Collier’s Weekly: Pitt Should Be Fighting for an Elusive Playoff Spot

Instead, they’re battling for a very good season limited by an outdated system.


It’s a good year to be a Pitt Panthers fan.

The 20th-ranked Panthers sit at 8-2 with two games to go; if they avoid upsets at the hands of Virginia and Syracuse, they’ll be bound for their second ACC Championship Game, at which they would likely be favored to win.

From there — according to admittedly early speculation — they could be headed to a traditionally prominent end-of-year game, perhaps the Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl, against a good team; I’ve seen Notre Dame mentioned as a likely opponent.

It would make for a good season overall. Perfectly respectable results. Enough to make the Pitt faithful happy, certainly.

Also: Inherently, unavoidably, that is a preposterous result. Pitt should be scrambling for a playoff spot.

Since 2014, NCAA football has culminated in the four-team college football playoff, a three-game, bite-sized tournament meant to determine which of the game’s traditional powerhouses can call themselves champions. The college football playoff is, admittedly, better than the traditional method — an ever-increasing series of bowl games populated via a labyrinthine selection process.

For me, though, the playoff has always been so hilariously tiny as to render it uninteresting. There are 130 teams in college football’s highest division; four of them make the playoffs.

Four. That’s one third of one percent of the teams. If you applied the same ratio to the NFL, only one team would qualify. The playoffs would consist of picking the team that seemed the strongest and declaring them the champion.

You can argue that the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers and the Alabama Crimson Tide aren’t really in the same league, and the equally absurd nature of college athletic conferences is a subject for another day. But the implication that any team could theoretically make the playoffs raises the stakes of games and the prominence of each program; if the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers know that an undefeated season could land them in a bracket with Clemson, that makes the tilt with Old Dominion more meaningful.

Is that the situation that exists now? Only theoretically. In practice, it’s more than a bit repetitive. There have been seven playoffs; Alabama has appeared in six of them. Ohio State’s been there four times; so has Oklahoma. The most surprising school to make the playoff was a somewhat unlikely appearance by Washington in 2016. They were easily defeated — by Alabama, of course.

Meetings are underway to determine whether college football will, by mid-decade, expand the playoff. An eight-team proposal (still too small, but thanks for trying) is thought to be unlikely; the major conferences would hold too many automatic bids in that system, and the less popular conferences don’t like it. A solid proposal is on the table for a 12-team playoff, a format that seems to be growing in popularity both among fans and the sportocrats who make these decisions in assuredly drab hotel conference rooms.

It’s estimated that a 12-team playoff would generate an additional $450 million in revenue. It’s also widely believed that such a bracket would be really, really cool.

There are obstacles in place; they are, of course, all dumb. Some of the major conference types still want to dominate the bracket with automatic bids; the people who control the Rose Bowl (and what an odd career path that is) might end up throwing a fit about a perceived loss in prominence for their big annual flower party.

If there’s any sense, though, the format will be accepted.

Imagine the atmosphere, right now, if it were already in place. Pitt’s games against Virginia and Syracuse would become nail-biting, must-watch contests, as fans desperately hoped for wins that would help the Panthers climb in the rankings. At the conclusion of those games, the #H2P faithful would change the channel to see if Baylor or Oklahoma or Wake Forest might stumble and fall down the ladder.

And then, if Pitt managed to scrape to that #12 ranking, preparations would begin for an opening-round contest with the likes of Ohio State or Michigan — the Panthers marching in as fired-up underdogs against a goliath ripe for stoning.

Instead, this season will end with Panthers fans trying to convince themselves that the Peach Bowl is, in 2021, still a big deal.

Still a good season. Just nothing like what it could be.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly