In defense of the College Football Playoff

By MIKE HERNDON

Remember how much we all hated the BCS? Sure, you do. You’re not so old or senile that you don’t remember 2004, when three Power 5 champions finished undefeated and Auburn was the odd team out in a two-team party. If you’re outside the South, you’re probably still cussing about 2011’s all-SEC title game.

It’s better than the bowl system, all but the stingiest die-hards agreed. But it didn’t go far enough.

We’ll ignore the fact that it took 2011 to finally create a four-team playoff when it should have happened in 2005. It finally happened.

And now, some of you say you want to go back? Have you all lost your minds?

Yes, Alabama and Clemson would be a clear-cut 1-2 this year, and there are viable arguments that 3 and 4, Ohio State and Notre Dame, don’t deserve to be there at all. We can all agree it would be much tidier this year to only have to pick the top two.

But this is an irregular season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Power 5 conferences restricting to conference-only schedules and two of them delaying so late they ultimately only played half a season. Does it make sense to make radical changes based on a season with such unique circumstances?

Well, maybe if you’re Auburn, South Carolina, Arizona or Illinois.

And maybe if you’re talking about the change of creating a college football commissioner. At one time I ridiculed the idea, but it sure would have been handy this year to have someone working to create consensus among the conferences in adapting to the pandemic while trying to maintain a level playing field.

But citing this unprecedented season to erase the progress that’s been made in creating a representative championship – to throw up our hands and go backwards – would be wrong-headed and short-sighted. You don’t like that Ohio State got In the playoff after playing only six games, or Notre Dame got in after absorbing a 24-point loss to Clemson? A lot of people didn’t like it when Alabama got in the BCS despite not winning its division in 2011, or that LSU got in with two losses in 2007.

Those controversial selections are competing for one spot of four now. It was one of only two then.

We can debate the method of selection, and some of the College Football Playoff selection committee’s choices this year will lend itself to it. But most of those questionable choices involve the placement of teams below the top four – and particularly, the treatment of undefeated Group of 5 teams Cincinnati (8th) and Coastal Carolina (12th).

I am sympathetic to those arguments, but not to any remedy that would include computers at the level of influence they held in the BCS days. People may be fallible and petty and capable of bias, but computers don’t watch football.

Think an undefeated Group of 5 team deserves a shot to play for the title? Strengthen its schedule, many would say, and they’re not wrong. But many would be ignoring the difficulty in doing so, when top Power 5 programs are looking for non-conference breathers and not yet another dogfight to stack atop their conference slates.

The real answer, if you truly want to give the Group of 5 teams a chance, is to expand the playoff to eight teams and include a caveat that the top-ranked Group of 5 team must be included, if undefeated. If there’s one thing the committee has shown us, it’s that Group of 5 teams don’t have a shot if the field is only four.

But those who want to go back to the BCS won’t want to hear that, will they?

Adding more teams will equal more blowouts, they say. No one wants to see that. Like they didn’t watch USC club Oklahoma like a baby seal at the end of that 2004 season. Or see Alabama smash Notre Dame like a bunch of middle schoolers for the 2012 national crown.

This national championship will likely come down to Alabama and Clemson anyway, just like it would have under the BCS. And just like it probably would have if we had an eight-team playoff.

The real problem here isn’t that we get the wrong teams playing for a championship. The problem is that it always seems to be the same teams. That’s not a structural problem, it’s a competitive problem. And it’s one that the rest of college football is going to have to figure out for themselves in order to catch up.



Categories: College football

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