The average final score in College Football Playoff semifinal games is 39-18. Just three of the 16 semifinals to date have stayed within one-score margins, none since 2019. Only one other semi felt even a little bit exciting, and that one, the 2017 season’s Orange Bowl, began with Alabama taking a 28-0 lead over Oklahoma. While three of the seven CFP championship games have been classics, the semis have been so horrendous that Cincinnati’s 27-6 loss to Alabama on New Year’s Eve felt like a punchy effort on the Bearcats’ part. Michigan’s 34-11 defeat to Georgia was a more garden-variety playoff whooping.
This isn’t ideal, especially because the CFP has come to loom over the entire sport. The playoff sucks up ever more of the media oxygen from the sport’s dominant rights-holder, ESPN, and has devalued the other bowls that used to be considered commendable and fun landing spots. Ohio State fans seem pretty down about a trip to the Rose Bowl, the game that used to be the sport’s crown jewel. And while making the Peach Bowl was a massive accomplishment for Pitt and Michigan State, both teams’ best players chose to sit out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Watering down everything else might have been worth it if the playoff was novel, exciting, and fun. Too often, it’s been none of the three. This month’s Alabama-Georgia national title game will be the second such meeting in four years, and the second game between the teams in five weeks. It’s grimly funny, given that a 2011 SEC Championship rematch was the catalyst that pushed college football to do away with the Bowl Championship Series and start a four-team event.
On some level, the playoff is working as it should. Bama and Georgia are the two best teams in the sport, and a postseason system that puts them together for all the marbles is doing its job. Besides, it is not new for college football to have a deeply flawed postseason format. The BCS was widely despised by the end, though probably not as much as the scheme that had reporters voting for the champ, as they did before 1998.
If the college football postseason has always made fans angry, in so many different formats and non-formats, is it even possible to build a better system? I think so. A natural course might be to make the postseason less of a tournament, because so few of the teams that have made it to the four-team playoff have been competitive. But I think the better answer, paradoxical as it may seem, is to make the playoff more playoff-ish. Expand it to 12 teams, as conference commissioners have been discussing for months.
The point of expanding the playoff won’t be to increase parity. College football has never had parity, ever. Every decade has had a small cadre of dominant programs, from the Ivy Leaguers of the early 20th century to Notre Dame and Army around World War II, and on and on in the decades since. Alabama and Georgia are currently the two elite recruiting programs in a sport that is fundamentally about recruiting, and so here they are. Only a few other teams (Ohio State, Clemson, and LSU) are even in the ballpark of title contention these days, and two of those schools wound up in the Cheez-It and Texas Bowls this year. Expanding the field will create the occasional upset, but that’ll be rare. In a 12-team format this year, Alabama and Georgia would’ve been the final two teams. No one else is in their tier.
The problem with the playoff isn’t that it made college football a lopsided sport. It’s that the format showcases that lopsidedness. There often aren’t more than one or two truly championship-caliber teams, and the semifinals (two of three playoff games each year) pit them against foes that can’t keep up. Returning to a two-team format likely wouldn’t do the job, either. The two top playoff seeds this year were Alabama and Michigan, who also would’ve been No. 1 and No. 2 in the BCS standings in the old system. If they met on the field, it would’ve been a worse matchup than Bama-Georgia and just as lopsided as the two semifinal blowouts we saw on Friday. And if selectors had picked a two-team field and taken Georgia over Michigan immediately after the Dawgs lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship? There’d have been riots in the streets. That isn’t the answer, either.
A better idea than a one-off title game is a “plus-one” system, where all bowls are played as usual and a national title game can be tacked on afterward. But that’s too good an idea to ever escape the internet and make its way into real life, primarily because it would decrease television inventory.
College football is an arms race now, on everything from conference realignment to coaching salaries (and their eventual buyouts) to facilities and, eventually, to players getting paid directly for their participation. Schools aren’t flinging around that cash not to get a chance to prove they’re better than everyone else, and they’re not adopting a playoff format that makes them less money than they make now. ESPN won’t stop paying hundreds of millions of dollars to put the playoff on TV, and in turn, it won’t stop hyping the event year-round and inherently lowering the worth of anything that isn’t part of the playoff. The genie isn’t going back in the bottle, and college football will never again be a sport where there’s wide-scale pride in achievements that have nothing to do with the national title race.
That best we can hope for is playoff reform that elevates the rest of college football rather than deteriorates it further. A 12-team field can do that in a few ways. For one, it would expand access to the Group of Five conferences, who were locked out for the event’s first seven years and only got a bid in 2021 because a whole bunch of things fell perfectly into place in Cincinnati’s second-straight unbeaten regular season. More teams could dream about getting into an expanded playoff, and that could make more Mountain West and Sun Belt games into spectacles that get considerably more attention than they do now.
A 12-team playoff would also mean higher stakes for more bowls, making it less likely that players and coaches skip them to get ready for their next jobs, as is now commonplace even in once-prestigious non-playoff bowls. (Another tool would be to pay the athletes for their participation, and bowl games should start doing that, too.) An expanded tournament would also create at least a few matchups that are less likely to end in routs, as first-round games would pit non-superteams against each other while the top four schools get byes. It’d be nice to have competitive games with at least nominal championship stakes, with the full understanding that the Alabamas and Georgias of the world will probably wreak their own havoc later on.
For all its other benefits, a 12-team playoff would quite simply be a good time full of good games between teams that are on relatively similar planes of talent. Imagine if No. 5 Notre Dame played No. 12 Pitt and Heisman Trophy candidate QB Kenny Pickett in a hypothetical first round match-up this year, or if the No. 6 vs. No. 11 Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Utah had actual title stakes.* It’d be a lot of fun even if none of those teams ultimately gave a scare to the Tide or Bulldogs. The NFL’s Wild Card weekend is a good time even though its participants usually (not always) make quick exits.
Would this be a good playoff structure for major college football? I don’t know if such a thing exists. This is not a sport that naturally lends itself to a quality national championship tournament. It’s hard to have an exciting playoff in a sport with 130 top-level teams and no more than two or three who can really hack it on the grandest stage. That’s why expansion is only partially about making the title race itself better. It is just as much about recognizing that college football’s marquee event shouldn’t detract from the best thing about the sport, which is everything else.
Correction, Jan. 1, 2022: This post originally misstated that Baylor and Ole Miss are No. 8 and No. 9 in the College Football Playoff standings. They are No. 7 and No. 8.