Welcome once again to the Alabama–Clemson College Football Playoff invitational, where it hardly seems to matter who earned the “right” to take on the two clear favorites to make the national championship game.
This year, it happens to be No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Notre Dame. The Irish made it in over Texas A&M with what the committee called a better body of work. Ohio State only played six games, but the committee deemed that enough because it won its conference championship and had two ranked wins.
We can quibble over résumés and who was most worthy of facing the No. 1 Crimson Tide as a double-digit underdog, but there is no surprise in what the committee did. In fact, the decisions on the top four were so predictable, it made the entire process stale and boring and so filled with an utter lack of meaningful debate that there is no reason for outrage because we all saw the way this was going to unfold.
This speaks to a system that was set up to favor teams in the Power 5 conferences (and Notre Dame, of course) to keep power and money for themselves. From the beginning, the same teams in Power 5 conferences have dominated the top four. That, in turn, has watered down who actually is capable of making a playoff run. Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma have combined to take 20 out of 28 possible spots since the playoff began in 2014.
If Clemson and Alabama end up meeting in the national championship, it would be their fifth playoff meeting in the past six years.
Talk about a lack of competitive balance across a sport with 130 FBS teams.
And, although Oklahoma is not in the playoff this year, the two-loss Sooners still proved their Power 5 stature Sunday when the committee jumped them four spots all the way to No. 6 in the final rankings because they just won their sixth straight Big 12 title. In the process, Oklahoma moved ahead of undefeated Cincinnati, a team that should have merited consideration but instead was deemed to have an insufficient résumé — like every other undefeated Group of 5 team in BCS/playoff history.
That the committee actually says it “respects” the undefeated Group of 5 teams it is charged with evaluating smacks of so much hypocrisy you can only laugh (or cry if you are Cincinnati or Coastal Carolina or even San Jose State).
There is no respect and never has been. Look at how the committee treated undefeated UCF in 2017. The Knights, the only undefeated team that year, finished 12th overall in the final rankings behind five two-loss teams and one three-loss team. It’s no wonder they declared themselves national champions. There was no way the power structure would let them prove it legitimately. The following year, after another undefeated regular-season run, UCF was ranked eighth — but only behind two two-loss teams that time!
Former Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier saw the same system rewarding only Power 5 programs during the BCS era. He once told me, “Had we beaten Nevada in , we would have had a chance, and that was under the BCS system and this was after we had gone to Congress and put a little pressure on it. Now, there’s no chance, in my opinion, for a Group of 5. They can go undefeated all they want, but that committee is not going to let them in the top four. I don’t see that happening, and I think that’s a shame.”
Even in a year in which a pandemic significantly altered résumés, with only two tepid options between Notre Dame and Texas A&M for the No. 4 spot, the committee refused to consider Cincinnati on its merits. Instead, Cincinnati finished No. 8 and gets to play Georgia in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl — a no-win situation because, even if the Bearcats win, their critics will claim Georgia simply did not care enough. Then there is undefeated Coastal Carolina, which finished No. 12 and was bypassed for an at-large New Year’s Six spot in favor of teams with multiple losses: Iowa State, Georgia and Florida.
Although this particular year looks especially egregious, we have become immune to this lack of consideration now, and it cannot be good for the long-term health of the sport if half the teams playing it are simply going to be disqualified from the playoff every year before the season begins.
The playoff has also had a negative effect on the competitive balance across conferences. Teams like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State only grow stronger the more often they make the playoff, because it boosts their national profile and ability to recruit, making them perennial national title contenders. (Those three finished in the top five in the recruiting rankings on National Signing Day last week.) It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that these are the predictable heavyweights when a new season rolls around.
Because so much emphasis has been placed on making the playoff, the entire bowl system around the playoff feels as if it is a consolation prize and not a reward for a season’s worth of hard work and effort. Players are now skipping bowl games, a trend that won’t end soon.
While it is true the playoff was set up to try to create more opportunities for teams to compete for a championship, expanding from two to four teams, the same old rules have been reinforced and strengthened. That has made the playoff selection process feel as if it is designed to prop up the same teams and conferences. Weekly explanations to justify rankings only fuel the rancor that accompanies the work the committee does when it gathers.
Because there is so much emphasis placed on strength of schedule, body of work, ranked wins and (to a much lesser extent) championships, it becomes unattainable for a large number of teams to even think about the top four. The only way any possible expansion fixes the issues is if there are guaranteed spots for each Power 5 champion plus the highest-ranked Group of 5 team. But in years such as this, where unranked Oregon upsets previously undefeated USC, that format would also get blasted.
We have seen this four-team playoff in action for seven years now, and it has never been more predictable. That is a shame not only for the teams that deserve more consideration or inclusion, but for the sport itself.