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How the College Football Playoff misunderstands college football

As the usual suspects round out another slate of semifinal games, critics wonder whether the sport’s regional culture is undermined by its marquee event

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LSU quarterback Joe Burrow holds the trophy as safety Grant Delpit looks on after a NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game against Clemson on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, in New Orleans. LSU won 42-25.

Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

On the afternoon and evening of New Year’s Day, the College Football Playoff semifinals will feature four of the top teams in the country. This much isn’t contested: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame, who enter the contests with just a pair of losses between them, comprise some of the best the sport has to offer.

The semifinal round will feature three of this year’s Heisman Trophy finalists, two coaches who already have multiple national titles to their credit, and an assortment of players who will find places on NFL rosters in the coming years.

But the mood across college football fandom is grim, or at least not as exuberant as such a superlative lineup might suggest. This year’s playoff has an unmistakable taste of redundancy. Clemson has made the past six semifinals, and Alabama six of the seven that have been held since the CFP replaced the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series in the 2014-15 season.

But the reheated vibe is, to many, just a symptom of a larger issue. The sport’s crown jewel, the event around which its calendar revolves, seems increasingly disconnected from the day-to-day particulars of the sport.

College football is unabashedly regional and given to bursts of chaos — on the field, off of it, and, as in the case of the quickly scheduled and hotly contested BYU-Coastal Carolina game earlier this season, sometimes both at once. The College Football Playoff, by contrast, is corporate and predictable, with the same handful of top-flight power-conference programs passing the trophy between themselves every year.

Friday’s games will be virtuosic; they may be spectacular. But to many of the fans who love college football, the CFP misunderstands the sport whose champion it crowns.

Complaints from all corners

You don’t have to look far, or in any particular direction of the college football universe, to find someone who has a problem with the current system, in which the CFP committee — an assemblage of athletic directors, former players, former coaches and other “high-integrity football experts” — tasks itself with choosing the season’s top four teams.

Press reaction to this year’s semifinal announcement, on the day after conference championships were held in mid-December, was swift and severe. “The College Football Playoff Just Made Its Worst Selection Ever,” read a Ringer headline. “The committee remains disappointingly predictable,” said ESPN. USA Today opinion columnist Dan Wolken invoked a cultural touchstone of monotony, writing, “The College Football Playoff has been around for seven seasons now, and at this point we might as well all be Bill Murray waking up to “I Got You Babe” over and over again.”

Critics cited a seeming double-standard favoring perennial contenders from power-conference programs over upstarts from other conferences. Strange, tenuous schedules during the pandemic emphasized the discrepancy. Ohio State made the playoff after winning just six games; the Big Ten had amended its own conference rules to allow the Buckeyes into its conference championship game after a cancellation-marred slate. Cincinnati, meanwhile, won all nine of its games but finished in eighth place, four spots out of playoff position and behind a three-loss Florida team.

The Ringer’s Roger Sherman laid out a compelling case that the Bearcats were disrespected: “Cincinnati wasn’t just undefeated: It finished the season with more wins against top-25 teams and more wins against teams with winning records than either Notre Dame or (Texas A&M, which finished in fifth place). They ranked among the FBS top 20 in scoring, total offense, and total defense.” Sporting News’ Mike Decourcy argued that the College Football Playoff isn’t worthy of its own title.

“This is not truly a playoff,” he wrote after the Bearcats’ snub. “It is an invitational.”

The committee’s history of privileging power-conference teams doesn’t just affect things at the end of the year, analysts point out. It has the secondary effect of turning off fans throughout the season who understand that their teams will have little to no shot of cracking the sport’s top tier. Some of the magic of BYU’s season, which began with a 9-0 start, was undercut by a lack of recognition and respect afforded by the CFP committee.

The good news, for those ready for something new, is that the sport’s recent doldrums have contributed to a viewership drop that may prove substantial enough to spur change.

“The more casual college football-viewing audience has little interest in watching Alabama or Clemson steamroll Notre Dame again, or play each other for the umpteenth time,” The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel wrote. “It’s no coincidence ESPN has never come close to matching the mammoth 30.2 million average viewers of that first year.”

In short, fans seem to want a College Football Playoff that looks like college football, the glorious mess shot through all season long with upstarts, surprises, underdogs and unknowns seizing their chances. And a chorus of prominent voices has started to push for changes that could make that a reality.

A new system?

“I say expand the playoff,” Urban Meyer, Fox analyst, former Utah and title-winning coach at Florida and Ohio State, said recently. “I can’t believe those words ...” His voice trailed off, but the sentiment was clear. Even coaches like Meyer, a self-proclaimed “traditionalist” whose last championship came in the inaugural year of the current system, understand that things aren’t working as they should.

In supporting an expanded playoff field, Meyer joined a groundswell so widespread that a shift has started to seem inevitable. Sporting News’ Zac Al-Khateeb recently wrote of the seeming inevitability of a more inclusive playoff slate, and Mandel has laid out a precise vision: A system that includes automatic playoff invitations for every power conference champion and a reserved spot for a team from a Group of Five conference.

“Blow up the postseason as we know it,” Mandel wrote, “and start a new one where more teams feel invested, more games matter, and December feels more like an acceptance celebration and less like a rejection letter.”

There are obstacles in the way of such an overhaul. To begin with, of course, is the pandemic; staging the end of this season as safely as possible is surely the priority over figuring out the details of seasons to come. Additionally, the current CFP contract with ESPN runs through 2026, and restructuring the playoff would require rewriting the deal governing how it’s broadcast.

But if college football is normally a sport defined by squabbles — endless debates over rankings, calls, outcomes, prospects and legacies — then the present moment is one of rare consensus. The College Football Playoff’s next decision should be how to remake itself.