College football Saturday review: Expanding playoff to 12 would make upsets sweeter

·8 min read
North Carolina State players, right, run on to the field after they defeated Clemson in overtime at an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
North Carolina State players celebrate after they defeated Clemson in overtime Saturday. (Karl B DeBlaker / Associated Press)

In the span of about half an hour Saturday afternoon, North Carolina State took down No. 9 Clemson in double overtime, Baylor stopped No. 14 Iowa State on a last-second two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the score and Rutgers nearly erased a 17-point halftime deficit at No. 19 Michigan.

It seems as though every time a college football Saturday slate is described as relatively unexciting (this weekend did not feature a top-10 matchup or fascinating intersectional showdown), we are rewarded with extra entertainment and a reminder to never doubt the spectacle of the greatest regular season in sports.

I, for one, would never make that mistake. I live for my 13 Christmas mornings in a way that my wife will never understand, and I have always been a proponent of a four-team playoff because it maintains the survive-and-advance terror of each week that makes college football uniquely, well, terrifying.

But as I watched those finishes one after the other, all I could think about was how much better the experience would be in Raleigh, Waco and Ann Arbor — and for fans across America who are on the edge of their sofas — if we had something resembling the 12-team College Football Playoff that is being considered.

This is a message to the conference commissioners who earlier this week decided to delay the process that had been laid out for a late September vote on the 12-team proposal:

Delay if you must, but please do what’s right for the sport and expand the playoff to 12 — not eight.

It makes sense that the three Power Five commissioners who were not included in the working group that came up with the 12-team model — the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff, the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren and the Atlantic Coast’s Jim Phillips, who formed “The Alliance” in late August partly with this in mind — want to hit the brakes and make sure it’s right for their leagues.

It also makes sense that they don’t want a change to the format to happen before the current contract ends after the 2025 season so Fox (a partner of the Big Ten and Pac-12) and other networks or platforms have a chance to bid against ESPN, which will just bring in more money for everyone involved.

But it won’t be acceptable to move away from 12 teams, regardless of the many details beyond that all-important number.

This sport needs more playoff access, and the trickle-down effect is that most regular-season games will assume more meaning. I say most because the rare “Game of the Century” type matchups will mean less due to the fact the loser will have margin for error to recover and make an expanded playoff field — and because mid- to late-season games between mediocre to bad teams will be what they’ve always been, a chance to drink beer in the morning and rep your school colors.

Look at N.C. State’s 27-21 upset of Clemson Saturday. Sure, Wolfpack fans were celebrating deliriously after rushing the field. But they’re going to wake up Sunday morning with a headache and pretty much no shot to make the playoff despite N.C. State's having a 3-1 record and controlling its destiny in the ACC the rest of the way. If there was a 12-team field that included the six top-ranked conference champions, N.C. State could dream of winning the conference and having a shot to play for a national championship.

One downside of 12 teams is that a power like Clemson, having drastically underperformed at 2-2, could still sneak into the playoff. Do we get more 10-3 Clemsons in the bracket? Sure. But we also get more 10-3 N.C. States, and that is a tradeoff the sport should welcome.

At first, this will not lead to a change in competitive balance — the top two teams will still be on another level than seeds 11 and 12. But the hope is that over time, as recruits see that lots of schools can play on the sport’s biggest stage, they won’t feel as though they have to go to Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma to sniff the playoff.

Texas A&M defensive back Leon O'Neal Jr. attempts to stop Arkansas quarterback Malik Hornsby
Texas A&M defensive back Leon O'Neal Jr. (9) attempts to stop Arkansas quarterback Malik Hornsby (4) Saturday in Arlington, Texas. (Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

4-0, but who can stick?

Congrats to these surprising teams that will enter October with 4-0 records:

In the Power Five, No. 16 Arkansas, No. 20 Michigan State, Kentucky, Baylor, Wake Forest, Boston College and Maryland.

In the Group of Five: No. 15 Brigham Young, San Diego State, SMU, Texas-San Antonio.

Surprising, of course, is subjective. I’m sure all of the players and coaches on these teams are not surprised. But all of them beat at least one team they weren’t supposed to beat this month, and here they are.

So who’s got staying power? It’s hard to argue with Arkansas after knocking off old Southwest Conference rivals Texas and Texas A&M. The problem for the Razorbacks is that their schedule is unreasonable. Their reward for 4-0? Games coming up at No. 2 Georgia, at No. 13 Mississippi and against No. 23 Auburn. The Hogs need to win two of three to stay in position to challenge Alabama in the SEC West, which is doable for Sam Pittman’s team the way it’s playing.

Michigan State has a good chance at being 7-0 when Michigan comes to town Halloween weekend. Kentucky will find out what its made of with consecutive home games against No. 11 Florida and Louisiana State. Baylor travels to Stillwater next to face fellow unbeaten Oklahoma State. Wake Forest has a soft schedule to keep stacking wins, and Boston College heads to Death Valley to face angry Clemson. Maryland has a huge opportunity hosting No. 5 Iowa Friday.

BYU, with its 3-0 record against the Pac-12, has a New Year’s Six bowl game in its sights.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly yells at an official during a game against Wisconsin
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly yells at an official during a game against Wisconsin Saturday in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Kudos for Brian Kelly

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly passed the legendary Knute Rockne as the all-time wins leader (106) for the Fighting Irish thanks to No. 12 Notre Dame’s 41-13 victory over No. 18 Wisconsin.

The score was not indicative of the way the game went for three quarters. Wisconsin actually took a 13-10 lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter before the Fighting Irish steamrolled the Badgers for 31 consecutive points, all of which came with backup quarterback Drew Pyne playing in place of injured Jack Coan.

The way the game turned was unthinkable, but it was a fine example of what Kelly has restored in South Bend during his decade-plus at the helm. Notre Dame has returned to the point that the program wins games even when the team isn’t that good.

The Irish host No. 8 Cincinnati and play at Virginia Tech before reeling USC comes to town Oct. 23.

USC Trojans interim coach Donte Williams walks the sideline during the closing moments of a loss to Oregon State
USC Trojans interim coach Donte Williams walks the sideline during the closing moments of a 45-27 loss to Oregon State at the Coliseum on Saturday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Focus shifts to search

Speaking of USC, the Trojans’ season officially became about the coaching search with its loss to Oregon State.

A few developments from Saturday: Iowa State coach Matt Campbell took a tough loss at Baylor, putting the Cyclones at 2-2. Although that may make Campbell less desirable to USC, a disappointing season could make him more open to leaving Ames.

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck lost to Bowling Green, 14-10. Enough said. The shine is all the way off.

Boston College coach Jeff Hafley has done a great job getting the Eagles to 4-0 without starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who’s out for the year.

I think we can drop USC interim coach Donte Williams from any list of potential candidates now. And maybe we should add Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith?

We’ll assess all of this and more in the next USC coaching search “Heat Check.”

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet scores a touchdown against Stanford
UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet (24) pushes past Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly (17) to score a touchdown Saturday in Palo Alto. (Tony Avelar / Associated Press)

Strong recovery

UCLA may not be a playoff contender — for the reasons mentioned at the top of this column, it would probably have to run the table from here, which seems a big ask — but the Bruins proved with a win Saturday at Stanford that they are different than any other team of the Chip Kelly era.

They should be favored in all three games before hosting No. 3 Oregon Oct. 23 in what is shaping up to be the best Pac-12 game of the year.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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