Tramel: Parity is a problem in college football's regular season, then stays a problem in the playoff
Alabama beat Notre Dame 31-14 and Ohio State beat Clemson 49-28, and we came away from college football’s New Year’s semifinals thinking, hey, not bad theater.
That’s the low standards to which the College Football Playoff has sunk. Drama is graded on the curve.
Both games were over by the start of the fourth quarter. The only twists were that Notre Dame sort of hung in there against the Crimson Tide in the Rose-turned-Bluebonnet Bowl, and we figured Clemson would sock the Buckeyes, not the other way around.
And once again, what should be college football’s grandest day served only to remind us that this sport is plagued. This sport is ailing. This sport has problems that no one knows how to solve or even knows to solve.
The lack of parity already was apparent in the selection process. Mostly the same teams, year after year. Alabama and Clemson in six of the seven playoffs. Ohio State and OU in four of the seven. Four programs accounting for
20 of the 28 playoff available slots since the four-team playoff began in 2014.
College football long has touted its regular season as the best in sport. But that’s no longer true, if it ever was. Those incessant September mismatches are unwatchable. Then add in the repetitive results — OU and Clemson each have won six straight conference championships, for example — and the plot thins, quite quickly.
The playoff, instead of adding to intrigue, seems to have snuffed it out.
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According to research, some supplied by statistician Cody Kellner, the first seven years of the Bowl Championship Series (1998-04) and the last seven years of the BCS (2007-13) had much more parity than the first seven years of the playoff.
• Eighteen schools finished in the top four of the final BCS rankings in the first seven years of that format, and 16 finished in the top four of the final BCS rankings in the final seven years. Eleven schools have finished in the top four of the final playoff rankings.
• Thirty-six schools finished in the top 10 of the final BCS rankings in the first seven years of that format, and 33 finished in the top 10 the final seven years. Thirty-two schools have finished in the top 10 of the final playoff rankings.
• Twenty-three schools from Power 5 conferences were assigned to BCS bowls as league champion from 1998-04 (not counting the Big East), and 20 were assigned in the final seven years. But only 14 schools from Power 5 conferences have been assigned to New Year’s Six bowls as league champion during the playoff era.
That might be bearable if the playoff produced riveting football come New Year’s. Sort of how March Madness never fails to entertain, no matter how mundane college basketball’s regular season becomes.
But football’s four-team playoff has been a dud.
The playoff now has staged 14 semifinals. Seven of the 14 were literal blowouts. Finals with at least 20-point margins. Four of the seven blowouts were by margins of at least 31 points — Oregon 59-20 over Florida State (2014), Alabama 38-0 over Michigan State (2015), Clemson 31-0 over Ohio State (2016) and LSU 63-28 over OU (2019).
Only three of the 14 semifinals could be considered competitive games for four quarters — Ohio State 42-35 over Alabama (2014), Georgia 54-48 over OU in double overtime (2017) and Clemson 29-23 over Ohio State (2019).
In fairness, three of the six championship games have been classics — Alabama 45-40 over Clemson (2015), Clemson 35-31 over Alabama (2016) and Alabama 26-23 over Georgia in overtime (2017).
The fixes for the regular-season malaise are obvious. Get rid of mismatches against outmanned opponents. Expand the playoff to eight teams. The former would make for more competitive games; the latter would increase the number of games that matter.
But an expanded playoff would only exacerbate the postseason problem. If Alabama is going to rout the No. 4 seed, going to dominate Notre Dame or OU or Michigan State, what would the Crimson Tide do to the No. 8 seed? Alabama-Cincinnati seems like a good idea until the game kicks off.
Maybe quarterfinals matching seeds 4-5 or 3-6 would be fascinating games. But the price apparently would be a couple of unwatchable games. A week before what history tells us will be more disinteresting football.
So I don’t know the answer. I just know college football has a problem, and what should be its best day often is a sad presentation of what the sport should be.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.