Dawgs would be a big beneficiary of expanding the College Football Playoff

John Atkins and the Dawgs won the 2018 Rose Bowl and went to the national championship game in Georgia’s only appearance so far in the College Football Playoff. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

There was a lot of talk this week about the College Football Playoff expanding, possibly as early as 2023, after the CFP committee revealed that it has been studying six-, eight-, 10-, 12- and 16-team formats.

Basically, what’s driving the expansion idea is concern that the domination of the playoffs by a handful of elite programs in the SEC and Big 10 has left much of the country (most notably the West Coast) not that interested. This year’s playoff final between Ohio State and Alabama drew the smallest television audience for a national championship game since at least 1999.

Of course, not all fans are on board with the expansion idea. Some argue that the recent spate of repeat playoff teams is just a cyclical thing, a product of the impressive recruiting the current coaches are doing, resulting in the clustering of top talent at just a few schools, mostly in the SEC and at Ohio State.

Also, you can make a convincing case that, most years, there are not 16 or 12 or even eight teams that are national champion material. Usually, it’s maybe just half a dozen or less.

However, if you’re a University of Georgia fan, you definitely should support expanding the playoff, because, too often, the Dawgs have been among those teams just barely left out of the four-team playoff.

Jake Fromm and Elijah Holyfield would have gotten a chance to return to the College Football Playoff, if more than four teams had been taken from the 2018 season. (University of Georgia)
Steven Limentani, Dawgnation

Actually, you could argue that Georgia would be among the chief beneficiaries of an expanded playoff. If the playoff had been eight teams all along, Georgia would have made it three of the past four years, and barely would have missed in 2020 (instead of only making it in 2017). And, if it had been 12 teams (the number that seems to be gaining the most momentum, according to the Athletic), the Dawgs also would have been on the cusp in 2014, when they ranked 13th.

That’s not a recent development, either. Looking back at the “modern” era of college football (starting in 1941, which is how far back UGA tracks its poll appearances), Georgia would have made a 12-team playoff 27 times!

Georgia head coach Wally Butts had several teams that likely would have made a playoff, had it existed during his era. (AJC file)
FILE, Dawgnation

Based on their end-of-season rankings, the Dawgs would have been a playoff participant in 1942, 1946, 1948, 1959, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1992, 1997, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Yes, Mark Richt would have had quite a run of playoff teams, and even Ray Goff and Jim Donnan would have fielded a playoff team each!

Among those teams, several whose odds you might have liked to make it to the national championship game and perhaps take it all include the Fran Tarkenton-led Bulldogs of 1959, the 1968 team with Jake Scott, the 2002 SEC championship team led by David Greene and the 2007 team with Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, which eventually wound up No. 2 in the final polls without a playoff.

Certainly, making a playoff in those years would have increased the odds of Georgia having more than the two consensus national championships in college football that it credits itself with (1942 and 1980).

Would Jake Scott have played for the 1968 national title if there had been a playoff then? (Hargrett Library)
Hargrett Library, Dawgnation

Looking ahead, while an expanded playoff might make it more likely that the PAC 12 and Big 12 would be represented (in addition to the highest-ranked Group of 5 program), it also probably would result in two or more SEC teams making the postseason tournament.

Not surprisingly, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart favors an expanded playoff.

“I think if you polled any coach, it’d be foolish to say that you didn’t want expansion, you know,” Smart told SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum. “If you finish in the Top 10 or maybe (among) the top seven or eight teams in the country, I mean, you’re on the outside looking in, because of maybe one game. You certainly would like to see that opportunity to grow and get more teams involved.”

In fact, many college football observers have assumed that Smart’s recent emphasis on upgrading Georgia’s future nonconference schedules is based on his assumption that the playoff will expand. Starting with the latter half of this decade, UGA schedules feature three Power 5 nonconference opponents per season, including big-name programs like UCLA, Florida State, Texas and Oklahoma. Smart appears to be betting that, in a college football world with an expanded playoff, strength of schedule will outweigh having a perfect record. A national champion with a loss or two is no less a national champion.

 Vince Dooley might have picked up another national championship had there been a playoff during his time as Georgia’s head coach. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia, Dawgnation

That’s another reason for fans to support playoff expansion — the general upgrading of nonconference schedules will mean more good games and fewer, if any, cupcakes. And that will make for a more satisfying game-day experience, as well as more value for ticket buyers’ money.

Of course, there likely would be repercussions from an expanded playoff. One might be a move to trim the regular season by a game or two. While getting rid of “guarantee” games against cupcakes might negatively impact the athletic budgets of the designated victims, it’s not likely many fans would mourn their loss. And if, as expected, the opening round or rounds were staged on campus (probably at the higher-ranked team’s stadium), that certainly would be a plus for season ticket holders. Swap the likes of Austin Peay or UAB for a playoff game? Yes, please!

Another result of an expanded playoff might be the end of bowl games as we know them, though a fair number of folks might argue that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Aside from a handful of legacy bowls that I’d hate to see go away, most of the postseason “classics” are just programming fodder for ESPN (and many, in fact, are owned by the network). The old idea of these games being seen as rewards for players and fans ended when places like Shreveport and Birmingham started hosting bowls. Basically, the main reward in making it to a bowl these days is for the coaching staff, which gets an early start on preparing for the next season with the extra practice days.

David Pollack and his Georgia teammates likely would have made a college football playoff in 2002. (AJC file)

So, if the Music City Bowl or BBVA Compass Bowl go away, not many fans would care. And, if ESPN still wants/needs such games as holiday programming, there are teams that will be happy to play in them, no matter how irrelevant they are.

As for the legacy bowls, perhaps a deal similar to the current one the College Football Playoff has with the New Year’s Six would work, with a select group of bowls rotating as hosts of the quarter and semi-final games in an expanded playoff. Maybe even throw in the championship game, which currently is a separate thing done on a bid basis. Wouldn’t winning a national championship in the Rose Bowl be cool? Just ask the many Georgia fans who attended the Dawgs’ semifinal win over Oklahoma in Pasadena.

Some also worry that an expanded playoff, likely including guaranteed spots for Power 5 conference champs, would devalue the regular season or even the conference championship games — especially in the SEC, where both the winner and loser would be considered likely to make an eight-team or larger playoff.

A playoff system might have given Knowshon Moreno a chance to play for the national title. (Associated Press)
Charlie Riedel, Dawgnation

But, as one athletic director in favor of a 12-team playoff pointed out to Andy Staples of the Athletic, the top four teams still would have the incentive of playing for a bye in the first round, teams five through eight would be playing for the chance to host a first-round game on campus, and the final four teams just would be competing to make the playoff — a pretty sweet reward in itself.

It’s also probable that a playoff berth would excite the players much more than a nonplayoff New Year’s Six bowl currently does, so you’d have fewer NFL draft-eligible players opting out of the postseason, and you’d likely get better games. After all, it was disappointment over just missing out on the playoff (as the No. 5 team) that largely was blamed for the dispirited Dawgs’ upset by Texas in the 2019 Sugar Bowl.

Given another shot at the playoff, that Georgia team no doubt would have responded much differently. Indeed, I imagine most players would approach the postseason with a lot more enthusiasm if it extended their team’s shot at a national championship.

Sounds like exactly what college football needs — and a great situation for Smart’s program.

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