SportsPulse: From Hard Rock Stadium, Trysta Krick and our college football experts recap a College Football Playoff Saturday that saw little drama and maybe the last of Kyler Murray the football player.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The College Football Playoff was born on the premise of a fairy tale and the smell of endless money. It took only half a decade for Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney to break it, for the shine to wear off and for the existential crisis to begin.
College football, which once occupied a quirky slice of American culture with all its traditions and contradictions, tried to go mainstream. It ended up being devoured Saturday night, and for the first time since the conference commissioners agreed to put together a four-team playoff, it really does feel like there’s something wrong.
Alabama beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl 45-34, but to say that so simply and directly does no justice to the kind of punishment the Crimson Tide inflicted from the opening play onward. It was the football equivalent of two boxers in different weight classes, a claiming horse vs. a Triple Crown winner, a regatta trying to keep up with a speed boat.
And it followed an even bigger mismatch in the other semifinal, with Clemson taking a bludgeon to Notre Dame 30-3.
So for the fourth consecutive year, we will get Alabama vs. Clemson in a playoff game — three times with the national championship on the line — which is not in and of itself a bad thing. They are the two best programs in college football at the moment, operating at a level of recruiting and player development that nobody else has been able to match. Alabama and Clemson deserve to be there. That’s not the issue.
The problem is this shiny new playoff was supposed to add drama, to goose television ratings, to take everything that was already great about the sport and amplify it to bigger audiences and fatter wallets.
Instead, under the veneer of making college football more democratic, it has wound up in throes of oligarchy. And it’s kind of a drag.
With the premise of interest in college football exploding alongside a long-awaited playoff, ESPN paid $7.3 billion over 12 years for the right to broadcast this thing. Does anyone really think they have gotten their money’s worth?
We have now seen 10 semifinal games under this system. A grand total of two — count ‘em, two — have been been compelling for viewers.
When the CFP format was finalized in 2013, executive director Bill Hancock and the power conference commissioners who drove the decisions believed the playoff double-header would “change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve in this country.” Instead, what they thought would be appointment TV has become more like an excuse to change the channel.
A sport whose unique appeal is its ability to create hours of compelling drama, week after week, simply can’t accept laying an egg on its flagship day. While the last three national championship games have shown the best of college football, the playoff results have made more of an argument to contract rather than expand.
It’s worth remembering that everything now in college football from August onward is framed by the playoff. The season-long argument about who’s in and who’s out consumes all the oxygen. ESPN even does a weekly show on Tuesday nights beginning in October devoted to a mock bracket.
More commentary: Read other columns from Dan Wolken
When that’s your build-up to the actual games, you’ve got a fundamental issue when they’re not competitive, when Alabama is plowing to a 28-0 lead after barely a quarter.
This isn’t the NBA, where you can draw eyeballs for four consecutive years of Golden State vs. Cleveland because of the stars and personalities involved. This is college football, where the top programs have largely regional appeal and the most recognizable people on the television screen are the coaches. Everything about its popularity relies on the possibility of seeing something magical.
That aspiration has been extinguished for now, and it comes at a horrible time as the playoff tries to find a foothold in the sports landscape.
Some fans and pundits will point to the selection committee as the problem, and they have an easy bit of hindsight to latch onto this year. Though the committee picked Oklahoma as the No. 4 team, there was certainly some support for Georgia, which practically played Alabama to a draw in the SEC championship game but had two losses and only one standout win over Florida on its résumé.
There was ample evidence, both visually and analytically, that Georgia would have provided either Alabama or Clemson with a tougher challenge than Oklahoma, which three times pulled within 11 until the Crimson Tide awoke from its momentary boredom.
But what might create the best matchups versus evaluating a team’s on-paper qualification for the playoff is a problem for which there’s no great answer. In a sport where both the styles vary from league to league, the quality of play changes from year to year and teams choose one-third of their own schedule, turning the playoff selection into a predictive process based as much on recruiting rankings as results seems like a fool’s errand that will leave nobody satisfied. Ultimately, it would lead to the implosion of the whole sport.
An example: In 2015, Ohio State was absolutely equipped to compete in the playoff. It was the defending national champion. Its roster was full of stars. It lost just once all season and validated its quality with a Fiesta Bowl win over a very good Notre Dame team. But Ohio State lost the game it needed to win, at home against Michigan State, in a befuddling performance against a backup quarterback. On the strength of that win, the Spartans won the division and the Big Ten, made the playoff and promptly lost 38-0 to Alabama in an absolute torture chamber of a game.
Every year now, college football fans and administrators have to ask themselves: Would they rather the selection process be about evaluating seasons or personnel? Georgia has better players than Notre Dame. But by no measurement did two-loss Georgia handle its schedule as well as the undefeated Fighting Irish.
When those two things don’t line up, you get mismatches. And boy have we had a lot of them. Will the cycle even out someday? Or has the romance and intrigue about what a real playoff would look like given way to permanent drudgery? If that’s the case, change is needed ASAP. Such a beautiful sport can’t be allowed to become a bore.