I fell in love with college football because it was the sport of chaos. A shocking upset, an overtime screw-up, a surprise display of brilliance, a ludicrous special-teams play—any of these things could kill an otherwise undefeated team’s national championship hopes. Once upon a time, this sport demanded perfection.
And then came 2014’s introduction of the College Football Playoff, a status-quo machine whose selection process boils down to a committee holding unimaginative deliberations and a gray-haired man in a suit appearing on TV to excuse the imperfections of power-conference teams while invalidating the perfection of anyone else. The days of a freak loss eliminating a team from national title contention are gone, so long as that team is in the right conference. This year, the debate over who should get the fourth and final spot in the playoff came down to determining whether Texas A&M or Notre Dame had the less embarrassing blowout loss. A&M lost to Alabama 52-24 on Oct. 3; Notre Dame fell to Clemson 34-10 on Saturday. Neither result was apparently disqualifying. Meanwhile, three undefeated teams were all but ignored. During a season in which most nonconference games were canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic, the committee members somehow decided that these unbeaten Group of Five conference teams were significantly worse than power-conference teams who got their asses kicked, and never even entertained the notion of changing their minds.
Only five of the 130 FBS teams have made multiple College Football Playoff appearances, and four of them are in this season’s field. That includes three (Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State) that have combined to fill 16 of the 28 total spots in the playoff’s seven-year history. Their inclusion this time around is nearly indisputable. Those three went a combined 27-1 this year, with 24 wins coming by double digits. (There is minor squabbling that 6-0 Ohio State didn’t play enough games to warrant a playoff spot, but the Buckeyes had an average margin of victory of 21.5 in those six games.) The lone loss of the bunch was Clemson’s double-overtime defeat at Notre Dame on Nov. 7, a game in which the Tigers were missing multiple defensive starters and superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence, as the projected top pick in the 2021 NFL draft tested positive for COVID-19.
But Clemson got a rematch against the Fighting Irish this weekend and proved that the earlier loss was a fluke, utterly humiliating Notre Dame in the ACC championship game. The Tigers dominated from start to finish, outgaining the Irish by nearly 300 yards and keeping them out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had fewer penalties and fewer turnovers than Clemson—but allowed 8.2 yards per play while gaining just 4.5. It proved beyond a doubt that Notre Dame is not the best team in the country, and should not be given national title consideration. A day later, the playoff committee announced that it will give Notre Dame a shot at the national title anyway.
The committee’s logic has been inconsistent over the first six years of the playoff era, but it seemed to have at least a few informal rules. The first was that you can’t make the playoff if you get blown out. The committee’s willingness to forgive close losses eliminated some of the drama that came with knowing a team’s national title hopes could be dashed by a ridiculous last-second score, but this was sensible. If an otherwise exceptional team loses on a field goal as time expires, it might still be the sport’s best team. Take the 2016 Clemson group led by Deshaun Watson.
If a team loses by four touchdowns, however, it probably isn’t a legitimate championship contender. Just ask Ohio State, given its experiences in both 2017 and 2018. Before this season, only one team had ever reached the playoff after losing a game by more than 20 points—2017 Georgia, which made up for its 40-17 loss to Auburn that November by beating Auburn 28-7 in the following month’s SEC championship game.
That Notre Dame is in this season’s playoff is the least defensible choice the committee has made in seven years. They lost by 24 points yesterday, in a neutral-site game against another playoff team. What’s the thinking here? That a similar situation 12 days from now will turn out differently? That the national championship game will be moved to South Bend and Lawrence will test positive for COVID again?
Notre Dame had its shot and got demolished. So did Texas A&M. Meanwhile, some teams that went undefeated will never get a shot. Cincinnati won the American Athletic Conference—which is generally considered to be the strongest non–Power Five league—with a 9-0 record and seven double-digit wins. Coastal Carolina went 11-0 and beat 10-1 BYU in the most fun game of the season. San José State went 7-0 with seven double-digit wins, including a 34-20 victory over perennial non-power-conference powerhouse Boise State.
How does the playoff committee know for certain that these teams are worse than Notre Dame and Texas A&M? Well, it doesn’t. The Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC canceled their nonconference slates this season. The ACC and Big 12 limited nonconference play to one game per team, with their member schools going an unconvincing 9-6 against FBS opponents in those games. Cincinnati, Coastal, and San José State combined to play only one game against power-conference competition: Coastal’s 38-23 beatdown of Kansas in its season opener. The 26 non–Power Five opponents Cincy, Coastal, and SJSU defeated had just seven combined games against power-conference foes, winning three. The last time Cincinnati played a power-conference team was in January’s Birmingham Bowl against Boston College. The Bearcats won 38-6; in their two games against Boston College this year, Clemson and Notre Dame combined to beat the Eagles by 20 points.
Advanced metrics put Cincinnati right up there with the best teams in the sport. Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings—which slightly outperform Las Vegas odds—rank Cincinnati as the fifth-best team in the country, with Notre Dame ninth and A&M 12th. Cincinnati is also ranked third in the Simple Ratings System, with Notre Dame fifth and A&M 29th. The Colley Matrix, which was used by the BCS and is still considered a national champion selector by the NCAA, has Cincinnati, Notre Dame, and A&M ranked second, eighth, and 12th, respectively. (Colley also has Coastal Carolina third. I’m a big fan of the Colley Matrix.) The Billingsley Report has Notre Dame fourth, Cincinnati fifth, and A&M sixth. Cincinnati wasn’t just undefeated: It finished the season with more wins against top-25 teams and more wins against teams with winning records than either Notre Dame or A&M. They ranked among the FBS top 20 in scoring, total offense, and total defense; the only other teams to do that were Clemson, BYU, and Oklahoma. Advanced metrics don’t factor in conference politics, and as such can rank teams without bias.
There is no evidence of power-conference superiority in 2020. But the committee apparently lives in a world where crappy power-conference teams like Georgia Tech can rout good non-power-conference teams like UCF—not in the real world, where the opposite happened. Somehow, 8-3 Iowa State was higher in the final playoff rankings (no. 10) than 11-0 Coastal Carolina (no. 12)—even though Coastal defeated Louisiana, who defeated Iowa State 31-14 in Ames. Louisiana, who went 8-1 with its only loss to undefeated Coastal, was ranked nine spots below Iowa State, a team it beat handily head-to-head.
When asked to explain the committee’s rationale last week, chair Gary Barta sounded like the worst kid on the high school debate team stalling for time. He eventually explained that Coastal was docked for its close win against Troy, even though Coastal was ranked below Iowa State before that close win against Troy. The internal logic in Barta’s weekly explanations is complete nonsense.
This is sadly unsurprising. We’ve been talking about the committee’s refusal to properly consider non-power-conference teams for years now. UCF went undefeated in 2017, and did not make the top 10 of the playoff rankings. UCF went undefeated again in 2018, and only got to eighth in the rankings—not even close to the top four. The playoff is literally run by the power conferences, and they refuse to give anything away. Upon voting to implement the College Football Playoff in 2012, ACC commissioner John Swofford said, “The access for conferences throughout the FBS is going to be better in this system than the current system. That’s an important part of this.” This has proved a useful lie, giving the pretense of thoroughness to a process that actually eliminates half of the sport’s teams from consideration before a given season kicks off. The 13-person selection committee (which by rule includes athletic directors from all five power conferences, and also counts five other members with ties to power-conference institutions) can stir up whatever justifications it needs to ensure that all four playoff spots go to power-conference teams.
But this season’s selection is different. In years past, there were at least some results to back up the notion that one-loss power-conference teams deserved a spot in the playoff over undefeated non-power-conference teams. This season, those results don’t exist. The few inter-conference data points we do have aren’t flattering to the power conferences—in fact, they suggest that Coastal Carolina is better than Iowa State. And yet, every edition of the rankings had Iowa State above Coastal. Oklahoma was sixth in the final rankings, implying it almost made the playoff. The Sooners lost to Iowa State and Kansas State, teams that lost to Louisiana and Arkansas State, both of which lost to Coastal Carolina. The committee’s steadfast belief that some schools are simply better as a birthright never wavered.
Cincinnati deserves the fourth and final playoff spot. It’s the right choice from a football perspective, and it’s also the right choice from a narrative perspective: The Bearcats are the best team in the country that has not already lost to one of the other playoff teams. The playoff was sold as a way for every team to have a shot at proving it’s the best in the FBS. It’s revealed itself to be a means through which power-conference teams are given multiple opportunities to fail and non-power-conference teams are never given the opportunity to succeed.
Cincinnati was ranked eighth in the committee’s final rankings. Not fourth. Not fifth. Not sixth. Not seventh. The Bearcats never stood a chance.
This, of course, comes down to money. The College Football Playoff has an annual base payout of $66 million to each of the Power Five conferences, with every league that has a playoff participant taking home an additional $6 million; the playoff splits a combined $90 million between the other five conferences. Things will stay the same for as long as people keep acting like only the big leagues matter and like the little ones are a sideshow.
The 2020 college football season was chaotic. Hundreds of games were canceled. Some teams played as many as 11 games; others played as few as four. Conferences changed their rules up until the moment that their championship games were played. It would’ve felt fitting for a season unlike any other to also have a playoff unlike any other. Yet from this chaos, the College Football Playoff committee produced a bracket featuring the same damn teams that always make the field. It’s a statement confirming that the system is designed to guarantee this outcome regardless of what happens. We should never expect anything better.