Mailbag: How the College Football Playoff could be forced to add four more teams

On Wednesday, I published my preseason Top 25, where certain teams checked in much higher or lower (or not at all) since my initial stab at it last January. My top four, on the other hand, has been the same four teams all along – Alabama, Florida State, Clemson and LSU.

Yep. Four teams from two conferences.

Will a playoff slate of FSU, Clemson and two SEC teams this year result in an eight-team playoff down the line, or does that scenario (all four playoff teams coming from two conferences) need to happen multiple times for an eight-team playoff to gather enough support?

— Krishnendu Roy, Valdosta, Georgia

First off, let’s acknowledge that preseason rankings rarely come to fruition. One or more of those four teams is going to wind up going 8-4 or worse, and somebody I don’t even have in my Top 25 is going to finish 11-1. And while we’ve always known there will be a day when the committee takes two teams from one conference, the possibility of them doing it twice in the same year is very remote given the emphasis placed on conference championships. The other Power 5 leagues would have to produce a bunch of 9-3 champions.

But if it did happen, we’d see a level of backlash that would make even the BCS blush — ESPECIALLY if two of the four are LSU and Alabama.

Within the sport, I sense less momentum for expanding the playoff today than I did two years ago. Four has gone very well so far. It feels right. It’s barely impacted the regular season. Eight, on the other hand, completely redefines the sport, likely requires a complete separation from the bowl system and, while inevitable, is not going to happen anytime soon. Initially, I said it would come halfway through the 12-year contract. I no longer see that as a possibility.

But I’ve also long maintained that the driving impetus for playoff expansion will not be money or TV ratings like so many assume, but rather the inherent discomfort that comes with five conferences playing for four spots. Someone is always going to be the unlucky loser. The Big 12’s exclusion in 2014 has sent that conference into an existential crisis that’s still playing out today. The Pac-12 was much more accepting of last year’s result, but imagine the outcry from its fans if it happens two years in a row.

So, if you’re one of those clamoring for this thing to go to eight – and for the record, I am most definitely not – you should root for the two-teams-from-one conference scenario to start occurring regularly. The more leagues that experience watching the playoff from the sideline, the more their collective angst will grow.

Here’s your weekly Big 12 expansion question. During the previous round, the Big 12 seemed to be a step behind the other major conferences. Do you think bruised egos in the Big 12 leadership might lead to the league being the first to jump to 16 teams? They have a wide selection of teams and could leave few good options for other leagues in this next round of musical chairs. I could see them expanding with Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis, BYU, UCF & USF.

— Joshua Moran, Spring, Texas

Bruised egos – or perhaps more accurately, wallet envy — are a big reason the Big 12 is even considering expansion. But given the SBJ report earlier this week that ESPN and FOX are pushing back against the Big 12 for trying to add perceived inferior programs, coupled with the general sense I have that the presidents may have a hard time agreeing on the same two schools, 16 seems very far-fetched. It would net the league more money but water down its product to the point where it might as well exist in some sort of new classification between Power 5 and Group of 5. It would feel desperate.

Given the presidents’ impetus appears to be primarily a cash grab – milking those TV contracts for as much of that pro rata money as possible – I initially guessed the league would shoot for 14. With a couple weeks’ reflection, though, 12 now seems much more likely. Presumably you could get eight of 10 presidents to agree on two schools, perhaps Cincinnati and Houston. Plus, it does the least to alienate the league’s TV partners short of scrapping expansion altogether (which could still happen mind you), and it gives the best hope for a smooth integration of the newbies. The larger you go from there, the more scattershot the final product will become.

Back in June, Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith announced he would seek to play somewhere else in 2016 as a graduate transfer. However, reports are now saying that Alabama is being uncooperative and refuses to give Smith a release to Georgia, despite the fact that he’s now a graduate of the school. Are graduate transfers really subject to obtaining the same releases from their schools as undergraduate transfers, and does Smith have any recourse?

— Kyle T., Berglin, Miami

While grad transfers are eligible to play immediately, they do still have to follow the same process as undergrad transfers. If denied, their only recourse is to appeal within the school. Conferences don’t render these decisions.

But regardless of the rule, it’s deplorable how Nick Saban is reportedly handling Smith’s situation. If he thinks Smith should not be allowed to play for Georgia this season, then why earlier this offseason did he give another grad transfer, receiver Chris Black, his full release to play at Missouri? Because Black was an expendable backup receiver, while Smith was in line to be the Tide’s starting nickel back. And, of course, because Smith would be following his former coach, Kirby Smart, to another school.

No coach should be able to dictate where a guy who’s already graduated can enroll in grad school. I don’t care if he’s only picking that school for football. He graduated. That’s the name of the game. Let him do what he wants with his life. The $6 million coach should not be allowed to put his depth chart before a graduating athlete’s career path.

NCAA brass has spent the past several years espousing all the good things recently they’ve done for athletes, from full cost of attendance to unlimited meals. But they can’t say with a straight face they have athletes’ best interests at heart when they put such rigid restrictions in place solely for coaches’ benefit.

Hi Stewart: It seems like Texas A&M is in the news for all the wrong reasons. If the Aggies make headlines this season for something on the football field, what do you think that will be? I’m guessing beating a highly ranked Ole Miss team at home in November after another up-and-down season.

— Ken, Hollywood, California 

It’s been a rough 10 months or so for Kevin Sumlin, whose glorious 2012 debut season now feels like it was 25 years ago, and the sexist women’s clinic slides his two assistants produced just crank up the seat that much hotter. While that story will likely be long forgotten by November, the accumulation of a year’s worth of chaos – from five-star quarterbacks transferring to an assistant’s bizarre Twitter rant after a recruit decommitted to Johnny Manziel’s continued downfall and A&M’s guilt by association – has created the perception that Sumlin’s program is running adrift. And that’s on top of two straight disappointing seasons.

And yet I still believe the Aggies can make plenty of on-field headlines, as evidenced by my including them in my preseason Top 25. In fact, I have them only a few spots lower than aforementioned Ole Miss. Mind you, A&M got off to hot starts in both 2014 and ’15 before tumbling, so I’d be careful putting too much stock in its early performances, but a solid showing Week 1 against UCLA would earn some respect. A much bigger validation opportunity presents itself Oct. 8 against Tennessee, a likely preseason Top 10 team. Those are the kind of games Sumlin’s team hasn’t won very often since Manziel’s first season.

Stewart: I know you have talked about the best games you’ve ever been to, the games that you regret not having attended, etc. But can you share a story or two about the worst games you’ve had the misfortune to attend?

— Adam, Salem Oregon

Without question, it’s the national championship games that were over in the first quarter (or even the first series) – USC 55, Oklahoma 19 in 2004; Florida 41, Ohio State 13 in ’06; Alabama 21, LSU 0 in ’11; and Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14 in ’12. Especially in the BCS era, where you waited a month or more for the game, it’s quite the letdown – not to mention there are no other games you can start watching on your computer instead.

In the Steve Spurrier era, Florida enjoyed a steady stream of good and occasionally great quarterbacks. After that, the Gators had seven good and occasionally great years with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. Since then, it’s been a mess. Highly rated recruits have either transferred or not been that good. Is this a recruiting problem, a system problem, or just bad luck?

— Steven Cain, West Palm Beach, Florida

It’s not like Florida hasn’t landed highly regarded quarterbacks post-Tebow. John Brantley, Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel, Treon Harris and Will Grier were all rated four stars or higher. And remember, there’s an alternate universe in which Cam Newton stays out of trouble in Gainesville and becomes Tebow’s successor.

But excluding those like Grier who flamed out for other reasons, the explanation seems pretty simple – poor coaching. And the evidence of that is twofold. For one thing, Urban Meyer, whose last season at Florida was 2010 (Brantley’s first as starter), has shown before, during and after his stint there he’s one of the absolute best QB developers out there. Conversely, Will Muschamp knew next-to-nothing on the subject and churned through offensive coordinators and philosophies trying to figure it out, much to the detriment of Brantley, Brissett and Driskel. Note that Brissett went on to have two solid seasons at NC State.

Fortunately for Florida, Jim McElwain already has a proven track record developing quality quarterbacks. Grier certainly appeared off to a great start last year before his PED suspension, and Harris was largely a lost cause. I expect good things this season from McElwain’s next project, well traveled transfer Luke Del Rio.

Stewart, Can you please explain why the Big Ten is considered so much more valuable than the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12? Outside of two marquee football programs (Ohio State and Michigan), maybe three if you argue for Penn State or Nebraska, its "penetration" of the New York City (Rutgers) and DMV (Maryland) media markets, and huge alumni bases, I struggle to see how the Big Ten can be so much more valuable than those three conferences.

— Dan Pellegrino, Chicago

You mostly answered your own question, but conveniently, the AP’s all-time rankings released Tuesday also offers a pretty telling clue. The Big Ten claims three of the top six in Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska, and Penn State is in the Top 15. By contrast, the Big 12 (Texas and Oklahoma) and ACC (Florida State and Miami) have two schools ranked that high, the Pac-12 one (USC). All of those schools have enormous numbers of alumni and rabid national fan bases. Basically, it’s the stuff of TV executives’ dreams.

I will say that the Big Ten is not quite as clear-cut the most desirable TV conference as it was roughly a decade ago. Post-ACC expansion, it no longer claims the largest population footprint, even if Rutgers and Maryland are included. And from a purely on-field standpoint, it’s hard to argue the SEC isn’t a more desirable product. The Big Ten and SEC will both be printing money for years to come, in large part because of their conference networks. It’s not like the other three aren’t doing well themselves, but there’s a clear gap between the two groups.

When comparing programs’ historical significance, what do you consider the modern era? When scholarships were limited (more parity)? The BCS? The end of the College Football Association? I have a great appreciation for history, but also have a hard time thinking of Navy, Minnesota and Syracuse as top-level programs despite their successes 50+ years ago.

— Stephen Schott, location unknown

Good question. Eventually, history will treat the start of the BCS (1998) as the beginning of a completely new era, much the way we now downplay national championships schools claim from prior to the AP poll (which began in 1936). Decades from now, it will seem completely archaic that the sport ever operated without an official championship game. But right now, that distinction still feels a little too fresh for those of us who grew up on the old bowl system.

From a competitive standpoint, I would argue the “current” era of college football began in 1995 with the implementation of the 85-scholarship limit. That and several other major changes that took place around the same time – mass conference realignment and the advent of conference championship games; the implementation of overtime (’96); the first seeds of the spread-offense craze – all made the sport feel very different by the late ‘90s than it did just a decade earlier.

Taking a broader view, most would agree that the sport’s “modern” era began when integration fully took hold. Obviously, that took place over the course of a couple of decades, not at a specific date, but the famous 1970 USC-Alabama game in Birmingham – when Sam “Bam” Cummingham and the Trojans’ all-black backfield embarrassed Bear Bryant’s all-white Tide — is widely seen as the milestone that prompted Alabama and the other remaining southern outliers to start recruiting black players.

So again, it’s not as simple as, 1969 was the old era, 1970 the new era, but the larger social changes of the ‘60s directly impacted the transformation of college football.

Now that the AP has released its own all-time rankings, I think it is time for you to update your 2012 Kings and Barons rankings and compare your current rankings to the AP’s all-time rankings.

— Kris, Austin, Texas

Well, I don’t really need to. The AP’s Top 13 programs are the exact same 13 that I dubbed the Kings of the sport.

Sorry again, Georgia.