, with the Wolverines just ahead of the Spartans, so have at it — imagine if they could supplement it with more of what the fans actually crave? You know, like, more games that matter?

Sort of like what we get with college basketball, come to think of it, which is why it was interesting to hear Ohio State coach Ryan Day this week as he compared the Buckeyes' playoff pursuit to tournament time in hoops.

"I think when you look at college football right now it's about surviving and moving on," said Day, whose team will host Michigan State on Saturday — ESPN's College GameDay will be in Columbus for that one — before traveling to Ann Arbor a week later. "And I think that's what you're seeing across the board: The guys that do bring it every week are being rewarded. It's one-game seasons. It's March Madness. You win, you survive, you move on. That's where we're at right now."

Yet this is where college football is at right now, trying to figure out a way to keep this gravy train rolling amid waning interest in a four-team playoff model that has been far more exclusive than originally intended. To wit: More than 70% of the playoff berths in the first seven years of the CFP have gone to four teams: Alabama and Clemson with six apiece, and Ohio State and Oklahoma with four. Notre Dame (two) is the only other school to make it more than once.

The arbitrary limit in the current playoff field is designed to "preserve the importance, excitement and compelling nature of the regular season, which is the best in sports," or so the playoff committee tells us. (Left unsaid: It's also to prop up the traditional bowl structure and all the grift that entails.)

But that hasn't made for very compelling postseason theater. Or even that much late-season drama, for that matter, considering that in four of the last five seasons, no team ranked lower than No. 7 in the initial CFP poll has ended up in the playoff.

This November may not buck that trend in the end, though a team like Oklahoma State — currently ninth — could crack the final four. But there are more teams in the mix just the same. That includes three top-10 teams in the Big Ten East vying for one likely playoff spot. There's also a new SEC power (Georgia) threatening to take Alabama's seat at the head of the table. There's another undefeated Group of Five team (Cincinnati) ready to cry foul. And there's plenty left to be decided over the next few weeks with a total of nine Power 5 teams with one loss or fewer entering the third weekend in November.

But if the favorites win out — and surely they won't, I realize — we'll end up with semifinal matchups that look something like Georgia-Cincinnati and Ohio State-Oregon. Or maybe the committee won't be able to stomach the idea of a playoff without Alabama and the Tide rolls in despite two losses.

But what if we already had the proposed 12-team playoff in place? That's the question we should be asking even before we get to the debate over who got robbed in a few weeks.

Would an expanded field ruin the survive-and-advance anticipation of these next two weekends in the Big Ten? Nope, because the teams would still be playing for a conference title and a playoff bye. The losers might find themselves arguing about why the other got to host a playoff game, too. Because remember, that's part of the expansion plan as well: Staging first-round playoff games on campus, where they belong.

Problem is, though, college football still hasn't figured out how to break the filibuster.

The original 12-team model presented back in June didn't even make it out of committee, let alone to a bill signing. It wasn't perfect, but it should've been enough to satisfy all the various stakeholders — the Power 5 conferences, Notre Dame, the Group of Five, the TV executives and even those pesky university presidents. But then the SEC went and stole Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12, which prompted the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC to form an "alliance," whatever that means, and sent everyone back to the drawing board.

Now there's discussion of a modified 12-team compromise that would include six automatic qualifiers — each of the Power 5 champs along with the highest-rated Group of 5 team. There's also talk of an eight-team playoff, which doesn't really satisfy anyone, particularly the SEC if it cuts the at-large pool in half. And that leaves the possibility this current four-team system will remain in place until its 2026 expiration date, which nearly everyone realizes would be a great big mistake.

This all needs to get sorted out soon if the folks in charge want to get a playoff expansion approved and implemented in time for 2024, what with all the TV negotiations that need to take place. The CFP management committee, which includes all the FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, has another meeting scheduled for Dec. 1. Then they'll have to get the university presidents to sign off on whatever new plan they settle on after that.

In the meantime, the coaches and players will try their best to settle things on the field of play, though if you heard Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, the chairman of the CFP selection committee, trying to explain Tuesday night why Michigan remains ahead of Michigan State despite a loss in East Lansing two weeks ago, you'd understand that's easier said than done.

"Set aside watching the games," Barta said, "though that's certainly a part of it."

Well, yeah, and that's part of the reason why less isn't always more, And in a year full of possibilities, there's more to consider, if the men in charge would just get out of the way.


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