Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 26, 2017

Season Of Parity Leaves College Playoffs In Disarray

When it debuted in 2014 the College Football Playoff was hailed as a far superior means of determining the national champion of collegiate football than its reviled predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series. The principal complaint against the BCS throughout its fifteen year existence was that the selection process, which inevitably included subjective elements, resulted in just two teams having a chance to play for the national title. The CFP answered that by finally installing a season-ending tournament at the top level of the college game, as has existed for years in lower divisions. Expanding the field to four teams, with the two semifinal games rotating among six of the traditional Bowl Games, followed by the national title game on the second Monday in January, silenced most of the critics.

There are those who justifiably point out that the selection process still skews heavily toward a handful of universities in the Power Five conferences, at the expense of less well-funded teams, even when the latter run through their regular season schedule without tasting defeat. But “strength of schedule” is not an empty phrase. The reality is that the level of competition at the highest level of the collegiate game is on a different plane than in the mid-major conferences. With only four spots in the playoff, it will take not just an undefeated season, but also one filled with blowout after blowout especially in non-conference games for a school like Central Florida, 11-0 pending next week’s American Athletic Conference championship contest against Memphis, to crash the playoff party.

And with only four tickets to award, the selection committee is bound to disappoint the fans of at least one school every year. But given the intense passion which college football generates among its loyal followers, through its first three seasons the CFP has been relatively free of controversy, with the biggest debate being not about any of the participants but the decision to sometimes play the semifinal games on New Year’s Eve, with a likely decline in television ratings.

That’s likely to change this year. With only the conference title games remaining to be played, big time college football has given us a season of unusual parity. One by one, the mighty have fallen. The result has been a scrambling of the CFP rankings, from their first release at the end of October during the ninth week of the regular season, right through the penultimate rankings which will be revealed on Tuesday. Those in turn will still not be definitive, with any number of possible scenarios still in play depending on the outcome of the next weekend’s conference championships. This year, when the final standings are announced next Sunday on ESPN, fans of several teams who wind up outside of the top four will firmly believe that they’ve been robbed of their rightful spot in either the Rose or Sugar Bowls, this season’s two semifinals leading to the national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on January 8th.

In the CFP’s first three years, three of the Power Five conferences were led by undefeated or one-loss teams, making it easy for the selection committee to pencil them in on the playoff schedule. Probably the biggest selection controversy came when Big-12 co-champions Baylor and Texas Christian were both passed over despite identical 11-1 records. Ohio State, a team that also had one loss, was awarded the final playoff spot, with the committee citing the Big-12’s lack of a championship game (a “13th data point” on top of the twelve regular season games) as the decisive factor.

But this season the descent into disarray started early. The rankings at the end of week nine had Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson as the top four. The first two were undefeated while the Fighting Irish and Tigers each had just a single loss. That lineup remained static through just one weekly cycle, and even as it did so the rest of the top ten was scrambled when Ohio State and Penn State, sixth and seventh in the initial ranking, both lost.

Then top-ranked Georgia was upended by Auburn, and Notre Dame was crushed by Miami. That sent both playoff hopefuls tumbling down the list, with perennial national champion contender Alabama moving into the top spot. Clemson took over second, and the top four were rounded out with Miami, a team that was tenth in the initial rankings, and Oklahoma.

Miami edged ahead of Clemson in the rankings leading into Thanksgiving week. But all that slight shift did was ensure widespread chaos by the time fans were into the turkey leftovers. On Friday the Hurricanes were outclassed by the Pittsburgh Panthers 24-14. Then one day later in the Iron Bowl, Alabama was thoroughly outplayed by Auburn, with the Tigers winning 26-14. That win gave Auburn the SEC West crown and a date with Georgia in the conference championship, meaning that Alabama’s season is over. Thirteenth data point, anyone?

Presumably Clemson and Oklahoma, both winners this weekend, will move into the top two spots in Tuesday’s next to last ranking. Wisconsin, which capped a perfect regular season with a win over Minnesota, should move into the top four, most likely joined by Auburn despite the Tigers’ two losses. But next weekend’s conference title games could scramble things once more.

Clemson plays Miami for the ACC crown, while Auburn and Georgia meet for the SEC title. Those contests have the air of play-in games; win and you’re in the playoff. Wisconsin and Ohio State meet for the Big-10 title, and if the Badgers maintain their perfect record they will certainly be in. But what if Ohio State wins? Similarly, Oklahoma plays Texas Christian for the Big-12 crown. Already in the top four, Oklahoma stays there with a victory. But what happens if TCU pulls off the upset? If either or both of those two games don’t go as expected, then not only the upset winners, but the teams they will have beaten, as well as the ACC and SEC runners-up, will have a case. So too will USC if it beats Stanford for the Pac-12 title, and of course head coach Nick Saban is still lobbying hard for Alabama.

For the first time in the short history of the College Football Playoff, much will be at stake during conference championship weekend. The only certainty is that when the final rankings are announced next Sunday fans of several teams are likely to be unhappy.

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