John Niyo

Niyo: Shut out again, Big Ten may have to rethink its playoff formula

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Jim Delany was chatting about Urban Meyer’s legacy on Wednesday, a day after the Ohio State football coach announced his retirement. And it was with a bit of irony, perhaps, that the Big Ten commissioner was using a phrase he learned in law school at the University of North Carolina way back in the early 1970s.

“I mean, he’s among the greatest football coaches in the history of the game,” Delany said at the Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York. “They teach you in law school: Res ipsa loquitur. ‘The thing speaks for itself.’ He’s been incredibly successful — in the conference, outside the conference, in championship games. And he’s got a legacy there that’s strong.”

Ohio State beat Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game and then was shut out of the playoff.
Ohio State beat Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game and then was shut out of the playoff.
Andy Lyons, Getty Images

And yet for a conference that’s as strong as any college athletics — even stronger financially than the SEC, with a projected revenue distribution for the 2019 fiscal year topping $50 million — there’s no avoiding the sting of last weekend. The College Football Playoff selection committee got together to pick teams Sunday, and for the third year in a row, it left out the Big Ten champion.

“We were a little disappointed,” Delany acknowledged. “But we’re not going to allow a committee’s opinion of us to shape how we feel about ourselves.”

Maybe they should, though. Because all the talk of expanding the playoffs in college football is just talk for the foreseeable future, as the game’s power brokers — conference commissioners, bowl executives and the like — check their wallets and spew clichés. Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, was on that same stage in New York on Wednesday touting the current playoff format’s “80 percent” public approval rating and cautioning, “We need to be true to the promises we made. And also be slow to change something that’s pretty good.”

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Can you imagine a coach like Meyer — or Alabama’s Nick Saban, to name another compulsive winner — saying something like that to his fan base about their beloved program? Of course not.

But whatever the reasons for that intransigence are, the results are what they are, too. And disappointment has to be putting it mildly for the Big Ten, which won’t have a playoff team for the second straight year.   

Delany referenced the so-called “1910” model that he first trumpeted back in 2014, a scheduling blueprint for Big Ten teams beginning in 2016 that included one major intersectional game, nine conference games, a league championship game and zero contests against FCS opponents. The idea, he explained again Wednesday, was to “impress” the playoff selection committee, but also to do what “would be best for our fans, best for our players and best for our TV partners.”

Five years into the new playoff reality, Delany says “it’s clear to me” that eliminating those cupcakes hasn’t made a difference to the committee. Alabama and Clemson both played FCS teams this season, the Crimson Tide squaring off against The Citadel a week before the Iron Bowl. Ditto Georgia, which finished fifth — ahead of Ohio State — despite a two-loss record. Florida finished 10th in the CFP rankings — two spots ahead of Penn State — despite a schedule that included two FCS teams.

“So, that, to me, has been a decided issue,” Delany said, noting his conference last summer gave schools permission to start scheduling non-FBS teams again on a biennial basis.

Kyler Murray and Oklahoma are champs in the division-less Big 12.
Kyler Murray and Oklahoma are champs in the division-less Big 12.
Jeffrey McWhorter, AP

Likewise, the merits of playing another major-conference opponent — or a team like Notre Dame on the road, in Michigan’s case this season — are up for debate going forward, Delany said.

But while the SEC and ACC — the two leagues that have been part of the playoffs each year – continue to play eight-game conference schedules, the Big Ten doesn’t sound ready for a rollback just yet.

“I don’t think we deviate on the nine, because we’re a conference and we want to play each other a bunch,” Delany said. “That nine is sort of in cement.”

Still, Delany did muddy the waters just a bit when he was asked about the imbalance between the East and West divisions in football, and whether it might be best to effectively scrap the divisions altogether. Rather than pitting division champs in the title game, why not match the two best teams in the league as the Big 12 now does? Oklahoma’s in the playoffs because of it, thanks to a rematch win over Texas on Saturday.

More: Michigan's goal of 11th win replaces pain of Ohio State loss

“It's an item that has been discussed before,” Delany said. “There is actually more discussion now than there was four years ago."

That discussion may lead nowhere, partly due to the unbalanced schedules in a 14-team league. (The 10-team Big 12 doesn’t have the same issue.) Then again, the current balance of power between the divisions already is weighing on some coaches’ minds. The Big Ten East was stacked again this fall, with three teams finishing in the top 12 in the CFP rankings, while the West champ (Northwestern) sits at No. 22.

“As a conference, we have to look at what we’re doing, look at our model, and see if it makes sense, especially our side of the conference,” Penn State coach James Franklin said Sunday on a conference call for the Citrus Bowl. “We’re beating each other up week in and week out. Other conferences play eight games and there’s conversation of putting two of their teams in, and we play nine and have been left out three years in a row. Are we doing what’s best for our conference schools to make the playoff?”

It’s a question worth asking, at the very least. Because this playoff thing, well, it sort of speaks for itself.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

 

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