The dance card for college football’s final four is set. Georgia, Michigan, TCU, and Ohio State are the football foursome playing for the national championship, much to the chagrin of Certified FOB (Friend of Belichick) and Alabama coach Nick Saban. His ceaseless and shameless media politicking for the two-loss Crimson Tide failed to sway the committee.
In that spirit of selection and college football debate, I wanted to share four thoughts on the state of the banally named but never dull College Football Playoff, starting with expansion.
▪ Since its inception for the 2014 season, the College Football Playoff was destined for expansion. However, instead of slowly wading into expansion waters, the CFP decided to take a headlong dive into an expanded pool, tripling the size to 12 teams starting with the 2024 season. After years of haggling and backroom dealing, that became official on Thursday.
“It’s been a long process, but we are pleased that more teams and more students will have the opportunity to compete for the national championship beginning in the 2024 season,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff.
“A new era of college football is about to begin.”
That’s undeniable. But such rapid expansion doesn’t come without concerns and possible unintended consequences. College football’s signature product remains its regular season. Every game feels titanic. A loss feels like the end of the world. The inherent import of every game may be lost or attenuated with the knowledge that two- and three-loss teams are going to make the playoff.
The new format calls for the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large bids. This year, Kansas State won the Big 12 with three losses and finished ninth in the final CFP rankings.
It would’ve been nice to see a more gradual expansion to gauge how it affects the passion and drama of the regular season. It’s naive to expect that to happen with dollar signs filling the eyes of the college football establishment — more playoff games mean more money, hence the rush to super-size the format before the TV contract even expired after 2026.
But if it were up to this college football devotee, the playoff would’ve expanded to eight or 10 teams first. There’s no reason that 12 teams need a shot at the national title and it cheapens the regular season. The best part about the current format was it enhanced the regular-season intrigue instead of detracting from it.
College football is probably too big to fail, but that doesn’t mean this playoff format isn’t too big for its own good and the good of the sport.
▪ The CFP committee doesn’t have an easy job, so kudos to those sequestered in Grapevine, Texas. They got it right. The four teams they selected were the most deserving.
Undefeated Georgia and Michigan were no-brainers as the top two seeds. One-loss Ohio State moonwalked its way into the quartet once USC and TCU lost their conference championship games while the Buckeyes idled. One-loss TCU deserved to be rewarded for its body of work, even though it played in a lesser conference.
There was really no obvious alternative to the Houdini Horned Frogs with Alabama and Clemson far from vintage and Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker out for the season.
TCU won eight of its 12 games by 10 points or fewer. At one point, the Sons of Sonny Dykes won seven straight games by 10 points or fewer, the first team since Colgate in 1976 to accomplish that feat, according to college football sage Pat Forde. The Horned Frogs’ luck finally ran out in a 31-28 overtime loss to K-State in the Big 12 title game Saturday. But no one will remember that if they give defending national champion Georgia a game.
▪ Brand-name bias is real in the CFP rankings. This is the first CFP that doesn’t feature Alabama or Clemson. Bravo to the committee for not succumbing to the media entreaties of Saban, but the Crimson Tide are still ranked too high at No. 5. The same goes for ACC champion Clemson, which finished seventh despite beating no one of consequence, getting blasted, 35-14, by an ordinary Notre Dame team, and losing at home to in-state rival South Carolina.
People typically refer to SEC bias. But it appears to be more specific to blue-blood programs: ‘Bama, Clemson, and Georgia. Tell two-loss Tennessee about SEC bias.
The Volunteers beat Alabama, scored a 27-point victory over LSU in Baton Rouge, where Alabama lost, yet finished one spot behind ‘Bama. That makes no sense. If any two-loss SEC team should’ve been dueling with TCU for the final spot, it was Tennessee.
I saw ‘Bama in person vs. Ole Miss. They’re not classic Crimson Tide, not even close, especially in the trenches.
Tennessee, which lost on the road to No. 1 Georgia, seemed to be unduly punished for a blowout road loss (63-38) to South Carolina in which it also lost Heisman candidate Hooker for the season. The committee was unmoved by the same South Carolina club ending Clemson’s 40-game home winning streak the next week.
There’s precedent for not penalizing a team for losing its quarterback. In 2014, Ohio State lost J.T. Barrett and had to turn to third-stringer Cardale Jones for the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes won, 59-0, over Wisconsin and earned the final spot as a one-loss entry. Tennessee leads the nation in points per game (47.3) and scored a 56-0 win over 5-7 Vanderbilt with backup Joe Milton.
TCU deserved to go over Tennessee, but Tennessee was victimized by brand-name bias toward Alabama and Emperor Saban.
▪ Parsing teams will only get tougher under the new format, and the caterwauling of those left out will only grow louder. The line of demarcation between the fourth team and the fifth or sixth team is easier to distinguish than it will be between at-large teams hovering between 10 and 13. What separates them?
The selection process is already an inexact and nebulous science. It’s only going to get worse with the new format. The debate for 10, 11, and 12 could make past debates over the final spot in the foursome look like quaint squabbles, especially with what’s at stake.