Expansion holds the key
Adding teams to playoff field may go long way to bringing parity to college football
NEW ORLEANS — College football has never had real parity.
The playoff format was created to give more teams a chance to win the national title, but in reality it has highlighted how few programs can even dream of doing so.
Playoff expansion is brought up as a way to level the playing field. Even though four teams often seem like more than enough, the current playoff structure exacerbates the imbalance that limits the sport’s growth.
The biggest impediment to parity is talent distribution. Demographics, culture and population shifts have created a massive disparity of that heavily favors southern schools. When it comes to recruiting, each year the rich just get richer.
Playoff expansion would allow every team — though some more legitimately than others — to tell recruits: “Come here and you can play in the playoff.”
There are many proponents of an eight-team playoff in which Power Five conference champions receiving automatic bids along with at least one team from the other five FBS leagues.
This year’s elite teams included LSU, Clemson and Ohio State. Oklahoma made the final four, but was clearly not in that class. The Tigers from the SEC and ACC met Monday night in the sixth College Football Playoff championship game.
Clemson was trying to make it three national titles in four seasons. LSU was looking for its third in 17 years, and the SEC’s 12th in the period.
This will be the fifth straight season the title game will match two teams from the Southeast. Include the Bowl Championship Series days and seven of the last nine national championship games have featured only teams from the Deep South.
Not everyone sees Southern dominance as a potential problem for college football.
ESPN’s Rece Davis said the very best teams in college football now have a long reach when it comes to recruiting the bluest of blue-chippers.
“I think what’s happening is that the sport is becoming more national, but it’s doing so with brands that are regional only because they have state names attached to them,” Davis said. “But Alabama is a national brand. LSUis going to become that. I think Clemson has become that.”
Ohio State is in that class, the one school above the Mason-Dixon line consistently recruiting at that level. Georgia has moved toward that class while not being able to get past SEC West powers Alabama and LSU.
Media, both traditional and social, allows all schools to put their brands in front of players who live outside their traditional, regional recruiting territory.
That should give some hope to fans of Oklahoma, Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska and other programs that once routinely contended for national titles.
There are other obstacles, and all roads seem to lead back to recruiting.
Joe Klatt, a former quarterback at the University of Colorado and currently a Fox analyst, said college football has structural issues that work against competitive balance.
“We operate as college football and we try to crown a champion of college football. And yet we have leagues operating in very different ways,” Klatt said.
Scheduling is the most obvious difference between leagues, but it’s not just that.
Current recruiting rules help Southern schools protect their turf, Klatt said. Unlimited unofficial visits by recruits benefit schools with lots of talented players close to their campuses.
Tweaking those rules could help balance the scales a bit. As could the NCAAallowing players to earn money from their names, images and likenesses, Klatt suggested.
Being the best player at Penn State might be more lucrative than being the third or fourth best player at Alabama.
The growing divide is not just between conferences — the gap is widening within leagues, too. The very best teams have separated from the rest — whether its Clemson in the ACC, Ohio State in the Big Ten or Oklahoma in the Big 12.
Expansion seems inevitable. And change is likely coming to rules regarding compensation for name, image and likeness, but, again, it will take a while.
For now, major college football will remain a sport in which a small upperclass competes for the national championship and the rest relish the consolation prizes.
Playoff expansion may help more teams have a legitimate shot at the national title.