Jim Harbaugh took the podium at Big Ten Media Days on Monday afternoon in Chicago and raised some eyebrows when he said he would like to see the College Football Playoff eventually expand to up to 16 teams with the elimination of the conference title games.
Should the playoff be expanded at some point? Yeah, probably. Four teams is great, but at the end of the day the committee seems to use a different criteria every year to justify the teams that were selected. It is a step above the BCS system, but it does feel like going to six or eight teams should happen at some point.
If the playoff ever does expand to 16, the conference title games absolutely still need to be there. I wouldn’t mind seeing the 11 conference champs receive automatic bids with five at large teams, but that probably would not happen. Even after Western Michigan and UCF had undefeated seasons the last two years, they had no claim to the throne because their resumes were not good enough. But Western put up a fight against Wisconsin in their bowl game and UCF won the Peach Bowl against Auburn from the mighty SEC.
The problem with expanding the playoff to that extreme without the title games is that it really does dilute how special it is to get there. If the CFP committee just put in the top 16 teams in their standings, you really could have some 9-3/8-4 teams getting into the mix that have absolutely no shot to win it all. In a lot of ways, that’s probably almost as meaningless as going to play in the Idaho Potato Bowl.
I like Harbaugh as a coach and a person and believe that he is the right guy for the job in Ann Arbor, but it isn’t hard to see why he would be in favor of the expansion of the playoff with no conference title game.
Michigan went into bowl season in his first two years ranked No. 17 (2015) and No. 6 (2016) and did not make the conference title game in either season as they still search for their first Big Ten Championship since 2004. But in 2015 they would have been knocking on the door for a playoff spot and in 2016 they would have easily been there.
Coming at this from Harbaugh’s point of view, I know that he probably feels like he had great teams filled with NFL talent that could beat anyone on their best day in those years, but Michigan was not being left in the cold because of a playoff that was not large enough. The first year was a building year, but 2016 was a missed opportunity and they have nobody to blame but themselves for why they did not get in.
The loss at Iowa did not really hurt their chances despite being a frustrating and disappointing trip to Kinnick (they are far from the only team that has happened to), but they let their playoff game essentially for the playoff slip away against Ohio State, whether J.T. Barrett was short or not. Even last season when things got out of hand at the quarterback position, Michigan lost games due to self-inflicted wounds and Harbaugh and staff have to hold themselves responsible for that, and to their credit they did shake things up a bit during the offseason.
As far as the lack of a conference title game goes, it has been proven already on a few occasions that the committee doesn’t value it if they can justify a team’s resume over someone else’s for a playoff spot.
Sometimes, it is better to take everything as it is and not as we would like to have it. Michigan needs to realize that they can be in the playoff if they take care of their own business. If their body of work stacks up against other teams on the playoff bubble, the committee is probably going to find reasons for Michigan to be there. This is still a business to the NCAA, and they are not going to pass up the potential of two football games that Wolverine fans would travel to and pack. Few in the country travel as well as Michigan fans do, and they know this. Does it make it right? No, probably not, but let’s be real about how college athletics works.
Harbaugh preaches about meritocracy and earning your keep, so that is what he and his team must do. Go out and be better than Penn State and Michigan State. Go pick up a third down in the fourth quarter in Columbus against the Buckeyes, or find a way to hold onto that interception that slides out of your hands on defense in the redzone.
Michigan is close, but it still is not enough just yet. They have a really good football team heading into this season and the ingredients are there to do something special, but it won’t be easy and if they survive the ringer that is 2018, they will be in pretty good shape at the end of the year when the playoff committee has some decisions to make.
Help them help you.