Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that I was writing about the beginning of the college football season? And oh what a beginning it was back in September, or October or November depending on which conference you follow. Like everything else in our lives, covid disrupted college football. But let’s put the blame where it belongs. Those in charge of college football, the NCAA, the conferences, the schools and of course television did the real damage to the sport, from the disorganized opening to the pathetic ending of the 2020 season.
It was ridiculous enough that the conferences couldn’t cooperate enough with each other to take a coordinated approach to the season itself but the handling of the final few weeks of the regular season was nearly beyond belief. Conferences changed rules every week down the stretch in attempts to guard their access to the playoff.
The ACC saw the light at the end of the tunnel and a chance to have two teams in the playoff so the conference actually changed the schedule to clinch the divisions for the teams they wanted in the ACC Championship Game. If they could have figured out a way to avoid the title game completely without losing all credibility and losing the revenue rest assure they would have done just that. Why the ACC did that for Notre Dame escapes me. The Irish are no more a member of the ACC than I am. They just used the conference to arrange a schedule when their original opponents bailed on them before the season.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten found themselves in a real quandary. The conference had made their own new set of rules to deal with the unstable environment of football in the covid era. One of those rules was that a team must play at least six regular season games to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game. The problem arose when the leagues only hope for a spot in the extremely profitable playoff, Ohio State, was sitting on only five games going into the last week of the regular season and a game scheduled with arch-enemy Michigan as their only remaining game. Everyone knew the Wolverines hated the Buckeyes enough to bail on the game if it kept Ohio State out of the conference title game which would have been a huge blow to their chances of making the playoff. The Big Ten could have reworked schedules to guarantee their bell ringer a sixth regular season game, but that would also create the possibility of a loss which would be devastating. So instead, the conference changed its own rule and allowed the Buckeyes to play in the conference championship game. Then they held their breath for the entire sixty minutes of that game terrified that Northwestern might pull off the upset.
The PAC 12 and the Big 12 found themselves unable to make any changes that would open up a path to the playoff. Neither conference had a viable candidate by that point. Both conference knew they were on the outside looking in before the conference title games were even played. But, it is worse than that. For all practical purposes, the four team playoff contestants were set before conference championship weekend even started.
Yes, it is true that if Notre Dame had beaten Clemson a second time it would have knocked the Tigers out of the playoff, but nobody was really concerned that Notre Dame would win that game. It had taken all Notre Dame had to pull off an overtime win earlier in the season when Clemson was decimated by injuries and covid quarantine. With Clemson being back to full strength including Heisman candidate and likely first pick in the draft Trevor Lawrence, it was a foregone conclusion that Clemson would blow the Irish off the field. Which is exactly what happened. Somehow, that did not matter in the slightest to the playoff committee. Notre Dame still made the final four. How can a team lose by more than three touchdowns in their final game and still be in the playoff?
So this is the reality of conference championship weekend and the various title games. Neither mattered at all. It is clear that the committee planned on putting both contestants in the ACC title game into the playoff. Alabama was in the playoff no matter who won the SEC title game. One can speculate that a loss to Northwestern MIGHT have knocked Ohio State out of the playoff but there is no guarantee of that either. The committee wanted the teams that would bring the highest ratings possible to help make up for a season where schools and conferences took big hits to their revenue. Notre Dame does not belong in this playoff and everyone knows it. Alabama opens as an almost three touchdown favorite over the Irish. How can you possibly belong in the playoff and still be a three touchdown underdog?
I do not point this out because I am bitter. I am a Gator fan and with three losses there is no case to be made for my Gators. My concern is that college football decided before the first game was played in the season who it wanted in the playoff and then did everything within their power, some of which was clearly underhanded, to make sure those four teams made the playoff. In fact, I would argue that the formula is already set before every season begins. The SEC Champion (usually Alamama), Clemson and Ohio State/Oklahoma depending on which has the better season are predetermined for the playoff every year. That means three of the four spots are locked up before anyone plays a down of football. So three of the four opportunities are taken up by what amounts to maybe eight football teams. The other hundred plus teams get to fight for the last spot. The vast majority of those know that even if they win every game on their schedule they have zero opportunity to get that final spot. If you are not a member of the Power Five conferences (or Notre Dame) you have no access to the party.
How can a team play six games all season and qualify for the playoff? How can conferences change rules week by week and claim any semblance of integrity? How can conference championship games have virtually zero effect on who makes the playoff? How can nearly ninety percent of the college football world have absolutely no hope of every playing for a national championship?
College football is broken. That shouldn’t really surprise anyone because virtually everything else in our lives is broken as well. Our entertainment industry is broken. Our political system is broken. Our religious lives are in turmoil. This year our occupational environment is broken as well. The same thing broke all of those, greed for money and power.
College football can be repaired and this season would have been the ideal time to give it a try. But the haves wanted no part of opening their party to the have-nots. The solution seems perfectly clear to me at this point. That solution is an eight team playoff. There are five major conferences. Only a complete idiot could have believed that a four team playoff would work in a five conference equation. Each of those conferences have a conference championship game. It is my contention that the winners of those five title games should be automatically qualified for the eight team playoff regardless of their regular season record. The final three spots would be at-large selections. One of the three at-larges would go to a team not in a Power Five conference as long as there is such a team in the final top ten of the CFP poll. The other two spots can go to the most deserving teams NOT already in due to the above formula.
And let’s be real. One of the big reasons given for not expanding the playoff is that it would be harmful to the traditional bowl system. That ship has already sailed. Interest in bowls not a part of the playoff has been dropping every year. It has reached the point where star players are opting out of those bowls entirely. This season, the bowls themselves are cancelling left and right. Might as well increase the number of post-season games people actually care about.
Yes, there would still be whining about who was the eighth and ninth team but that is a much lesser argument than who is fourth and fifth. At least there would be a possible path, as small as it might be, for teams outside the Power Five. There is no such path now. What we saw displayed clearly this season is that the powers that be in college football care not at all about any appearance of integrity. That makes meaningful change difficult at best. But again, we have seen that elsewhere haven’t we?