Commentary: Alabama vs. Ohio State another reminder of college football’s competitive imbalance
Alabama’s Najee Harris hurdled an upright Notre Dame defender during a long run. The Crimson Tide’s DeVonta Smith put the exclamation point on what should be a Heisman Trophy season with a terrific toe-tap touchdown.
Ohio State’s Trey Sermon was so dominant as a runner and receiver that he could have beaten Clemson by himself. He didn’t have to, though, because the Buckeyes’ star quarterback, Justin Fields, turned into Superman, dusting himself off after a vicious hit to his ribs while delivering six touchdown passes.
It will be Alabama and Ohio State, two of the top five programs in college football history, in Miami on Jan. 11 to play in the College Football Playoff championship game. To get there on New Year’s Day, they rode captivating performances that were perfect for this made-for-TV pandemic season, and if one were just tuning in without proper context, the spectacle and hype of the broadcast could have easily hidden just how much the sport is ailing.
I love college football and will always watch because it’s part of who I am. In the fall, it’s my personal metronome, the beat always clicking toward Saturday. But the College Football Playoff, seven years into its existence, is no longer interesting.
Alabama’s Mac Jones threw four touchdown passes and fellow Heisman Trophy finalist DeVonta Smith caught three of them in a 31-14 win over Notre Dame.
Ohio State saved us from another Alabama-Clemson national championship game, as Louisiana State did a year ago. Alabama and Clemson have been so punishingly good the last five years, they made LSU feel like a plucky underdog last season (the Tigers had already won two national championships and played for another this millennium).
Despite the NCAA’s claims to the contrary, college football has never had “competitive balance,” but the number of legitimate championship contenders has dropped to an unhealthy level.
Only six programs — the aforementioned four plus Georgia and Oregon — have won CFP games. Eleven have made the bracket, although Notre Dame (twice), Washington and Michigan State were easily handled by the sport’s two powers, and Oklahoma has become a punchline with an 0-4 record.
For perspective, the controversial Bowl Championship Series, which selected only two teams to play for a title each year from 1998-2013, had 11 different champions in 16 years and placed 15 schools onto the sport’s premier stage.
Highlights from No. 1 Alabama’s win over No. 4 Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Friday.
The natural assumption was that doubling the access by creating a four-team playoff would lead to more variability and excitement. Instead, the opposite has happened.
In 2014, nobody could have predicted Clemson’s dynastic rise under Dabo Swinney. Of course, Alabama was already established by then with Nick Saban’s first three national championships. In the last few years, Ohio State has further entrenched itself as the Big Ten’s only kingpin, creating so much space between itself and its conference foes that it apparently saved all of its good plays for the CFP semifinals because the Buckeyes knew no one would step in their way.
This may be cyclical, but if it is, the cycle isn’t ending soon. Those six programs who have won CFP games? They’re currently the top six teams in the 247 Sports 2021 Composite team recruiting rankings, with Alabama and Ohio State bringing in historically elite classes.
Some may say that this is not a problem, that we should appreciate the greatness of these programs and accept them as lords over the sport until dormant powers such as USC, Texas, Florida and Florida State can usurp the throne.
But for those who are tiring of seeing the same colors and hearing the same fight songs in these title bouts — and surely some among the CFP management committee and NCAA football oversight committee fit this description — it is time to start considering some big changes that could help to even the playing field.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields throws six touchdown passes to lead No. 3 Ohio State to a 49-28 victory over No. 2 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.
Thus far, too much focus is being put on expanding the playoff to eight teams. More access on its own will not lead to more variability in championship teams. Going from two to four has shown that, albeit with a small sample size. While No. 4 Notre Dame playing No. 5 Texas A&M, No. 3 Ohio State playing No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 2 Clemson playing No. 7 Florida could have led to entertaining first-round games, it’s highly unlikely A&M, Oklahoma or Florida would crack the title game.
A change that would definitely shift power to the peasants is lowering the scholarship limit from 85 to 75. Even lowering it to 80 could have an impact over the course of four or five recruiting classes.
The CFP and ESPN will make the call on expanding the playoff. The NCAA would have to decide that reducing full-ride football scholarships would be good for the sport’s popularity long-term, and certainly there would be issues to come out of that decision across the country. It’s been done before, most recently in 1992 when the limit moved from 95 to 85.
Lowering it again by 10 would amount to a dozen or so players each year that would not go to Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and LSU that could end up at Florida, Florida State, Michigan or Auburn. The trickle-down effect would mean that a dozen or so players that would have gone to one of those second-tier blue bloods then end up at Tennessee, Miami, Nebraska or Texas A&M, and so on.
Highlights from Ohio State’s 49-28 win over Clemson on Friday in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
The NCAA’s one-time transfer waiver is going to lead to more player movement, but the sport’s powers are sure to benefit from the ability to pluck other teams’ best players from the transfer portal.
The ability for players to profit from their name, image and likeness could be a leveling factor for programs that have been playing by the rules while others are enticing recruits by under-the-table financial inducements. Likely, it will only lead to new methods of breaking the rules.
None of those changes will shake things up like adjusting the scholarship limit.
This pandemic season was supposed to be more random and unpredictable, but ultimately the system fought for 6-0 Ohio State to get its title shot and would not even consider giving undefeated Cincinnati any consideration for the Alabama blowout spot in the bracket.
College football is at its best when 15 to 20 programs have a shot at the crown. It hasn’t felt that way the last few years, and it may take some bold decisions to bring real drama back to the sport.
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