Thanksgiving: The Biggest Barrier to an Eight-Team Playoff?

Thanksgiving isn’t about delayed gratification – we want to have our turkey and gorge on it too. What happens when choices must be made, though? Andrew Pina looks at what Thanksgiving and its traditions mean for a college football playoff.

When President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving, his decree positioned the holiday on the last Thursday of November. But in 1939, a year when November had five Thursdays, a retail association convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday, a change made only a month beforehand in October.

Such placement would encourage more sales for the holiday season, or so the reasoning went. A few states rejected the idea and observed the holiday on the final Thursday in November. Millions had travel plans altered and many colleges had to move Thanksgiving weekend rivalry games at the last minute. This dual-turkeydom lasted three years until a compromise was reached in 1942 and the holiday moved to the fourth Thursday of November in 1942, on which it is celebrated to this day.

Had the holiday remained a week earlier, would it be easier to extend the College Football Playoffs?

Alas, there might not be an easy solution here. If only someone could go back to 1941 and keep Thanksgiving on the second-to-last Thursday in November. Then, the rivalry games could be held on the penultimate weekend in November, with the conference title games on the month’s final weekend.

A Scheduling Conundrum

Last week, ACC Commissioner Jack Swofford commented that an eight team playoff would be “ideal.” Looking at the calendar, though, an obstacle quickly arises: When can an extra week of games be fit in? Traditional Thanksgiving weekend rivalries abound over the coming days. The first Saturday in December – which wraps the final week of the season for all FBS teams except Army and Navy – features conference championships along with season finales for conferences without title games. Bowl season commences only two weeks later, this year on December 20.

Fans are divided about the bowls and their place in the sport, but conference leaders, alumni associations, corporate sponsors, athletic directors, and coaches love them. Conferences like getting extra TV money. ADs and coaches like having a tangible goal to point to, especially for the overwhelming majority of teams that aren’t sniffing the playoffs. But most of all, programs love the two-to-four weeks of extra practice time for teams that qualify for bowl games. So the bowls aren’t going anywhere.

However, only four weeks between conference title games and bowl games presents many thorny issues. Semifinal playoff bowls cannot be moved off traditional New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day holidays lest the television ratings be negatively affected. And nobody wants the bowls to compete for television exposure against NFL playoff games, which is why the NCAA title game is scheduled for a Monday night.

Further, conferences, schools, and bowl organizers worry about giving fans enough time to plan travel for bowl games. For many programs, playing a bowl game in a warm-weather location is big business, for both the program and the host community. Cutting the interval to three weeks would impact bowl attendance for the eight semifinal teams, especially the losing teams.

Resistance to Change

Could the Conference title games move to Thanksgiving weekend? When the FCS playoffs expanded to sixteen teams in 1982, many Thanksgiving rivalries ended or moved because the new postseason format started that weekend. High schools in Massachusetts ended the tradition of Thanksgiving games in 2013, but not without controversy. Connecticut is also contemplating ending turkey day rivalry games to lengthen high school playoffs.

Would major college football really move the conference title games to Thanksgiving weekend? Rescheduling traditional games, such as the Egg Bowl in Mississippi, the Iron Bowl in Alabama, or Ohio State-Michigan, would be costly, literally. Personally, I don’t think it would happen. These are hugely anticipated games, with many fans returning home for Thanksgiving with plans centered on attending these rivalry matchups; for them, the games are part and parcel of the holiday itself. Americans may tolerate holiday shopping season starting the day after Halloween, but they will not abide the displacement of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate or The Civil War from their traditional place on the calendar.

Andrew Pina has covered LSU’s running game, the historic season of Marcus Mariota, the disadvantages of being Kansas State, why Thanksgiving is the obstacle to expanded playoffs and whether SEC crossover games are unfair.

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