College football’s playoff is all-consuming. What happens when all the romance is gone?
So much of what once made the college game so appealing has been subsumed by the playoff. It’s sad to see the richest traditions, and the pomp and pageantry of ordinary Saturdays, fade.
Let’s begin on a heartwarming note: I hate the College Football Playoff.
Always have, from Day 1. Oh, it was fun and exciting to be there as Ohio State upset Alabama, then beat the daylights out of Oregon eight seasons ago in the playoff’s much-ballyhooed debut. But it also seemed wrong, a bit twisted and decidedly unromantic.
Because, from the 2014 season on, pretty much everything that had made college football so appealing — and so different from the NFL — has been subsumed by the playoff. The best traditional rivalry games, which had always been grand events unto themselves, have become much smaller within the playoff context; if they aren’t essentially play-in games, they’re widely regarded as irrelevant. Even conference championships are truly big deals only when tickets to the playoff are punched.
We didn’t use to obsess over the national championship. Some powerhouse or another would win it, a great achievement to be celebrated, but a handful of other teams and fan bases would experience a season every bit as wonderful because of how much certain other things — the Rose Bowl, for example — mattered.
When Wisconsin, my alma mater, emerged from the wilderness in 1993, made it all the way to the Rose Bowl and actually won it, it is absolutely impossible anybody had a better fall and early winter than the Badgers and their fans, more than 70,000 of whom went wild as UCLA was beaten on its home field. It was as momentous as any championship, yet those Badgers had lost a game and tied another and would end the season ranked sixth. In 2022, they’d have been an afterthought.
Northwestern supporters can relate in regard to the 1995 season. Illinois supporters have 2001 and 2007. One suspects falling short of the national title never even occurred to a single one of them. In 2011, Baylor went from absolutely nothing to something incredible, a 10-game winner with a Heisman Trophy quarterback, Robert Griffin III. Those Bears lost three games that season, but to those cheering, they might as well have been the ’85 Chicago Bears.
But money talks, a playoff is made-for-TV gold and this sea change — which has led to a 12-team playoff, up from four, beginning in 2024 — was inevitable. So, too, were the inconsequential protestations from those like me who were disappointed to see so many of the richest traditions, and the pomp and pageantry of ordinary Saturdays, fade. Nobody cares, right? It’s OK. Understood and away we go.
My hope is a 12-team playoff will do more than just make schools in the power conferences obscenely wealthy, that it also will bring big-time meaning — in other words, playoff implications — to many more games throughout the season. And more avenues to the playoff might level the playing field somewhat in recruiting, so that the same handful of schools led by Alabama and Georgia don’t own all the cachet. These things, the expanded playoff should do, so I see the tripling of the field as a step in a worthwhile direction.
On the other hand, given how many semifinal blowouts we’ve seen over the first eight renditions of the four-team playoff, how many of the 12 teams will have even a whisper of a chance at winning it all?
Potentially an even larger issue: Is there any reason to believe playoff teams won’t be undercut by star-player opt-outs? Take, for example, this year’s No. 6 Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson squads, which will meet in the Orange Bowl. Under the framework of the expanded playoff, Clemson — a conference champion — would be seeded third, with a first-round bye, and Tennessee would be seeded eighth. Each team has hugely important players opting out of the Orange Bowl. Would Tigers defensive stars Myles Murphy and Trenton Simpson make the same business decisions entering a playoff? Would Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman, the Vols’ best receivers, be any more willing to risk pre-draft injury facing as many as three playoff games?
Alabama, Penn State and Utah would be playoff teams in 2024. As it is, the Sugar Bowl-bound Crimson Tide’s best players — high-first-round locks Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr. — spent weeks considering the opt-out route before finally making it known Friday that they intend to play. We know the Nittany Lions’ best player, Joey Porter Jr., has opted out of the Rose Bowl against Utah. Ditto for the Utes’ leading rusher, Tavion Thomas, and their leading receiver, Dalton Kincaid, not to mention All-America defender Clark Phillips III.
The level of postseason competition already is dropping dramatically. Why would that stop? Players are making money moves, too, from before the day they set foot on campus. As they should, if they can. I don’t blame them one bit.
I just used to like college football better.