In the first edition of the College Football Playoff, the sport’s new method of selecting a champion worked almost exactly as intended. The four teams chosen to play for a national title in 2014 were four of the Power Five conference champions — 12-1 SEC champion Alabama, 12-1 Pac-12 champion Oregon, 13-0 ACC champion Florida State and 12-1 Big Ten champion Ohio State. On the outside looking in was the Big 12, which split its title between 11-1 Baylor and 11-1 TCU and didn’t hold a conference title game.
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There was controversy, to be sure. On the last weekend of the season, Ohio State leapfrogged No. 3 TCU in the final rankings, despite the Horned Frogs’ 55-3 win over Iowa State. But the Buckeyes had steamrolled then-No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, 59-0, answering the question of how they would play without starting quarterback J.T. Barrett. Ohio State validated the committee’s decision by upsetting Alabama and Oregon to win the national championship (a feat that couldn’t have happened under the old Bowl Championship Series process, when two teams were selected to play for the title). A four-team playoff could only ever include a maximum of four conferences; it went as well as it could have gone.
The playoff was designed to open up the competition and allow more teams to play for the championship, responding to such missed opportunities as an undefeated SEC champion Auburn getting shut out of the BCS national championship game after the 2004 season. But missed opportunities didn’t end then, for individual schools or for entire conferences.
The Pac-12 has been left out four times in the six playoffs, and the Big 12 and Big Ten twice each.1 And both because of the committees’ selections and the dominance of Alabama and Clemson, the national title game has grown more exclusive over the playoff era, not less. Only six teams have reached the championship game in the playoff’s first six seasons: Alabama four times, Clemson four times, Ohio State, Oregon, Georgia and LSU. In the last six years of the BCS, nine different teams played for the ultimate prize.2
As the pandemic-shortened 2020 season comes to a close, the committee appears to be deciding between a group of mostly the same teams ahead of its final ranking on Sunday. The same five teams — Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson, Ohio State and Texas A&M, in that order — have topped each of the committee’s four polls, and they shouldn’t move too much this weekend. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Alabama has an 89 percent chance of beating Florida in the SEC title game, Ohio State has a 91 percent chance of beating Northwestern for the Big Ten championship, and Texas A&M has an 81 percent chance in its regular-season finale against Tennessee.
Most of the committee’s attention, then, should be on the ACC championship between Clemson and Notre Dame. If Clemson wins, both teams would be 10-1 with losses to each other, and it’s hard to imagine either one being left out. If Notre Dame wins, it will likely stand pat at No. 2 and give the committee a difficult choice about what to do with Clemson, which would be 9-2 with two losses against the No. 2 team, one without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has preemptively stumped for his team’s playoff chances, but there’s no precedent for a two-loss team entering the playoffs. If Notre Dame can just avoid a blowout loss, the ACC might just sneak two teams in.
But even if Texas A&M makes it in over the loser of that clash, the committee would still be inviting just three conferences for the third time in the past four seasons.3 The playoff snubs in those scenarios would include the Big 12, the Pac-12 and any Group of Five team. The Pac-12 hasn’t even had a team in the top 10 this season after starting on Nov. 7 because of the pandemic. The Big 12 championship between No. 6 Iowa State and No. 10 Oklahoma could produce a playoff contender, but it would likely have to be two-loss Iowa State, which has only a 34 percent chance of beating Oklahoma.
And then there’s undefeated Cincinnati, which debuted in the committee rankings at No. 7 on Nov. 24 but has since dropped to No. 9 despite not playing a game in that span. No Group of Five team has ever made the playoff, but Cincinnati seemed to have a brief opening this season with the Pac-12 and Big Ten starting late and the Big 12 struggling early. From the outset, the Bearcats looked different than past Group of Five hopefuls, which had arguments based on performance but trailed significantly in advanced metrics. Entering the conference championship games in 2017, for example, Central Florida ranked 20th in the FPI while the four eventual playoff teams (Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma) were all in the top nine. Cincinnati is currently ranked 15th, just three spots below Iowa State and five below Texas A&M, two teams with losses on their records.
The consequences of the pandemic have only added uncertainty. Ohio State has played just five games so far — and needed a rule change to make the Big Ten title game — while Clemson has played 10, with Swinney chirping that “the Big Ten had the same opportunity and they chose not to play.” The common ground they share is that both are in the top four, for now, while others are on the outside looking in.
Whenever it comes, the next discussion about playoff expansion will include nights like Tuesday, when CFP committee chairman Gary Barta found himself answering questions like, “How is this system fair?” and “What’s the point of playing games?” By Sunday, there may be little disputing the idea that college football’s recognized national championship is an opportunity afforded to a privileged few within the sport. To be fair, that’s not new — 2001 was the last time a team outside the major conferences won a national championship — but it’s the kind of paradigm this playoff was designed to eliminate.