5 years in, col­lege play­off fields lack­ing va­ri­ety

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The fifth-ever Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off bracket was re­vealed with lit­tle sus­pense, prac­ti­cally no con­tro­versy and few le­git­i­mate com­plaints from Ge­or­gia and Ohio State, who were snubbed for the fourth spot in fa­vor of Ok­la­homa.

Though some of the sport’s tastemak­ers were swayed by Ge­or­gia’s strong per­for­mance in a 35-28 los­ing effort to Alabama in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence ti­tle game, the CFP’s se­lec­tion com­mit­tee went by the book in re­ward­ing a con­fer­ence cham­pion, played it safe in tak­ing a one-loss team over a two-loss team and made the de­ci­sion to re­ward the team that had the bet­ter sea­son. In other words, the com­mit­tee did ex­actly what it was de­signed to do.

But lost in the ar­gu­ments about whether the play­off should be four or eight teams and the hair-split­ting about whether four best teams ac­tu­ally means four most de­serv­ing is a struc­tural prob­lem within the sport that the play­off was de­signed to solve but has made worse.

Since the in­cep­tion of the four-team for­mat, there now have been 20 play­off spots awarded. With Notre Dame mak­ing it for the first time this year, they have now gone to a grand to­tal of 10 schools.

Even in a sport that has been defined by dy­nas­ties and epochs of great­ness, at what point does the re­li­a­bil­ity of col­lege foot­ball’s top pro­grams be­ing in the play­off start to be­come a lit­tle bit stale?

For the third time in the last four years, Alabama, Ok­la­homa and Clem­son made the play­off in the same year. While this year’s matchups look good on pa­per, Las Ve­gas odd­s­mak­ers have in­stalled Clem­son and Alabama as dou­ble-digit fa­vorites, which means they will be heav­ily fa­vored to meet for the fourth con­sec­u­tive year in the play­off cham­pi­onship game on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Cal­i­for­nia.

Hey, doesn’t some­one else want to be part of this thing?

Look, it’s no­body’s fault. The play­off is sup­posed to be about ex­cel­lence, not par­tic­i­pa­tion tro­phies, and you can’t ar­gue against Alabama, Clem­son and Ok­la­homa, which are a com­bined 153-14 over the last four sea­sons. Credit to them for be­ing so far ahead of their com­pe­ti­tion that they are usu­ally able to make it through their con­fer­ence sea­sons with zero or one losses.

But if the pri­mary ar­gu­ment against the old Bowl Cham­pi­onship Se­ries was that it didn’t give enough teams a fair shot to com­pete for a na­tional cham­pi­onship, the play­off has ac­tu­ally seemed to nar­row the field rather than ex­pand it.

In the final seven years of the BCS, for in­stance, five schools won na­tional cham­pi­onships and 10 played for it. Be­tween 2007 and 2010, you didn’t have a sin­gle pro­gram get to the ti­tle game more than once.

That’s not an ar­gu­ment for the old sys­tem, by the way. It stunk. Over the his­tory of the BCS, some de­serv­ing teams were ex­cluded and some teams sailed into a ti­tle shot by rid­ing an un­de­feated record up the polls with­out enough sched­ule sub­stance be­hind it.

But if noth­ing else, some of those BCS matchups felt ex­cit­ing be­cause we weren’t see­ing the same teams year af­ter year af­ter year. (The clos­est the BCS came to feel­ing repet­i­tive was when Ohio State got blown out by SEC teams in 2006 and 2007.)

Some of the blame here might rest on the shoul­ders of con­fer­ence re­align­ment, which re­ally started to hit just as the BCS was wind­ing down.

The ad­di­tion of teams to the SEC and At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence might have ex­panded the sport’s tele­vi­sion foot­print, but it wa­tered down the sched­ules to the point where good teams were play­ing each other less of­ten, mak­ing the path some­what eas­ier year in and year out.

If the SEC’s sched­ule ro­ta­tion, for in­stance, had landed on Ge­or­gia and Alabama play­ing each other the last two years, it would have had a pro­found ef­fect on the play­off pic­ture. In­stead, they won’t play again in the reg­u­lar sea­son un­til 2021.

For the Big 12, on the other hand, los­ing Texas A&M, Mis­souri, Colorado and Ne­braska and re­plac­ing them with TCU and West Vir­ginia made the con­fer­ence sig­nificantly weaker, with fewer pro­grams in the league that were equipped to re­cruit at Ok­la­homa’s level. Texas is just now get­ting back on its feet un­der Tom Her­man and could be­come a le­git­i­mate ob­sta­cle in the fu­ture, but for the last few years, Ok­la­homa’s path has been pretty clear.

And given the way those schools are op­er­at­ing rel­a­tive to their peers, there’s lit­tle rea­son to think the makeup of the play­off will look sig­nificantly differ­ent over the next five years. You’re go­ing to see plenty of Alabama, Clem­son, Ok­la­homa, Ge­or­gia and Ohio State in the mix for those cov­eted spots go­ing for­ward.

The ques­tion, since we’re not go­ing back­ward to the BCS sys­tem or smaller con­fer­ences, is what can be changed to spice things up?

One rad­i­cal idea would be to over­haul sched­ul­ing mod­els and come up with an NFL-like for­mula that would add tougher op­po­nents both in and out­side the con­fer­ence based on what teams did the pre­vi­ous year.

Es­sen­tially, it would work like a golf hand­i­cap — the bet­ter you are, the tougher sched­ule you have to face.

But given how un­likely that is to hap­pen — what would Alabama do with­out its Novem­ber date with The Ci­tadel? — the next-best idea is play­off ex­pan­sion that starts the week af­ter the reg­u­lar sea­son with higher seeds play­ing at home venues and with­out a month off to heal the bumps and bruises.

Based upon the com­mit­tee’s rank­ings this year, the quar­terfinal matchups would have looked like this: Cen­tral Flor­ida at Alabama, Michi­gan at Clem­son, Ohio State at Notre Dame, Ge­or­gia at Ok­la­homa.

Only some­one who hates fun would take the cur­rent slate of semifinals over the va­ri­ety and spice of those matchups and sto­ry­lines.

Make no mis­take, the cur­rent play­off has been an im­prove­ment for col­lege foot­ball. But af­ter see­ing the same teams pop up year af­ter year in the fourteam for­mat, it soon will need to offer some­thing new.

Dan Wolken Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

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