Alabama? Always. Clemson? Four years running. Oklahoma? Make it three of the last four seasons for the Sooners.
Thank goodness for Notre Dame or the College Football Playoff would have been nothing but more of the same.
The Fighting Irish are the only CFP first-timers this season, and just the 10th school to reach the four-team playoff in five seasons. While there is more parity than ever in college football’s middle and even upper-middle class, the national championship race is still reserved for a select few.
It has made the playoff feel like a regional event, particularly in the Southeast, when the goal was the exact opposite. The Big Ten has missed the last two playoffs. The Pac-12 has been left out three times. And it looks like college football is headed for a fourth straight season of Alabama playing Clemson in the playoff with what would be the third Tigers-Tide championship game.
The guardians of the postseason insist this is not a problem, but a desire to engage more fans in more parts of the country is one of the reasons playoff expansion is inevitable.
Fans, in this case, are also customers, whether they are buying tickets, watching the playoff on television or streaming it on their phones. The larger the audience, the bigger the profits.
“It was intended to be a national event and much of that intention is the manner it’s been moved around and hasn’t gone back to the same place more than once yet,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Sunday, a few hours after the four-team field was unveiled. “I think it’s intended to be a national event and I suppose if we got to the point where we felt like there were regional elements of it that were a concern, that would be something we spend some time talking about. But ultimately we want to get those deserving teams into the four-team event. We don’t carry out our responsibilities if we don’t continually evaluate. We’re relatively early in the process now.”
For now, making the playoff a “national event” means playing the games at different sites around the country. Location, location, location. This year’s championship game is at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Jan. 7. Among this season’s playoff participants, Oklahoma is closest to Northern California, about 1,400 miles.
This would have been a perfect season for an eight-team playoff. Just look at the rankings. The committee strained over Oklahoma, Georgia or Ohio State in the fourth spot. An argument could have been made for any of the three. Why not just put them all in and add No. 7 Michigan and No. 8 UCF?
Or give the Power Five conferences an automatic bid, eliminating so much of the subjectivity and inconsistency in the selection process that drives fans nuts. Plus, every team that has a chance to win its conference is now a part of the playoff chase in November. Add three wild cards so talking heads and fans can still bicker over what teams are best — a tradition as old as sports. Maybe reserve a spot for the best team outside the Power Five conferences. Those fan bases might not be as large, but there are five conferences with 60 schools so why not keep them involved, too?
How’s this for a national event:
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 8 Washington;
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 7 UCF;
No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 6 Ohio State;
No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 5 Georgia.
Admittedly, there are logistics to sort out. Conferences would have to reassess how they crown their champions, eliminating the title games or trimming the regular season.
The arguments about whether Georgia or Michigan should get the final wild-card spot would have been more than enough to carry several hours of programing. Sure, it would still likely be Alabama and Clemson in the end, but television executives will tell you that once fans become engaged with a playoff they are more likely to stick around after their teams are out. It is one of the reasons the NCAA basketball tournament is such a long-running hit.
A small pool of championship contenders is not a new development in college football. The last team to win a national title that had never won one before was Florida in 1996.
“There’s always been cycles in college football, going back the last 100 years,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “The fact is we’re in a cycle now where Alabama’s on an up. Clemson’s on an up. Oklahoma’s on an up. Those happen to just coincide with the playoff.”
The Bowl Championship Series, or all its faults, was a huge step toward stretching college football’s appeal from coast to coast. It made SEC fans care about Pac-12 games and vice versa. By doubling the number of participants from the BCS, the playoff intended to build on that.
If it’s the same teams over and over again, that growth — and the financial growth that comes with it — will be stunted.
For now there is no great appetite for expansion among the conference commissioners in charge of the playoff.
“The question is do we want more teams? Do we want more games? Do we want to push this into the second semester?” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said about expansion on BTN. “It’ll get discussed in time, whether it’s two years from now or eight years from now because it’s on the mind of a lot of people.
“But in the short term I think we’re going to be with four teams.”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://podcastone.com/AP-Top-25-College-Football-Podcast