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Rivalry Rematches Are the Future of the College Football Playoff

The College Football Playoff field is set with Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Ohio State, setting up a potential championship game rematch of The Game. Is that a bad thing?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It often turns out that the College Football Playoff selection committee’s job is pretty easy. This year, the regular season ended with two undefeated teams, Georgia and Michigan. There were also two one-loss teams, Ohio State and TCU. Everybody else in major college football has at least two losses, and the College Football Playoff has never featured a team with two losses. (Apologies to USC, which entered the conference championship weekend with one loss but lost by 23 to Utah.) All that chaos and all that commotion, all that airtime and all those debates, all those plane trips and those hotel nights for the committee—all for something that could’ve been decided by simply looking at the loss column at the end of the season.

There is, however, one massive wrinkle in the field. Michigan and Ohio State are involved, even though these two teams played November 26 in Columbus, and Michigan beat the ever-loving filth out of Ohio State. They dragged the Buckeyes to hell then made them pose for pictures. They ripped their doors off like a bear that smelled food inside a car. They had four 70-yard touchdowns and won 45-23—the Buckeyes’ largest home loss in the 21st century. Michigan demolished Ohio State so thoroughly that a hospital on OSU’s campus spontaneously started collapsing. OSU-Michigan is always billed as a season-defining showdown between the two rivals—it’s literally called “The Game”—and it sure seemed like Michigan defined Ohio State’s season on that November Saturday afternoon. They defined Ohio State’s season as one that would end without a championship, because their biggest rival was three touchdowns better than them.

But now Ohio State will have the opportunity to win a national championship. If the Buckeyes beat Georgia—admittedly, a big “if”—they might even have a chance to play Michigan again in the title game. College Football Playoff selection committee chair Boo Corrigan said on ESPN’s selection show that the prospect of a rematch “was not talked about in the room,” and that the committee was simply trying to pick the best four teams. But they’ve given Ohio State a spectacularly valuable Uno reverse card: Ohio State not only has a chance to erase the shame of the Michigan loss, they potentially have a chance to take the sport’s biggest title from the very team who humiliated them in Columbus. And if they pull it off, maybe The Game will have just been, you know, A Game.

College football is historically not a sport of rematches. In the NFL, teams get two shots a year at their divisional rivals, and it’s entirely possible for teams to meet a third time in the playoffs. In college football though, nope! You get one chance to play your biggest rival, generally near the end of the season for maximum anticipation. If you lose, you have to wait until next year. That’s roughly 364 days of listening to your neighbors and coworkers brag about how Tech beat State; 364 days of thinking next year will be different. Sometimes it ends in a win, and you get a beautiful, emotional payoff for your 364 days of despair. But sometimes you lose again, and you get another 364 days of suffering.

At first, it seemed like the College Football Playoff was committed to preserving that beautiful and cruel setup. The committee’s rules didn’t specifically ban rematches, but it did tell the committee to consider “head-to-head competition” when ranking “otherwise comparable teams.” Essentially: If two teams are 11-1, but one beat the other, pick the team that won. (The rules also tell the committee to “avoid regular-season rematches when assigning teams to bowls,” but that only applies to New Year’s Six bowl games, not the four playoff teams.) And for the first six years of the playoff, the committee never included a team with a regular-season loss to another team in the field. There were no rematches. There wasn’t even the potential for a rematch. It felt like a strong statement: If you lose to a team, sorry! They might win a championship while you sit at home.

But in the last three years, the committee has shown that said early lack of rematches was probably a coincidence. In 2020, Clemson routed Notre Dame 34-10 in the ACC Championship Game, and yet the committee put both Clemson and Notre Dame in the playoff field. Perhaps it felt justified by the fact that the ACC Championship was itself a rematch of an earlier game in the season in which Notre Dame beat Clemson—in double OT at home, when Clemson’s star QB Trevor Lawrence was out due to COVID. I called it the worst selection in the committee’s history, especially considering an undefeated Cincinnati was left out of the playoff entirely. Luckily, both teams lost in the semifinals.

Last year, we actually got a playoff rematch in the title game. Alabama beat Georgia 41-24 in the SEC Championship, but both teams made the playoff field, won their semifinals, and met in the national championship game, where Georgia beat Alabama 33-18. Georgia won the title, because their neutral-site championship game victory over Alabama was more important than Alabama’s neutral-site championship game victory over Georgia. Alabama actually outscored Georgia in the two games, but ended the season feeling like a loser. Nobody complained too much, because Georgia winning its first national championship since 1980 was a better story than Alabama winning again. But this felt like a situation that called for a rubber match, rather than a coronation.

As a college football fan, the concept of a rematch is offensive to me—but I think I’m gonna have to get used to it. It’s going to start with the conference title games. Historically, leagues have set up conference championships by division. In most cases, rivals like Ohio State and Michigan are in the same division, to ensure they play every year and prevent a title game rematch. But that strategy has led to a lot of boring championship games—yesterday’s Big Ten matchup between Michigan and Purdue was a snoozer unless you bet on the 16.5-point spread—so most conferences are ditching the divisional setup in favor of having the two teams with the best records play in the conference title game. The Pac-12 did it this year; the ACC is doing it next year, and the Big Ten and SEC plan on ditching divisions when they add new teams in 2024 and 2025, respectively. A division-less setup led to two rematches this weekend that shaped the final playoff rankings: Utah beating USC for the second time this season in the Pac-12 title game Friday night, and Kansas State earning a series split with TCU in the Big 12 on Saturday.

But it will also start to happen in the playoff regularly when the playoff field triples in size from four teams to 12 in 2024. In fact, current projections of what a 12-team field would look like if the format were in place this season reveal that almost every team in the field would have played somebody else in the field—only Clemson and Tulane would have played none of the other 11 teams, with 10 of the 12 teams potentially matching up against a team they have already played. It’s entirely plausible to imagine teams like Ohio State and Michigan playing The Game in the regular season, meeting up a week later in the Big Ten championship game, then playing a third time in a national championship game.

And hey, maybe that will be a good thing. Regular-season matchups between rivals won’t lose meaning just because there’s less at stake—and postseason matchups between bitter rivals can be incredibly meaningful. (Remember when North Carolina beat Duke in the Final Four in Coach K’s final game?)

Ohio State might play Michigan in the championship game after losing to them in the regular season—and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Clearly the selection committee doesn’t think so. It would be a matchup of two great teams on the biggest stage in the sport. It would add a new dimension to one of the sport’s all-time greatest rivalries. It would be remembered for decades. But maybe—just maybe—Michigan will kick Ohio State’s ass even harder than they did last month. We won’t have to worry about the implications of rematches like this one, if the team that wins the first game does us a favor and wins the second as well.