The biggest programs will have greater advantage in expanded College Football Playoff I Opinion


ATLANTA — The College Football Playoff is already an event that taxes teams physically and mentally, adding the wear-and-tear of an additional game against an elite opponent for the two programs that advance to the championship round.

Two years from now, however, coaches like Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Ohio State’s Ryan Day will have even more of a challenge: An expanded playoff that will require playing either three or four games to win a national title after a 12-game regular season and a possible conference championship.

When that happens, college football will essentially play an NFL-style schedule. And yet what that means practically for players and their bodies has been largely ignored in the public discourse by college sports officials who are too busy celebrating the multi-billion dollar windfall that expansion will bring.

“These four teams in the playoff, there’s a lot of talent running around that field,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “There’s a lot of potential NFL down-the-road money, and one of your responsibilities as a coach is to take care of those kids. At the same time, you have to get them ready to play in a big game, and those games are physical and challenging. So it’s delicate. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Georgia wide receiver Adonai Mitchell (5) makes a touchdown catch while being guarded by Alabama defensive back Khyree Jackson (6) during the College Football Playoff championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

Georgia wide receiver Adonai Mitchell (5) makes a touchdown catch while being guarded by Alabama defensive back Khyree Jackson (6) during the College Football Playoff championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

It’s also why programs like Georgia and Ohio State, which have each won a title in the first eight years of the four-team CFP, are likely to be in an even more commanding position when it expands to 12. The higher you are on the pecking order of talent acquisition, the more likely your roster is to withstand the physical grind it will require to survive three or potentially four  high-level matchups.

“It’s a one-game season, and the one-game season is this one because there is no game after this one if we don’t win,” Smart said. “So we don’t even think about the management of (physicality) or the next game.”

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Georgia, of course, wants fresh players when the Peach Bowl kicks off Saturday night. And everything the Bulldogs have done since the SEC championship game on Dec. 3 has been geared toward healing the bumps and bruises that accumulated during the regular season.

That, of course, is a major factor in most of the semifinals in this format have been blowouts: The better team has time to get back to full health or close to it plus time to game plan and prepare for their best effort.

“We take a lot of hits,” Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh said. “We definitely needed that break to get our bodies to somewhat what it was at the beginning of the year.”

But one of the reasons Georgia is in this position, attempting to win its second consecutive national championship, is because it is the most physically tough program in the sport. It’s a philosophy that Smart, a former defensive coordinator at Alabama under Nick Saban, saw over and over in his years as an assistant: No matter how the game of football evolves, physicality wins in the end.

And to play that way, you have to practice that way — which Georgia does, especially on so-called “Bloody Tuesday” where contact and tackling is mandatory.

“We practice the right way,” co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. “When it’s Bloody Tuesday, we’re going to get after it. Our guys understand that and they understand for us to be successful in our league that’s what you have to do and that comes with winning because when you prove you’re winning on Saturday it’s easy to buy into a very physical mentality. They understand that’s what it’s going to take.”

Georgia, of course, works hard and uses the best technology available to make sure players aren’t going overboard. They try their best to manage fatigue and avoid injuries.

But for programs with less depth, it’s often difficult to practice the way Georgia does. And even on game day, their top running backs have averaged approximately 10 carries over the last two years. They constantly rotate fresh bodies on the defensive line. Georgia recruits so that they have lots of bodies — and quality bodies, at that — at positions where players take the most hits down after down.

“What you emphasize is what’s important and that’s huge from the top down,” Muschamp said. “If (players) don’t like contact, Georgia isn’t the place for them, I can tell you that.”

Programs that can both accumulate talent and practice with Georgia’s physicality are undoubtedly going to have even more of an advantage in an expanded playoff, which could be a war of attrition over three extra weeks. Of course, that’s kind of the point — there aren’t really many programs that can do both outside of the SEC’s elite teams and a couple others like Ohio State.

For everyone else, the task of winning a national title is about to be even more monumental — and more of a physical load for players that are already being asked to play 12 games and a conference championship before the playoff starts.

“We’re money driven,” said Wilson, who is leaving Ohio State after the season to become the head coach at Tulsa. “Those are huge games and huge corporate dollars for schools and programs. But the same we talk about the student-athlete experience and we’ve got to take care of those guys. I think expansion is awesome and great for the game but we have to manage it in a way that’s great for the kids. All of us are going to be playing a championship, upper-level game and potentially four if you’re fortunate enough to win; big-time physical games. It’s going to take a physical and mental toll on a lot of people.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football Playoff expansion gives elite programs more advantage



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