Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 20, 2020

Another College Playoff With All The Usual Suspects

Every Game Counts. That is the first headline, in bold type, on the page of the College Football Playoff’s website that explains the workings of the annual four-team tournament to determine a national champion of the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of the collegiate game. It is possible that both the use of the phrase and its placement on the page is the product of an anonymous web designer’s twisted sense of humor. But assuming the term is not an intentional joke, then the one thing fans have figured out over the seven years of the Playoff’s existence is that some games, and some teams, definitely count more than others.

Sunday afternoon the CFP Selection Committee released its final rankings from one to twenty-five, which determine not just the four teams that will vie for the national title, but also the lineup for the major New Year’s bowl games. While great effort is made every year to instill a sense of drama in the committee’s process, the announcement is usually predictable, and this year was no exception, with the same four schools that had been atop the rankings for several weeks comprising the final lineup for the two national semifinals on January 1 – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. About the only smidgen of doubt was whether Notre Dame might be demoted after being thoroughly manhandled by Clemson in Saturday’s ACC title game.

But replacing the Fighting Irish, a team with a fan base that extends far beyond alumni, with Texas A&M or Oklahoma might have dented the ratings for the Rose Bowl, or whatever the semifinal matchup between Alabama and Notre Dame is going to be called now that it has been moved from California to Texas so that fans can attend. For the committee to allow that to happen the final score of Saturday’s rout needed to be much worse than 34-10. Like maybe 340-10.

Committee chairman Gary Barta, whose day job is athletic director at the University of Iowa, trotted out all the predictable words in defending Notre Dame’s selection. He cited the team’s earlier wins over a pair of ranked teams – #19 North Carolina and then #1 Clemson, the latter a double-overtime victory in South Bend when Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence was sidelined with the coronavirus. Barta was similarly ready with an explanation for Ohio State’s inclusion, despite the Buckeyes only playing a total of six games thanks to COVID-related cancellations. He spoke of the team’s undefeated record, glossing over the reality that Ohio State had considerably fewer opportunities to lose a game than many other teams, and also noted Buckeyes’ pair of wins over ranked opponents.

Of course, Texas A&M also had a quality win over Florida when the Gators were ranked fourth in the country, and, just like Notre Dame, one bad loss, on the road to then #2 Alabama. And Oklahoma posted three wins over ranked teams to offset a pair of early season losses, both of which were one possession games. But the beauty of deliberations conducted behind closed doors is that every year whoever happens to be the committee’s chair can explain as much or as little as he wants and spin the rationales for every contender to fit the already announced rankings.

For at its heart the four-team playoff is a recognition of football excellence only after it is a celebration of gridiron hegemony. The CFP is all about the Power 5 conferences, but even within that upper class of college football, there are distinctions. Counting this year’s foursome, twenty of the twenty-eight contestants since the Playoff began in 2014 have come from the SEC (eight), ACC (seven) or Big 10 (five). Throw in two appearances by usually independent Notre Dame with its national fan base – the Irish played in the ACC this year because of the pandemic but are not counted in that conference’s total – and all other conferences barely need even apply.

As true as that is for the Big 12 and Pac-12, the other two Power 5 conferences, it is especially so for every other school in every other league playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision. With the widespread disarray in scheduling and key players sometimes sidelined this season, all because of the pandemic, this selection process presented the committee with an ideal opportunity to justify reaching beyond the usual playoff participants. That could have meant finding room not just for an A&M or an Oklahoma, which finished fifth and sixth in the rankings, but for a team from the so-called Group of Five conferences. Cincinnati in the American Athletic and Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt both finished the season with unblemished records, the Bearcats at 8-0 and the Chanticleers at 11-0, the same mark as Alabama. Coastal’s 22-17 win over BYU two weeks ago was one of the most entertaining games of the year. But Cincinnati was eighth in the final rankings, and Coastal Carolina didn’t even make the top ten, finishing twelfth and shut out of a New Year’s bowl game.

Fans have instead been fed more of the same, even if it took the Big 10 changing its rules about the minimum number of games to be played so that Ohio State could advance to the conference title game, and now further changing restrictions on how long COVID-positive players must remain off the field, in hopes of giving the Buckeyes a full roster come New Year’s Day. So much for the health of the players being the first priority.

But then there is nothing surprising about any of this, just as there has been nothing surprising in big-time college football and the CFP process in years past. Change the rules, mouth the spin, do whatever needs to be done to produce the desired result. But please don’t think college football fans are idiots. Every game counts? Who do they think they’re fooling?

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