Welcome To The New Era of College Football
College football’s expansion beyond a regional sport appears inevitable and those that refuse to accept that will be left behind. Those of us watching football in the mid-2000’s would never have dreamed of such a trend, even less so if you were watching in the 80’s or 90’s, but alas, here we are. College Football is now a national sport.
The BCS’ Subjectivity Problems
The invention of the College Football Playoff raised the bar in terms of what’s considered a quality season for Power-5 conferences. Unfortunately, it failed in making the other bowl games more meaningful. Instead, the CFP created what I will attempt to coin as the “meaningfulness gap”. Before the playoffs, reaching one of the four BCS bowl game’s (the precursor to the “New Years Six” established in 2014) was considered a quality achievement, arguably even if you lost. It meant that you either won your conference or met the requirement for an at-large bid (nine regular season wins and top 14 BCS ranking).
Not that the BCS was without its faults. The process for selecting the participants of the National Championship was criticized for its subjective process. In the 2004-05 season, USC, Oklahoma, Utah, Auburn and Boise State all finished the regular season undefeated. The BCS was criticized for its perceived bias in sending USC and Oklahoma to the championship given their pre-season top two rankings. Utah, Boise State and Auburn had to settle for the other BCS bowl games in which only Boise State lost. To make matters worse, USC destroyed Oklahoma 55-19 giving more credence to the criticism that Auburn should have replaced Oklahoma especially given their strength of schedule in the ever-tough SEC.
The CFP’s Subjective Solution
The CFP attempted to solve this problem by allowing the top four teams to basically decide amongst themselves who the best two of them were. However, the debate about who belongs in the top four has essentially replaced that of who belonged in the BCS’ top two. This last season felt like the teams selected themselves as only the top four teams had one or fewer losses. Georgia and Alabama’s strength of schedule essentially guaranteed them both a spot no matter how the SEC championship unfolded.
Allowing Cincinatti to be the first group of five team in the playoffs felt like the CFP was falling back on subjective criterion like an undefeated record no matter the strength of schedule. Many said Cincinatti deserved it. If you were just looking at their record, one would be inclined to agree. Except that Notre Dame and Houston were the only two ranked teams they played. Ohio State and Baylor both won four of five games against ranked opponents for comparisons sake.
This is why I believe the CFP, while well intentioned, is just a more subjective BCS. The committee couldn’t look at Cincinatti’s undefeated record and not include them. That would’ve been like pouring gasoline on the “anti-group of five bias narrative” fire making them no better than the BCS in the eyes of the fanbases.
Accepting The Subjective Reality
What is there to do moving forward? There are two options. Either accept that some teams play weak schedules and don’t let the 0 losses trick you otherwise, or, expand the playoffs.
The CFP was created with the intention of bringing more integrity to the selection process for those that compete for the national championship. The result has been an unfortunate combination of artificially high rankings for weak teams and a devaluation of other bowl games. Of course, it has also given us some great football games too which can’t be ignored.
If it sounds like I’m on the fence about what to do, it’s because I am. In theory, I liked the idea of the playoffs until I realized that so many great players would sit out non-playoff games since not playing for the championship now means you’re not playing for anything worthwhile.
Naturally, an expansion to the playoffs seems like the way to fix the problem of who deserves a chance to play for the title and to increase the meaningfulness of NY6 games. Unfortunately, that comes at the cost of the regular season. Notre Dame lost to Cincinatti. Ohio State lost to Michigan. Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State and Baylor. Baylor lost to TCU. These losses kept them out of the top four as well they should have. Expanding the playoffs to eight teams, as seems to be the popular solution currently, would have taken Baylor’s loss to unranked TCU and made it worthless. Maybe not for the sake of TCU’s pride, but in terms of Baylor’s national aspirations, it wouldn’t have mattered.
Accepting the subjective reality of college football means understanding that some schedules are harder than others, that undefeated teams may not be as good as teams with one loss, and that teams in weak conferences shouldn’t be given a post-season guarantee just because they beat cupcakes week after week. Part of this is on the CFP, part of this is on the school. Cincinatti going undefeated in the Big 10 is a far different story than going undefeated in the AAC.
Conference realignment could have been an opportunity for this, and maybe it can be still, but I don’t see the Big 10 talking to Cincinatti or any group of five team for that matter. They’re looking for the money. As is the SEC. Perhaps the Big 12 caught on to that, even if a little late. It won’t matter how late they were as long as they beat the Pac-12 to the punch.
Still, none of this helps achieve the “level playing field” that should be required for teams from group of five conferences to make the playoffs. If Cincinatti wants a shot at the playoffs, then they need to join a tougher conference and elevate their level of play. Michigan would make the playoffs every year if they competed in the MAC and finished with at least two ranked wins and a conference championship. Many would see that as unfair, and that is the point.
The National Landscape of College Football
In the national landscape, it will be far easier for a team in the power five to fall into obscurity than it will be for a team in the group of five to achieve notoriety. It will be required that you recruit at a national level rather than relying on your in-state talent to stay to their roots. It will require doing what needs to be done to compete with teams on the other side of the country, rather than just those in your conference.
Michigan isn’t competing with just Ohio State every year anymore but Georgia too. Northwestern will be fighting for recruits not just with Illinois or Indiana anymore, but Washington and North Carolina now too. Rutgers and Maryland found themselves at the bottom of the Big Ten before USC and UCLA were signed. Now they have to compete with teams at least two commercial flights away for recruits in their back yard. They already struggle with bowl eligibility in the Big Ten, will they now struggle for even just a win or two? Welcome to the new era of college football.