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The College Football Playoff Keeps Giving Us Alabama and Clemson Blowouts. Does That Mean the System Is Broken?

Taking stock of a postseason structure defined by familiar matchups, semifinal routs, and relentless sadness for Notre Dame and the Big Ten

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

2019 is yet another year ending in a number, and as such, college football fans are arguing about the process of determining a national champion.

This year’s beef stems from last week’s two massively noncompetitive College Football Playoff semifinals. Clemson’s tiger ate Notre Dame’s puny leprechaun during a 30-3 snoozer, and then Alabama took a 28-0 lead on Oklahoma before Nick Saban let the Sooners offer a respectable second-half showing so he could have something to yell about.

And although there was relatively little uproar about the four teams the committee placed into the field on Selection Sunday, 20-20 hindsight led the public to question why Notre Dame and Oklahoma had been included in the first place. WHY NOT GEORGIA?, people shouted, since the Bulldogs had done the impossible and played Alabama tight in December’s SEC title game. This argument took a hit when Georgia lost handily to Texas in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday. In fact, the fifth-, seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-ranked teams in the final rankings all lost bowl games, making the committee’s picks appear pretty decent. It seems the only team with somewhat valid qualms about its snubbing was sixth-ranked Ohio State, which excluded itself from the playoff earlier this season by losing by 29 points at Purdue.

So the problem, it seems, is the system. Semifinal blowouts have become commonplace in the playoff era. In 2015, Oregon whupped Florida State 59-20. The following season, both semis were decided by at least 20 points, including Alabama’s 38-0 romp over Michigan State. Things played out similarly in the third edition of the playoff, when Clemson shut out Ohio State 31-0 and Bama beat Washington 24-7. Last season the Crimson Tide dominated Clemson 24-6. We’ve had a few good games; last year’s Rose Bowl semifinal, a 54-48 Georgia overtime win against Oklahoma, was a legit classic. But fans and media members are suddenly wondering: Did we reconfigure this entire sport to get blowouts? Why are these playoff games always so bad?


In terms of entertainment, the playoff semifinals have been a colossal failure. After all, the entire bowl system is a series of meaningless games meant to fill cable-television time slots, and fans genuinely love them. Look: You can call a game the “Cheez-It Bowl” and college football fans will make it the top-rated show on TV. We just want to watch college football, and yet the playoff has somehow disappointed.

Of course, the playoff has meaning outside of sheer entertainment. The most important thing the playoff can do is ensure a champion’s legitimacy. Even if every single semifinal for the rest of time features two blowouts, I’ll be fine with that. Because the worst part of the Bowl Championship Series era wasn’t actually the games, or the teams involved—it was that every year, there were multiple teams that genuinely believed they were robbed of a shot at the title. Just ask 2004 Auburn or 2009 Boise State.

It would have been easier to skip the playoff this year and go straight to a national championship showdown between Alabama and Clemson. But then 12-0 Notre Dame would have had a serious gripe. The playoff exists so that Clemson could dismantle any potential argument that the Irish were even close to a championship-caliber team this season.

And so I am here to praise the blowouts the College Football Playoff has brought us. Look at the names of the teams that have been brutally wrecked on a national stage: Florida State, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. Nobody is lukewarm about these programs. Either you’re a fan of them or you simply cannot stand them. You’d rather be thrown down a well than stuck in a conversation with a die-hard fan of one of these teams. And the playoff brought us their magnificent destruction.

I will never forget Jameis Winston forgetting how to throw a football:

Or the score of Clemson–Ohio State:

Or the Tigers scoring massive touchdown after massive touchdown against the utterly helpless Fighting Irish:

Any system that left these teams out would have produced an offseason of unbearable screeds by supporters of these teams. (Why is it always the fans of the teams with every conceivable advantage who believe most strongly that the world is biased against them?) Instead, the playoff built these teams up by including them and let their inferiority be exposed to the world. The best way to prove that certain teams don’t belong in the championship picture is to have those teams prove it themselves.

I believe in playoff expansion with access given to non-power-conference teams. A primary argument against this is that an expanded playoff would lead to even more blowouts. I’m OK with that! I will never stop stumping for schools from outside of the power conferences until they get their fair shot—and if they get their shot and get blown out, well, that’s fine!

And while we have repeatedly endured blowouts in the semifinals, all four national championship games during the playoff era have been bangers. The first edition featured a third-string quarterback lifting Ohio State to a national title, and somehow, the games have only improved since. Next Bama and Clemson played a 45-40 thriller; then Deshaun Watson became a college football legend with a 420-yard performance against the sport’s best defense and a last-second game-winning touchdown; and then a true freshman quarterback subbed into the most important game of the year at halftime and threw a gorgeous, game-winning touchdown in overtime. This year, what appears to be the best Alabama team of all time is meeting a vaunted Clemson team again. It seems impossible for the championship game to keep getting better every season, but just in case, I’ve consulted former Friday Night Lights screenwriters to emotionally prepare myself for potential finishes. Most of the scenarios they’ve come up with begin with Alabama missed field goals—you won’t believe how they end.