Alabama and Clemson each dominated their respective opponents in the two College Football Playoff games held last night in the Peach and Cotton Bowls, respectively. Now the two true blue bloods of the NCAA will meet again ... for the fourth straight season, three of which for the national title ... in what is supposed to be the most epic and drama-producing post season format among all of the major U.S. sports.
Except it isn’t. And it is starting to kill public interest in the college football.
Dubbed by chairperson Charles Steger as a “best of both worlds” solution to the simultaneous goals of preserving college football’s unique regular season urgency while crowning a single, true champion who earned it on the field, the NCAA devised this four-team format all the way back in 2012 (with its official launch in 2014). At the time, Steger said that the committee had hoped to give fans a sense of “hope and opportunity” that any of their teams, whether they are a blue blood or a Cinderella, could compete for a chance to win the National Championship.
Now in its fifth season, the College Football Playoff has produced anything but “hope and opportunity” for fan bases outside a select few in markets such as Alabama and South Carolina. Of the 20 spots that have been filled in the CFP’s brief history, Alabama and Clemson have occupied 9 of them. Oklahoma and Ohio State have occupied another two each. Those four teams combined have been selected to 65% of all the spots that the selection committee has selected since 2014.
What about that feels like “hope and opportunity” if you are fans of other programs who have done everything possible to get selected but who keep getting passed over in the selection process? It is fairly difficult to take advantages of opportunities if they never present themselves.
And therein lies the rub with the College Football Playoff. Because the selection process has a bias towards “the best” teams as opposed to the “most deserving” teams, it effectively relies on a committee to substitute human judgment as to what constitutes “best” in the place of what actually happens on the field when real teams play actual games. Humans, as we all know, are flawed and often fall victim to judgement dynamics like recency bias and confirmation bias in making such determinations. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the same teams who played the season before will have all their “pro” arguments for selection in the subsequent year emphasized while their “con” arguments are not equally as weighed.
Take Alabama, for instance. The Crimson Tide last year were selected as the #4 seed into the CFP despite having a resume that included no wins over a top 10 team, no conference championship and only eight conference games. In fact, it was one of the weakest overall schedules in the country. And yet they were selected into the CFP over teams that had actually played an extra game and had actually won a conference championship. Why?
Because they “looked better”.
And the apologists will point to the fact that Alabama going on to win the championship was proof that the system worked as intended. “The best team won” is the refrain you heard at the time. But that argument disintegrates after you consider the fact Alabama effectively got a gift when it didn’t have to play an extra conference championship game and it didn’t get held to a basic scheduling difficulty standard in the same way that other teams are held. The deck was so clearly stacked in their favor, it would have been remarkable if they didn’t win the whole thing.
Fans are starting to catch on to it and are voicing their displeasure across the myriad of early warning signals that broadcast executives pay attention to when making their investment decisions. The process that was meant to provide “hope and opportunity” has instead evolved into a self reinforcing feedback loop that keeps giving extra spotlight and money-making opportunities to a select few. In return for that favor, those same teams are then given that much more of a leg up in attracting more talent and better coaches. The feedback loop continues. This has not gone unnoticed on the airwaves, across the podcast-verse and in print. Fans have gotten Saban-Dabo fatigue and are starting to make some noise about it.
It isn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t the NBA despite the fact that Alabama - Clemson are starting to feel like Golden State and Cleveland. Football teams at any level do not as a norm keep meeting each other in the post season. During the 15-year run of the BCS era, we never once had a rematch of any two teams. Not a single time. The FCS, which has seen domination by North Dakota State in recent years, has had just three championship game rematches in its history going all the way back to 1978, and never more than a single rematch in a row. Even the NFL, which has just 32 teams vying for its championship, has only ever had one Super Bowl rematch. That was the Dallas / Buffalo rematch of 1994. The dynamics of football - it’s physicality, the various schemes and counter-schemes that underlie the gameplay, the constant churning of rosters, the turnover of coaching staffs - aren’t supposed to lend themselves to an outcome dominated by two teams. This is especially true in college where players have their tenures limited by college eligibility. Yet here we are. Dabo vs Nick, part IV.
ESPN, who pays about a half a billion dollars per year for the rights to broadcast the CFP in a deal that runs through 2025, is certainly tuned into the issue. During the Alabama game last night, the Twitter-verse lit up when Vegas starting posting odds for the Alabama-Clemson national championship at halftime of the Orange Bowl, a trend that I’m sure wasn’t lost on the people charged with creating interest and drama in their precious broadcast. Before the ‘Bama defeat was final, TV announcer Chris Fowler was already teasing the fact that the post-game discussion was going to include comments on whether or not it was a good thing to have a fourth rematch. After they came back from a commercial break, lead analyst Kirk Herbstreit immediately acknowledged with some soft language that fans may not be very thrilled to see these two teams again, but that both of these teams earned it with their play on the field.
And it didn’t just stop with the post-game show. In the Sports Center broadcast immediately following the Orange Bowl, host Scott Van Pelt kicked off by letting viewers know that “it won’t always be like this” with the College Football Playoff but for now he was “fine with it”. ESPN College Gameday Host Rece Davis was interviewed as part of that opening segment and he immediately raised the issue by noting that fans should be excited to “see excellence” no matter what uniforms the two teams are wearing.
It is fairly obvious that ESPN is trying to get out ahead of the story line that is sure to plague this matchup over the next eight days. When they made the decision to invest over $7 billion into the NCAA with the CFP deal, I am guessing that they weren’t expecting 8 out of 10 of the actual semi-final games to be blowouts and for all of the buzz around the nation to be focused on how broken the system is just five years in. You can expect a heavy dose of regulated opinions and sunshine-pumping coming out of the worldwide leader this week as they try to protect their investment.
But that won’t change the dynamics of the narrative as we play out the rest of the college football post season and talk about next week’s national championship. I expect that Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, who really do have the two best teams in the nation this season, will constantly be on their heels having to almost apologize for playing each other in the CFP yet again. It really isn’t fair to either of those coaches, but this is what the system has produced. Both of their teams were dubbed as the favorites before the season and, lo and behold, the self-fulfilling prophecies have come true.
The sad thing is that there isn’t a ready-made solution that we can apply to this problem. The College Football Playoff format is broken. A move to eight teams would probably help the problem by introducing less opportunity for these kinds of rematches to occur. But the aforementioned ESPN contract would make that nearly impossible to pull off before 2025 (and, yes, I’m aware that ESPN could just strike a new deal with the NCAA if they wanted, but I can assure you that the NCAA will never again get the premium that ESPN paid out for the current deal. Thus, it’s a non-starter). A modification of the selection criteria to include more weight on criteria that is earned on the field as opposed to on the recruiting trail may be helpful, but it would just be a temporary salve against the real issues plaguing the post-season.
Until the NCAA and its media partners get serious about addressing the inequities that exist in scheduling, resourcing and coaching this issue of the haves and have-nots will only intensify. And fan interest will continue to decline.