Going into Saturday, the playoff field appeared to be clear, barring an upset: Alabama, Oregon, TCU, and Florida State were the top-ranked teams in the country, with Ohio State and Baylor right behind the top-ranked teams in the “one loss” category. 

In Saturday’s games, each team won. That’s not really a surprise: in each case, the higher-ranked team beat a conference opponent. But when the teams that would be competing in the four-team playoffs were announced, Ohio State managed to leapfrog from #5 to #4, overtaking TCU, who slid behind Baylor to #6. The end result is a bracket that leaves both Texas teams in the cold come January. 

TCU’s final game was against a weak Iowa State team, which the Horned Frogs won 55-3. Ohio State, meanwhile, beat the #17 Wisconsin team 59-0. The shutout is impressive, especially against a ranked team, but the fact that TCU fell out of the playoff picture despite beating a conference opponent by 52 points left a lot of fans in Texas feeling jilted. Here’s a quick tour of various sports pages online: 

From CultureMap Houston, the hottest of #HotTakes:

The reason Ohio State’s in this inaugural four-team College Football Playoff over TCU and Baylor could not be more simple. They are Ohio State and TCU and Baylor are not. […]

Ohio State has the worst loss by far of all the Top Six and it’s somehow gifted a spot in the playoff in a year when absolutely no one fears the Big Ten. It’s lunacy. So much for taking the whole body of work into consideration. So much for fairness.

College football makes true upward mobility but a dream.

Over at the International Business Times, both TCU and Baylor get their gripes: 

And now there could be a major groundswell around the country questioning the CFP committee’s decision to put both Ohio State and Florida State next to Alabama and Oregon in the four-team playoff to decide this season’s champion.

Many will say the Bears were robbed. Baylor boasted an excellent resume that would be worthy of a national title claim almost any other year. TCU could also be reasonably upset after the committee placed them third in the country last week, and then yanked them out a week later.

The Houston Chronicle quotes Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby: 

“I have great respect for the integrity of the process and the people involved, but I would be less that forthright if I didn’t say we were very disappointed.”
Bowlsby said that the snub could lead to discussion of substantive changes like thoughts about potential expansion.
“It’s clear that we were penalized for not having a postseason championship game,” Bowlsby said. “It would have been nice to have been told that ahead of time.”

You’ll see even more of this if you take a look at Twitter, or—heaven help you—forums for TCU and Baylor fans. Given Ohio State’s early-season 14-point loss to Virginia Tech, it’s probably to be expected. But the controversy about the four-team playoff was probably inevitable.

The playoff has been a popular idea for a long time. Barack Obama addressed the issue in his first interview after being elected in 2008. The system it replaced, which involved the BCS selecting just two teams to compete for the championship, was deeply unpopular, and for good reason. The margin between the #2 ranked team and the #3 is often razor thin and extremely subjective. 

But it’s not much more distinct when you look at the #3 or #4 teams and the #5 and #6, which means that in some ways, the playoff system only kicks the question down the road: How do you really determine if Ohio State, Baylor, or Texas Christian are the better team? 

Ultimately, the flaws in the four-team College Football Playoffs are virtually identical to the flaws in the BCS system, and the fact that Ohio State jumped both TCU and Baylor highlights that in ways that it probably wouldn’t have if one of the Big 12 teams had made the finals. Plenty of ink and pixels have been spilled lamenting the weakness of the Big Ten, where Ohio State plays, which would have tamped down the outrage outside of the Buckeye State had the conference been the odd man out. 

All of which raises a #HotTake question of our own: Were Baylor and TCU intentionally snubbed in order to drive fan fervor to expand the College Football Playoffs from a three-game affair to a larger operation with eight, or even sixteen, teams? We’re not the first to raise the question, but it’s worth considering who benefits. 

An eight-team playoff makes for seven games, all of which would be appointment television for even casual football fans. The players are unpaid and non-unionized, which means that labor costs don’t rise and the athletes who put their bodies at risk would have little chance to object. Meanwhile, ESPN and the NCAA would extend the interest in the game, and enjoy the profits that would come from airing seven (or 15, if the playoffs expanded to 16 teams) must-watch college football games. 

The current system was created to include four teams, in part, because of television broadcast deals for Bowl games that run for a few more years. When those deals expire, talk of expanding the Playoffs would be coming naturally—but arguments against expansion (namely, that the quality of the game can decline as the season expands, and that adding more games can impact the education of student-athletes) would probably be more likely to gain steam if the four-team playoff system were seen to be working well. 

The fact that the NCAA would love to expand beyond four teams is clear: On its website, the organization explains that, once the people who limited to four teams are in different jobs, expansion is on the horizon

Why not have more of a good thing? Also, many if not all of the people who put this thing together will have moved on when it’s time to come up with another plan. College football is moving away from the current bowl system, in which it farms out its postseason to third parties. As a new structure evolves and conferences continue to realign, there is no reason to think the playoff will continue to have only four teams.

While we’d hesitate to claim that TCU and Baylor were kept out due to a conspiracy designed to make the four-team playoff less appealing when expansion gets discussed, we would note that, because of how this has shaken out, the push to an 8-team playoff will probably be pretty loud as soon as the TV deals make that an option. In the meantime, Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State can battle it out for supremacy, while the Bears and the Horned Frogs watch from home. 

 (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)