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Why Do The College Playoffs Only Have 4 Teams?


For the first time in major college football, there is now a playoff bracket. Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State will compete for the FBS Championship - that's the Football Bowl Subdivision. Before this year, there was one championship game. The number one ranked team played number two. And those teams were picked using a peculiar formula with the help of computers - always a controversial process. And before 1992, the national champion was chosen by a poll of insiders - again pretty controversial. So now, finally, fans have nothing to complain about.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I think Baylor deserves that four spot.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Five days ago, you told me UT's the number three team in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The worst loss by far is Ohio State.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I think it's a combination...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I know you do.


RATH: All right, all right, so a four team playoff isn't enough to stave off controversy. So why not expand the playoffs to, say, eight or 16 teams so all the best teams get a chance to compete for that national championship? Heather of the again has one.

HEATHER DINICH: With only 12 regular-season games and everyone trying to finish the season undefeated when the margin for error is only 0-1 or really two losses, the officials at the college football playoffs want to make sure that doesn't change - that every Saturday continues to matter for the post-season implications.

RATH: Another argument against expanding is how difficult it would be for students to manage the swelling number of games in a season. Here's Nick Saban, the Alabama head coach, talking to ESPN.

NICK SABAN: Where do we sort of cross the line here as to academics and playoff systems and fan pleasing and media attention? That may have an impact how well they can do in other things that are important.

RATH: For the 60 or so teams playing in bowl games this season, they now have three or four weeks off before that ballgame, the same few weeks when most schools have their end-of-semester finals and term papers do. Any additional playoff games would probably fall on these weekends.

So are the doubters right? Would it be harmful to expand FBS playoffs beyond four teams? Luckily, college football provides its own answer - the FCS. Big time college football is the FBS, known as Division IA. The next level down is the football championship subdivision, aka Division IAA. It already has a 24-team playoff.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: To their fifth consecutive quarter-finals appearance - North Dakota State, the defending three- time national champions.

RATH: North Dakota State has dominated the second tier of college football in recent years. This year, if they go all the way to the championship, they'll have played 16 games. Finals be damned. Esley Thorton is a senior linebacker for the Bison.

ESLEY THORTON: It's an adjustment, but, you know, we found ways to work around it. And I don't feel it's affected my grades in any ways. It just forced me to adapt to it.

RATH: The way Thorton tells it, he and his teammates just do stuff like tell their coaches when all their finals are and squeeze in homework in any spare moment. We asked him was there a time when football really got in the way, when the playoffs really made things tough? Here's the best he could come up with.

THORTON: I had a final last year during our meeting time and I just let my coach know, and we had to move our practice back to the evening for the whole team.

RATH: No big deal for the academic All-American with a 3.92 GPA and three championship rings and counting. The big-time college playoffs are locked in at four teams for the next 12 years. And they won't start for another month. But you know what? North Dakota State and the FCS playoffs are already underway. The Bison play Coastal Carolina this Saturday at the Fargo Dome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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