By Billy Watkins
For the past 50 years, the NCAA’s divisions II and III have played intense, edge-of-your-seat, legitimate football playoffs.
The Division II format includes 28 teams and Division III 32. NCAA FCS schools have battled in 24-team playoffs for 45 years.
I bring this up to show how silly the NCAA has been when it comes to developing a similar playoff for Division I, the best teams in America and a money-making group.
Not until 2014 did the NCAA finally stick its toe in the water and agree to a four-team playoff. It’s been fun. And we’re anxiously awaiting the New Year’s Day semifinal matchups of Michigan vs Alabama and Washington vs. Texas.
But it’s still silly. How in the world is Georgia not one of those four teams? It survived the regular season unbeaten, was widely considered the best team in America all year — yet a 3-point loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game sent them flying out of the playoffs and to the Orange Bowl. The Bulldogs will play Florida State, which was snubbed after going 13-0 and winning the ACC championship.
So what we’ve had for 10 years is a mini-playoff with a giant asterisk beside it.
And don’t just take my word. Look what the late, great Mike Leach — one of the smartest coaches ever — had to say about it back in 2017 when he was head coach at Washington State.
“It’s not a playoff. There’s nothing ‘playoff’ about it. And even if we make it, my thoughts don’t change. How can you call it a playoff when it’s four teams and conference champions don’t even necessarily make it?”
Leach, who died a year ago when he was head coach at Mississippi State, was speaking at one of his memorable press conferences that often took a side turn and he told the world just what he thought about a certain subject. Those occasions were priceless.
“They think that a four-team playoff establishes something and that it’s a very clever approach. It’s such a clever approach that nobody does it that way. I mean, if we’re all so smart wouldn’t the other sports say, ‘I know what. Let’s form a committee. We’re America and we love committees. Well, who should be on the committee?’ Well, I don’t know, this guy’s a good guy, let’s have him on the committee.’
“There are people on the committee who have no remote association with football whatsoever, nor have they at any level — other than being a fan. ‘But you know what, let’s have them on a committee. Why not? It would be fun, we could go to that resort, we could talk, we could hang out at dinner, and then we’ll decide which four teams should go. Because you know why? We don’t need to solve this on the field. — because we’re the ones who know! ‘
“If we’re gonna do it the way, we should just ask them at the start of the season, tell ‘em to vote on it, one two three and four, and why even have the (regular season) games?”
Leach believed Division I should have a 64-team playoff but said 32 teams would suffice. Like most of us, he could never understand why Division I was treated differently than the NCAA’s other divisions. He also explained that it would fix one of the most foolish things college football does every year: Hand the NFL the month of December. He said college playoff games should fill those Saturdays instead of NFL regular-season games.
“Mention an expanded playoff and college football scratches its head and gives this befuddled, mixed-up look. They get a real screwy expression on their face, like ‘How can that possibly be?’ … Well, I don’t know. Maybe we could go down to the city park and ask somebody there who handles youth football how to do it. ‘Well, that’s too low low of a scale,’ they’ll say. OK, let’s talk about high school football from a major state. Florida, Texas or California. Let’s see how they do it.’ … And at the end of the gauntlet, this team comes out No. 1 and there is no doubt who the state champion is.
“And then there is the NFL. They have one playoff game after another and guess what? At the end, they sort out a champion and it’s called the Super Bowl. People are captivated by the playoffs and the biggest sporting event in the history of the world every year is … the … Super Bowl.”
Next year will be different. The playoffs will increase to 12 teams. Not perfect, but it should lead to something reasonable. As one of my smartest friends said last week: “Once the NCAA sees how much money that 12-team playoff makes, they’ll be at 32 in a New York jiffy.”
Had it been a 12-team playoff this year, Ole Miss (10-2) would’ve made it.
I saw one of those “way too early playoff projections for 2024” and if things shook out the way it predicted, No. 10 Notre Dame would visit No. 7 Ole Miss in the first round.
Can you imagine what Oxford would be like the second week of December if that happened?
The 12-team playoff is already affecting college football. As they prepare for a Peach Bowl date Saturday in Atlanta with Penn State, nearly every Ole Miss starter with eligibility remaining has announced they will return next season.
Let’s be real. Players today are making a lot of money through NIL. Earning a spot on an NFL roster is not a sure thing. Why not return and take the guaranteed bucks, then head to the NFL?
But another reason players are returning is because the Rebels have a chance to once again make the Top 12 — only this time earn a playoff spot. The players have said as much.
It won’t be easy. When you win 10 games two of the past three seasons as Lane Kiffin’s teams have, opponents will look at you differently. You’ll get everybody’s best shot. Expectations are already sky high. And who knows about injuries and how the ball might bounce?
But when you consider the high school and transfer portal players Ole Miss recently brought in through recruiting, one would have to say its chances are real.