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Original Issue

The Case for ... The Four-Team Playoff

YES, LET'S TAKE a moment to feel bad for the Bears and the Horned Frogs. They finished fifth and sixth in the official College Football Playoff rankings and thereby missed a shot at playing for the title. But not too bad.

Since the final four was set, seemingly anyone who has access to a public forum (thanks Twitter) has used the Big 12's exclusion as evidence that the playoff should expand. Most appear to believe that an eight-team version is a foregone conclusion—when the current TV contract expires in 2025, if not sooner. This, the logic goes, would eliminate all the hand-wringing currently taking place. Maybe, but it's still a bad idea.

Let's say we had eight teams this year: Then No. 7 Mississippi State would be in line for an eventual matchup with No. 1 Alabama, the team they lost to on Nov. 15. And No. 4 Ohio State and No. 8 Michigan State, who played on Nov. 8, would be on the same side of the bracket. We'd be staring down the barrel of a playoff with a one-in-four chance of producing a repeat game between the Tide and the Bulldogs in the first example or the Buckeyes and the Spartans in the second. Wasn't the Déj√† Vu Bowl, the 2012 national-championship rematch between Bama and LSU—nine weeks after their first tilt—the yawnfest that induced the BCS's big sleep? Do we really want to develop a format that increases the possibility of a do-over? Such a setup would make the first game between two top contenders a lot less interesting. Who cares if Bama loses the Iron Bowl, it'll play Auburn again in a month, and winning that game will really matter.

And what of the eighth team? It's eighth for a reason. Sure, there's a chance Michigan State could beat Alabama, but do we really want to see those guys get the chance? A team that lost two games, couldn't even win its division, never mind its conference—do we want that to be the national champion? That's not simply devaluing the regular season, it's posting it on eBay with an opening bid of 99 cents.

Then, of course, there's scheduling. When would these quarterfinal games be played? If the semifinals remain on New Year's Day, then the quarters would have to be a week earlier, before or possibly even on Christmas, a prospect that seems neither wise nor merry. Does college football really want to take on the intense NFL denouement? The Power Five may not look so powerful after that.

The games could be played on weeknights, but where? At the home field of the higher-ranked team? O.K., but that's an advantage that will render upsets less frequent than a Nick Saban smile. If the quarters are at neutral sites, will fans miss work to travel to night games before the holidays, especially if they're faced with the prospect of traveling again the next week to see the semis? It's not like there are a lot of open seats and cheap fares at that time of year.

Similar problems emerge if the quarters take place on New Year's Day. Besides belittling the traditional Jan. 1 bowls, it would push the semis into a showdown with the NFL playoffs and the championship into mid-January. That's nearly seven months after players report for practice, and the finalists will play as many as 15 games.

There'll be no whining in this space about the assault on amateurism and still-developing bodies; this is a lucrative, quasi-pro operation with severely undercompensated labor, and everyone involved goes into it with their eyes wide open (except maybe Mark Emmert). But every time these players enter a game, they're risking their future, both on and off the field. Is it worth making them do that more than necessary just so a two- or three-loss team has a chance to win it all?

A larger playoff is not simply devaluing the regular season, it's posting it on eBay with an opening bid of 99 cents.