Tonight’s College Football Playoff National Championship game is slated to be a thrilling battle between two dominant football programs who took home their respective conference crowns in a rather emphatic fashion. The undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes had plenty of doubters when it came to their shortened schedule, but seemed to silence their critics with a commanding victory over the Clemson Tigers in the semifinal. The Alabama Crimson Tide also dominated Notre Dame in the semifinal. In short, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that these two teams deserved to be here.
Yet, for all the television coverage, sponsorships, and money that is pumped into the sport, college football has become increasingly predictable. Since the inception of the current CFP system in 2014, a four-team playoff, there have been 28 bids given out by the committee. Of those 28 bids, five schools account for 22 of them. There are 127 schools competing at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of Division 1, but only a select few have a monopoly on the championship trophy. Many would argue that this is logical, since these programs are consistently better than their counterparts, but I would argue that their success is a consequence of the system, rather than viewing the system as an indicator of their success.
The hyperfocus on the top 10 football programs from ESPN and other sports media outlets has resulted in a lopsided concentration of talent. The 2020 recruiting class had only four 4-star recruits attend a school outside of the Power 5 conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, and PAC12). In fact, since 2017, just five teams have accounted for 56.1 percent of all 5-star recruits, a number that has grown to 62.3 percent in the past recruiting cycle. That is a lion’s share of the nation’s football talent concentrated at just a few institutions. Considering these trends, it comes as no surprise that the College Football Playoff has begun to resemble a Power 5 invitational tournament, rather than a competitive and unpredictable competition.
I can’t blame student athletes for choosing the best few schools each year. After all, the committee TKTK that only so many schools have a legitimate chance at playing for the national championship. If you want to win that trophy and go on to the NFL, you take the path that is likely to grant that opportunity. Choosing a different program is a noble challenge, but when it comes down to it, you are leaving potential money on the table by opting for less exposure. After all, student athletes are not paid and football is a violent endeavor. The NFL, with its life-changing contracts, stands just beyond college for these recruits. The regular season only has so many games, so making an impression on scouts is far more likely when you have the national television exposure of a top program to support you.
The college football season is designed so that each game means just as much as the next when it comes to the regular season. A highly ranked team can lose a late regular season game and miss out on the playoff entirely. It’s this suspense and unique pressure in games that keeps fans captivated and brands college football as a distinct product, much as March Madness is synonymous with college basketball. The importance of the regular season is also used as an argument against expanding the current playoff past 4 teams, as only the best of the best can make it into the semifinals. So often, however, undefeated teams are left out and replaced by teams with one or two losses. A look at the final CFP poll from December will reveal that an undefeated Cincinnati, an undefeated Coastal Carolina, and a 1-loss Indiana were all placed behind multiple teams with 2 or 3 losses. If the regular season truly matters, then a three-loss Florida has no business being ranked 7th. Yet, it seems that the decision-making process behind the CFP committee is riddled with hypocrisy. If a team loses multiple games, then it should fall in the rankings, not given the benefit of the doubt because they play in a more competitive conference. In a sense, because of the talent disparity between programs, the Playoff has become a near foregone conclusion.
College basketball and football may be separate entities, but I cannot help but think of the plethora of Cinderella stories we bear witness to each year. If a committee simply agreed to push the perennial blue bloods through to the Final Four, we would miss out teams like Loyola Chicago and VCU, who made memorable appearances in recent years. I am also aware that teams like Coastal Carolina and Boise State would likely be far outmatched when it came to talent, but why not give them a chance to play for the title? The Clemsons and LSUs of the college football world will always be able to bounce back, but for some of these smaller programs, it may be now or never. They won all their games in the all-important regular season, isn’t that what it is supposed to be about?
Ben Borrok is a School of Communication junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.