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John Feinstein: College Football Playoff Needs Overhaul

John Feinstein refers to the College Football Playoff committee as the "Genius 13." Spoiler alert: That's not a compliment

March 16, 2019 - 4:02 pm

I love college football.

Not the kind that will be discussed until everyone who dares to watch has permanent brain-lock the next few weeks; the Tuesday Must-Not-See-TV hour of shame that will star Rob Mullens from now until Dec. 2.

Mullens is the athletic director of the University of Oregon, the Nike-owned school that will no doubt soon be known as Phil Knight University. He is also this year’s chairman of the Genius 13—my affectionate nickname for the group also known as The College Football Selection Committee.

For the next five Tuesdays, Mullens will field softball questions from ESPN talking heads about the so-called CFP rankings – which mean absolutely nothing until Dec. 2, when the four playoff teams and the eight teams that will play in the other four "New Year’s Day Six" bowls – will be announced.

The best moments of Mullens’ appearances will come when someone dares to bring up the name “Central Florida" – or UCF, as the school prefers to be called.

Mullens will rattle on about what a wonderful team Josh Heupel has and what a superb job he’s done replacing Scott Frost, who did such amazing work going 13-0 a year ago, before leaving for Nebraska. Then, he will shake his head sadly and talk about how UCF’s schedule will make it difficult for the Golden Knights to crack the playoff even if they should go undefeated again.

How much chance does UCF have of making the playoff? Less than Nebraska, which at last glance was 2-6.

You can be sure no one will bring up the fact that UCF beat Auburn in last year’s Peach Bowl—an Auburn team that defeated BOTH Alabama and Georgia, the two teams that played in last season’s national championship game.

This is the part of college football I don’t love: the fact that Division I football—or as the NCAA euphemists call it, “the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)" – is the ONLY sport in the world where you can not lose a game and not be given the chance to play for a championship.

Every other level of college football has a legitimate tournament—somehow, the "student-athletes" manage to play as many as four extra games, most at the end of the fall semester around finals time—and not flunk out. In fact, most of THEM graduate.

The CFP came into existence five years ago following all sorts of nonsensical systems, the last being the BCS, in which only two teams had a chance to play in a national title game. The CFP allows four teams to compete and came about for two reasons: money and money.

The extra money the Power-Five schools are raking in is staggering: about $475 million a year for the TV rights to seven football games—three playoff games, plus the four non-playoff bowl games. That means ESPN is paying about $68 million per GAME.


The other money reason is that, on a couple of occasions, Power-Five schools went undefeated and didn’t get the chance to play for the national title.

UCF going unbeaten and not getting a shot is okay. Utah going unbeaten and not getting a shot—when it was in the Mountain West—is also okay. But Auburn going unbeaten and not getting a chance to play for a title? Can’t have that.

And so, the CFP and the Genius 13 came into existence. One can almost envision CFP executive director Bill Hancock training the first Genius 13 chairman, then-Arkansas AD Jeff Long, in the art of the sad headshake.

“Remember,” Hancock certainly said, “You have the greatest of respect for Boise State and their outstanding group of student-athletes.”

Or Houston. Or UCF. You name the Group-of-Five team and you can bet the Genius 13 had nothing but the greatest of respect for them. They would then get a nice pat on the head and be told to go play in whatever bowl got stuck that year with the one Group-of-Five rep the Power-Five members so generously invited to their party—as long as they came in and left by the back door.

The American Athletic Conference, which grew from what was left of the Big East after the basketball-only schools bolted, has been a bit of a headache for the Genius 13.

You see the AAC has a number of good, even very good teams. It isn’t just UCF the last two years. Back in 2015, Houston got the back-door CFP invite to play Florida State (back when Florida State still played football) in the Sugar Bowl. It proceeded to whip the Seminoles by two touchdowns. Then the Cougars opened the next season by beating Oklahoma.

Hmmm. Fortunately for the Genius 13, Houston lost to Navy—also a member of the AAC—and faded. Big sigh of relief. If the Cougars had managed to go undefeated with an opening win over Oklahoma, the sad headshake routine might not have worked. Oh, for the record, Navy also beat Notre Dame that season.

AAC Commissioner Mike Auresco desperately wants a seat for his conference at the big boys table. He’s even started referring to the “Power-Six” conferences, almost to the point where he’s become a parody of himself. The chains in AAC stadiums all say, “P-6,” on them.

I would certainly make the case that the AAC can go toe-to-toe with the Pac-12 and the ACC—with the exception of Clemson—most days. Which is part of the reason why there’s no way the AAC is getting a seat the Power-Five table anytime soon. The big-money bullies don’t want to share any more of their cash than they absolutely have to, and they certainly don’t want a system where UCF or some other Group-of-Five team might knock one of them off in a game with real stakes—like as part of a national championship tournament.

The beauty of the NCAA Tournament—other than the selection committee, which makes the Genius 13 look like, well, actual geniuses—is that there is no table reserved exclusively for the big boys.

Oh sure, the no-nothings on the committee do everything they can to help out the big boys. If you are from a non-power conference and you don’t win your conference tournament, you have almost no chance to make the field. Anyone out there think Loyola-Chicago would have gotten in as an at-large last March if it had not won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament?

The committee also does everything it can to help the power schools out with seeding, and their stupid pod system forces underdogs to play what amount to road games the first weekend. So much for a level playing field.

But for all those flaws, the non-power kids do get a chance to prove themselves—as Loyola did; as Maryland-Baltimore County did against Virginia; as schools like George Mason, Butler and VCU have done in the past.

Quick story: When Mason made the tournament field in 2006 as an at-large, Jim Nantz and Billy Packer were beside themselves on-air. At one point, Nantz said to committee chairman Craig Littlepage—perhaps the ONLY chairman I’ve known who knew what he was doing—“How can you possibly look at this resume and think they belong in the field?”

Apparently, they DID belong. After the Patriots had stunned top-seeded Connecticut in the regional final, Jim Larranaga ran right past me en route to the celebration and said, “I can’t wait to see Nantz and Packer in Indianapolis.”

On Wednesday night of Final Four week, I was having dinner with a friend in St. Elmo’s, the famous Indy steak house. When I walked in, the manager mentioned that Larranaga and his team were in a private room downstairs. Soon after that, Nantz and Packer walked in and came over to say hello.

I couldn’t resist. “Hey, guys, George Mason’s team is downstairs eating and Larranaga is DYING to see you both.”

Nantz instantly went downstairs to apologize. Packer sat down with us.

“Aren’t you going to go down and apologize?” I asked.

“Nothing to apologize for,” Packer said.

Always loved Billy.

In football, there is NO chance for any non-power to get a shot at playing for the national championship. The one bowl bid that a Group-of-Five school receives almost always matches them with the weakest possible Power-Five school in the bunch. That’s one reason why the Group-of-Five schools often win those games.

Football needs at least an eight-team playoff. Take the winners of the Power-Five conferences and three-at large schools—two from the Group-of-Five. Or, even better go to 12 teams (get rid of the conference championship games) and have eight automatic qualifiers (five from the Power Five, three from the Group of Five) and four at-large teams. And please don’t whine about too many games. Teams in the championship game currently play 15 games. Take away the conference title games and the teams in the title game would play 15 or 16 games.

None of that’s going to happen anytime soon. The Power Five has no desire to share its TV bounty and ZERO desire to risk losing to a Group-of-Five team in a game with national-title implications of any kind.

Which is why, while much of the college football world will be frothing at the mouth Saturday for Alabama-LSU and Michigan-Penn State, there are two games I can’t wait for: Army-Air Force (because it’s Army-Air Force) and Dartmouth-Princeton—both teams are undefeated and the winner is going to win the Ivy League title.

Those are the games that make college football for me. I know that puts me in the minority, but I’m fine with it. Rest of you, enjoy watching Mullens shaking his head.
John Feinstein’s new books is, ‘The Prodigy,’ a novel about a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters dealing with off-course issues involving family, agents, shoe company reps and the media. His new non-fiction book, “Quarterback,”—about life as an NFL quarterback will be published in two weeks. His website is