If You’re Iowa, You Don’t Want Playoff Expansion
Kirk Ferentz recently signed a seven-year contract extension to remain the head coach in Iowa City through the 2029 season. If he were to fulfill that contract, Ferentz would have spent 40 seasons with the Iowa Hawkeyes, 31 as the head coach. Having been the face of a program for over 30 years, one would suspect that he, at one point, had played for a national championship. Ferentz has not, although he has finished as highly ranked as fifth in the BCS/playoff era rankings.
Fans are wondering if playoff expansion will lead to a better opportunity for the Hawkeyes to reach a national championship game by the end of his remarkable tenure in Iowa City. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is probably not. For a non-blue blood program, playoff expansion will make it harder to reach the title game. Not to mention, there will be a more difficult field of opponents in the playoff with a larger talent gap. If you’re a team like Iowa, you don’t want to see playoff expansion.
What Playoff Expansion Brings
A larger field in the postseason brings two things to the playoff. Number one, more SEC teams will make the playoff. Since the playoff was constructed, the SEC leads all conferences in New Year’s Six appearances and New Year’s Six bowl game wins. The conference also leads with the most playoff appearances, playoff wins, and national championships. This past season alone, six SEC teams played in a January bowl game or in the playoff. The conference had 13 of their 14 teams make a bowl game. With an expanded field, teams like Alabama and Georgia will always make the field, and there would likely be multiple at-large SEC bids as well.
Number two, playoff expansion leads to more football games. For the viewer, that is great. However, for the teams, more games mean more injuries, more preparation, and more required stamina. There’s a clear talent gap between teams in the college football landscape. That talent gap will just become more evident as teams play more games in a season. The programs with the bigger, faster, and more talented players will likely outlast their opponents physically on the field in a longer season. Parity in the national championship starts with a reasonable season length and can be achieved with a smaller postseason field.
2021 Season Scenario
Take the 2021 season as an example of a potential national championship season for Iowa. Using the BCS model, the Hawkeyes would have needed to finish the season ranked inside the top two to advance to the title game. This would likely mean an undefeated regular season with the addition of a Big Ten title game win. In another scenario, Iowa could have also finished inside the top two with one loss and a Big Ten Championship, as Michigan did this past year. Almost certainly in both scenarios, the Hawkeyes are finishing in the top two and playing for a national title.
In the playoff format, the Hawkeyes would similarly need to finish the regular season undefeated, or with a maximum of one loss. They then would need a Big Ten title victory. That scenario likely gets Iowa into the playoff. Once in the playoff, Iowa would have then needed to beat Georgia to play for a national title. One key extra step is required to make a national championship game in this case.
Odds of a National Title Appearance
In which postseason scenario are the odds better for Iowa to make a title game? It’s not the one where they have to go undefeated, beat Michigan in the title game, and then beat Georgia in the semifinal, that’s for sure. Add more teams to that playoff field, and it gets harder. The best chance for Iowa to play in a national title game is in a field with just two teams. In week six of the 2021 season, the Hawkeyes were already ranked second in the nation. At 6-0 on the season, their schedule was favorable to make a historic run. As one of the top two teams in the land, the Hawkeyes controlled their own destiny. Iowa dropped its next two games but finished the year 10-2.
BCS vs Playoff
In a BCS model, the Hawkeyes would just need to achieve victories over unranked Purdue and Wisconsin. Had those outcomes changed, Iowa would have finished the year as one of three undefeated teams. To make a virtual BCS National Championship game in 2021, beating Michigan in the title game was the final obstacle. As one-sided as that game turned out to be, that victory would have been the only thing standing between Iowa making a virtual BCS title game.
The current playoff system makes it even harder for Iowa to advance to a championship. In this same 2021 season scenario, an undefeated season with a conference title would solidify Iowa’s spot in the playoff. However, one loss during the year makes it extremely difficult to make the playoff, let alone play for the title game. A single loss needs to be cleaned up with a conference title. Even then, the Playoff Committee has shown they will pick a non-champion in the conference. Penn State witnessed this in 2016. Adding teams to the field makes it a further challenge. A 12-team system would require Iowa to finish inside the top 12 in the regular season. They then would need to win three consecutive games against the top 12 programs to advance to the championship. The odds of Ferentz and the Hawkeyes playing in the final game of that season are slim to none.
If You’re Iowa, You Don’t Want Playoff Expansion
Since the playoff began in 2014, there have been only 0.2 unique champions per playoff game played. Of the 24 total playoff games, there have only been 13 unique teams and just five unique champions. Three of the champions have been from the SEC. In the BCS system, there were a total of 16 national championships. Of those, there were 11 unique champions among 15 different teams. That’s nearly one unique team per championship game. Using last season’s rankings, Georgia would have missed the BCS title game. Alabama was a four-overtime game away from finishing the season with two losses and also missing a virtual BCS title game. The championship game of the 2021 season would likely have been Cincinnati against Michigan. If you’re Iowa, you don’t want playoff expansion. The Hawkeye’s best chance at competing in a national championship game is not in an expanded playoff field. It’s in a two-team system where taking care of your business in the regular season can set you up for a national title.