The masses are coming for the College Football Playoff with inclusionary pitchforks and torches, demanding expansion. It seems inevitable the field will eventually double to eight teams. The smart money on this happening would be on sooner, not later. Perhaps then it will be prudent to judge individual seasons in an inelastic, binary way. For now, though, such a playoff-or-bust approach to success and failure is shortsighted.
Unless, of course, we want paint an overwhelming majority of college football programs as failures.
Three years into the CFB Playoff era, eight different teams have or will participate. Alabama has made it all three years. Ohio State and Clemson have twice earned entry. Oregon, Florida State, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Washington have played their way in once.
It’s the names not on the list that are most compelling and will continue to be as long as 97 percent of the 125 FCS teams miss the playoff in a given year. As the years pass, the traditional powers failing to crack the sport’s most exclusive club will stand out. There is no guarantee that Michigan, Notre Dame, USC, LSU, Texas or whatever juggernaut you want to insert will have participated by 2023, the 10th year of the current format should it remain.
Through three years, only Alabama has represented the SEC. The same can be said for Oklahoma and the Big 12. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac 12 have all sent two different programs. No conference has placed two teams in the same year, although the Big Ten has come close with Iowa and Penn State each finishing at No. 5 in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
To be fair, there is also no guarantee that Alabama will continue to have a monopoly on SEC dominance or that Ohio State will continue to excel or the top of the Big 12 will continue to struggle. But it’s not unreasonable to imagine a scenario where the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes appear more often than not. It’s not unreasonable to think Florida State and Clemson alternate superiority in the ACC. It’s very possible that 20 or so teams will take turns making the four-team playoff over two decades.
It’s disheartening to see exceptional seasons by marquee programs dismissed because they fell short of the playoffs. Penn State and Michigan, the two outside teams with the best view in, each had fantastic years and will be richly rewarded with New Year’s Six bowls. Double-digit win totals and invitations to high-profile postseason games are not accomplishments to be ignored. If this level of success had been offered to each of these fan bases back in August, they’d have gleefully accepted the scenario.
In the few weeks before bowl season gets into full swing, you’ll read piece after piece lamenting the fact that they’ve lost their luster, how they’re the ultimate participation trophy for undeserving participants. And sure, there’s something to that.
But there has to be a middle ground, a spot where achievement can be celebrated without being spun as failure. The four-team playoff is exclusionary by purpose. An extraordinary effort is required to play for a national championship in January. More teams reasonably acquitted to make the playoff will fall short than make it in a given year.
Moving from the BCS system to a semifinal system yielded a dynamic shift in the way college football is covered. Everything is about the playoff, about the top four teams in the country. There’s a made-for-television weekly reveal and copious scrutiny of resumés in real-time. Doubling the field from two participants to four seems to have had an incongruent effect on public perception. Along the way, some of the understanding regarding just how difficult it is to be among the precious few selected really is, no matter the quality of the program, has been lost.
Some of that misperception is innocent. Some is intentionally fueled by those with the most to gain from an expanded field.
Regardless of the reason, it would be helpful for those who love college football to understand what could happen as this system ages and adjust the narrative accordingly. It’s my personal belief that the rich will continue to get richer in the playoff era, that Cinderella won’t often be allowed to attend the New Year’s Ball. Instead, a clearly defined group of power will be established and outsider intrusion will be the exception rather than the norm.
Under this belief, it’s useful to look at what’s happened in the last 24 seasons of English soccer since the Premier League was formed. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison but there are some similarities.
For instance, there are 92 teams in the English Football League system, 20 in the top division and eligible for the top title. While the 125 FCS teams can win a national title on paper, the amount with a realistic chance in a given season is probably around 20 as well.
Six different sides have won the Premier League crown (6.5 percent of all clubs) in the last quarter century. Applying this distribution to college football would mean either eight or nine universities would win the national title by 2037, which seems entirely possible should one to two dynasties take hold. For context, 6.5 percent of FCS teams have made the playoff through three years.
It should be noted that the Premier League also has had a built-in incentive to finish in the top four of the table since 1997-1998, when such a standing earned a spot in the Champions League. It took until the 2009-2010 season for eight different clubs to crack the top four. From 2013-2015, however, seven different clubs have finished in the top four as parity finally seems to get a firm footing. CFB will obviously have more diversity at the top.
The point is that college football was one of the last holdouts in the bottom-line, all-or-nothing Americanization of results synthesis. Getting to the Rose Bowl, like Penn State, or a back-to-back 10-win season (Michigan) used to mean something. And unlike the EPL, where there are clear rewards for finishing sixth or avoiding the bottom three, these benefits were experienced naturally. Often times the reward for having a very good season was the pride of knowing one had a really good season.
Trivializing all but the nation’s four top teams is a dangerous path to head down. If making the playoff is the only thing that matters, there won’t be much happiness in the game. If finishing 10-2 or 9-3 or, hell, even 7-5 stops mattering altogether, the tail end of the regular season will start looking a lot like the sloppy bowl games everyone hates so much. If it’s only playoff-or-bust, a vast majority of programs — even the elite ones — will flounder in bankruptcy.
We can accept that reality now or in five, ten or 15 years when the list of teams to never make a playoff is more interesting than the list of teams that have done so.