DALLAS—Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson, along with thousands of others, watched Saturday’s rousing excitement and field rush that dominated college football.
TCU made a comeback to beat Oklahoma State, Utah stunned USC and Tennessee shocked Alabama. This trio of wild affairs had one thing in common: boisterous celebrations at lively campus venues.
“Maybe we need more playoff games on campus,” Thompson says.
Thompson sits on the CFP Management Committee, the group of conference commissioners tasked with finalizing the details of the expanded 12-team college football playoff. Under the expansion model adopted on September 2, round one matches are to be played in stadiums on campus with better seeds (No. 12 to No. 5, No. 9 to No. 8, and so on). Quarterfinals and semifinals will be played at bowl locations in a six-bowl rotation.
By incorporating the bowls, college football clings to a group of games deeply rooted in the sport’s history. However, not everyone agrees that this is the best way.
“That’s a man’s opinion,” says Thompson. “[College football] is a campus deal, right? It is exciting. The excitement of college football is the pomp.”
Moving the quarterfinals and semifinals from bowl sites to on-campus venues will not occur in the early version of the expanded playoffs. Thompson and others say it wasn’t discussed in the commissioners’ room, but Thompson adds it’s a possibility “in the future.” The next iteration of the playoffs could happen as early as 2026 if a new deal is struck with media partners.
“That’s going to be something that someone other than me will be involved with,” says Thompson, who will retire at the end of this year.
For now, the commissioners are focused on expansion into 2024 and 25, where the CFP is contractually tied to ESPN as a media partner and the six New Year’s bowls. Don’t write off shells too quickly, though. The bowl industry is a powerful, wealthy, and historically significant part of the sport. Nick Carparelli, the executive director of Bowl Season, the organization that oversees the bowls, has lobbied the commissioners for all playoff games to be held at bowl sites. In letters to the management committee, Carparelli cites several reasons: shells provide a more neutral environment; Bowls are uniquely positioned to offer hospitality components such as hotels and practice grounds; are adept at the quick turnaround required to host the games; and are located in warm climates to avoid winter-related effects on game.
“We continue to believe that the shells are best suited to provide the quick turnaround that these games require,” Carparelli said last month. “There are so many potential websites that could host these games. We hope they continue to consider this as an option.”
There is little to no sentiment for moving round one games from on-campus stadiums to bowl sites. Like Thompson, many sports administrators argue that quarterfinals should be played on campus. The top four seeds won’t host a postseason game — a competitive advantage and a financial boon (although most if not all of the home ticket revenue is expected to go to the CFP). Thompson says there are other reasons, most notably the travel aspect. In this version of the playoffs, quarterfinals, semifinals and national championship game take place at neutral venues. That means three consecutive road trips for at least two teams and their fan bases, maybe more.
Only conference champions receive a first-round bye and a top-four finish. If a top-four seed advances to the title game, they would likely have played four straight games away: conference championship game, bowl quarterfinals, bowl semifinals, and neutral-side title game. Bowl locations are spread across the country: Los Angeles (Rose), Phoenix (Fiesta), Dallas (Cotton), Miami (Orange), New Orleans (Sugar) and Atlanta (Peach).
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Using last season’s example, Alabama, the SEC champions, would have played the conference championship game in Atlanta the first weekend in December and then returned to Atlanta for a New Year’s Day quarterfinals at the Peach Bowl before moving on to a semifinals, likely at the Cotton Bowl the first weekend in January. And then it’s on to Indianapolis for the national championship game.
“We talked about traveling and having two teams traveling all the time,” says Thompson. “You have a conference championship and then you go to a quarterfinals and semifinals and you ask your fans to travel?”
Aside from that, Thompson is a believer in the bowl system and a proponent of bowl games.
“I’ve always said bowls are a huge part of college football,” he says. “Ask 100 players and 100 coaches; they love bowl games so you have to be aware of that.”
But will bowling continue in future iterations of the College Football Playoffs? We will see.
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