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College Football’s Changing Postseason

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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As college football settles into its new self, who knows how the postseason will ultimately respond.

We're only three years into the playoff, so I don't know that we truly know. It has certainly made us understand that every bowl is unique and every bowl is an opportunity for participation.
~Wright Waters

Three years ago, college football hit the reset button. A game long shaped by abstract polling ventured into newfound territory with a very real postseason tournament; four teams, three games, one stand-alone national champion. The, aptly-named, College Football Playoff restructured the infrastructure, prompting a trickle-down effect that shifted the status quo and changed how fans and media alike interpret the product at play. Evolution has engulfed FBS football, a process where history and tradition still have an important place.

Step into the offices of any power program and you will see remnants of rose and cotton, citrus, orange and peach, a sensory-salute to the game's colors and cultivation. Wins, in college football, are measured in memories; trophies stand as silver and gold testaments to that black-and-blue success. Bowl games, in their various shapes and sizes, still, even more than ever, form the backbone of college football's build. Over the years, changes have prompted an adjustment, a transition still underway. 

This postseason proliferation has occurred on two fronts: the aforementioned College Football Playoff and the expansion of the overall bowl field. The mini-tournament has revolutionized how a champion is crowned, while the postseason pool currently includes over 60% of all teams. There are now 39 FBS bowl games plus the FCS Celebration Bowl, not including the national championship bout. Later this year spanning into next, the bowl season will cover almost three-and-half-weeks from December 16th to January 8th.  

Bowl games are not only a prominent part of the college football story, they are, in some ways, the moist fingers that keep the pages turning. From marketing and branding to extra practice time and trips around the country with corresponding civic activities, the opportunities that come with bowl games are both wide-ranging and quite significant. On the field and off, bowls help shape the student-athlete experience. 

Then there's the money. The idea, behind all of the zeros, is that quantifiable growth will be measured years down the line.

"The forty bowls last year earned $616 million to ten conferences and, even after the conferences paid all of their expenses, the conferences still went home with $500 million," explained Wright Waters, Executive Director of the Football Bowl Association. "Those are the things that, if we're smart with them and invest them back into the game and making the product better and better, it'll be around for a long time."

In today's landscape, the starting point for any and all postseason conversations has to be the playoff, a poignant and positive development. Though there is support to expand the number of participants involved, the progress already made is clear. College football, while including a rotation of top-tier bowl titles, has instituted a format that determines a champion through direct results. When the playoff poll is released in early November, a new narrative, involving more potential contenders, now dominates the headlines.   

An expanded configuration that better represents, at least in theory, all 128 FBS affiliates could be on the horizon. For now, however, the sport is still processing what the last few years have provided; how the system impacts any and all parties.     

"I think we're still going through that. I don't know that we know the answer to that yet," Waters continued. "You know, we're only three years into the playoff, so I don't know that we truly know. It has certainly made us understand that every bowl is unique and every bowl is an opportunity for participation."

Engagement, in more ways than one, must be considered a major priority in the student-athlete experience. While bowl games can compartmentalize competition, bringing relevancy specific to certain conferences or institutions, the theme of the bowl experience goes beyond the final score. More just a football game, trips offer players a chance to travel, participate in guided non-profit events and be introduced to new and different markets. A bowl game, even without national prominence, can come with deep meaning.

The platform provided can be a major boost for a program, contextualizing year-long efforts in memories and medals.     

"Someone said all these games below the championship are meaningless and I said, 'boy it would be hard to tell the teams who played in the Bahamas or Hawaii or San Diego or Orlando that because they had a great experience'," Waters detailed. "The bowl system is one of the most surveyed groups out there, the NCAA conducts a satisfaction survey, we have a third-party that conducts a satisfaction survey, and both of them are coming back at about 90-plus percent that people are satisfied or very satisfied with their bowl experience."

Simply put, a potential bowl berth is part of the selling point for a number of schools. The bowl ladder, likes vines up a wall, can guide growth. 

"If you're a coach and you're able to look at an 18 year old and say 'hey, we just won our bowl game, we're getting better', that is important. If you're an A.D. and you're trying to sell season tickets and you can say 'hey, we just won our bowl game and we're getting better', that's important. If you're a university president, we know the 'Flutie effect', if you win a bowl game on national TV, you will see an increase in applications the next year," Waters stated. "It's important whether you are playing for the championship or just rewarding a successful season."

What defines a successful season? Here, there is no chain crew measuring the margin. This salient question is a controversial one in college football today. Last year alone, 17 different .500 teams made the postseason, with Hawaii making a bowl game at 6-7 and Mississippi State and North Texas advancing at 5-7. The fact that so many slots need to be filled has led to lower traditional standards. Two decades ago, to cite the age of the average player, there were 22 bowl games. In the time between Clemson's national titles, 1981-2017, the FBS bowl field jumped from 32 teams to 78.  

A year ago, the NCAA decided that any and all eligible 6-6 teams would have to be chosen for bowl games before any potential 5-7 candidates. If losing teams are needed to complete the schedule, programs are selected based off of Academic Progress Report scoring. That, to the frustration of some, is a new reality. The line between winning and losing, relating to earning a spot on the big stage, has officially been blurred.  

The numbers game has suddenly become a guessing game.     

"The issue is that 6-6 has kind of become a birthright. The bowl experience is such a reward that every 6-6 team feels like they should be entitled to go to a bowl game. That's an NCAA membership decision," Wright reflected. "The next issue comes, how many teams will we have next year that are 6-6? And we don't know. There is no way to predict that number. We predict a number that we think is close and that's the number of bowl games we get. Only in the last two years have we had to dip into the 5-7 pool to make sure a bowl doesn't go dark."  

Whether a statistically-mediocre team, one being chosen for scholastic efforts, making a bowl game is good or bad for college football depends on your frame of reference.  

"Personally, as a former commissioner and a former coach, if we're rewarding 5-7 teams for academic success, I'm okay with that and I think it's really good that we're rewarding academic diligence rather than penalizing the other way."

Waters, Commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference from 1998-2012, has years of experience working on behalf of the mid-major. The league officially welcomed in football under Waters in 2001, laying and building upon that foundation in the decade that followed. Among other accomplishments, Waters helped found the New Orleans Bowl and develop the conference's first postseason partnerships. Those efforts have continued, under new commissioner Karl Benson, with the amplification of the bowl format. 

Though there is not a direct qualifier for group of five teams for the College Football Playoff, perhaps inclusion which could occur with future tournament expansion, there is an automatic bid for the famed "New Year's Six" slate of pairings. Far from a perfect system, there is now more national relevancy for non-traditional powers. The Sun Belt, for example, has six bowl affiliations for this fall. Those positions might as well be prime pigskin real estate.  

"When I left I believe we had three bowl opportunities," Waters recalled. "I think the most money we ever got from the postseason was $900,000 and this year the Sun Belt got a paycheck of $13.8 (million). Karl has done a great job of investing that in postseason opportunity and expanding all of that to the schools, which gives more teams a chance to go to bowls, which gives more teams a chance for the extra practice, the national exposure and to increase their recruiting base."

As college football settles into its new self, who knows how the postseason will ultimately respond.

"We are currently in an NCAA moratorium on new bowls and that ends with the beginning of the 2021 bowl season. I think that you will see a shuffling of affiliations then and you will probably see conferences allowed to sign bowl agreements up to their historical numbers of bowl eligible teams," Waters projected. "I don't think you'll be able to see conferences sign fourteen bowls if they've only been getting ten teams every year in, but those are decisions that are being looked at now."

The field will undoubtedly follow the leader, with a line, potentially a long one, forming behind the College Football Playoff. However many teams are involved, both the championship series and the rest of the field have modern merit. Together, the format is both one with a purpose and without comparison.

"Unlike any other NCAA Championship, we end the season with half the teams winning," Waters nodded.     

With college football and its postseason, there remains a lot to address. There is also plenty to promote and plenty to protect.

History is taking notes.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Matt Osborne and Kevin Thomas on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network and is the sports director for multiple ESPN Radio affiliates based throughout southeast Georgia. @BJBennettSports