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Why Is It So Hard for New Teams to Make the College Football Playoff?

All at once, almost every would-be first-time playoff team dropped out of the race on the season's final weekend. Does the final four need fresh blood?

Last Friday morning, one of college football’s most subtly surprising seasons in recent memory was oozing with possibility. Even as one team had played all fall at a level that looked leaps and bounds above the rest of the competition, it seemed as if the game might hold on to a shred of novelty for the next month, before the inevitability of another Alabama championship.

Before Week 13’s relevant games began, 10 teams held to a realistic, if in some cases slim, hope of a College Football Playoff spot. Five of them had never made the final four before. The odds seemed in favor of a new-look playoff field that would have been a refreshing break from a repetitive endgame whose only major development over the past five years has been the disappearance of Oregon from perennial contention.

Then the games started. They were wild (LSU–Texas A&M) and heartbreaking (McKenzie Milton’s injury), snowy (the Apple Cup) and frenetic (West Virginia–Oklahoma). If you didn’t have fun watching those 36 or so hours of action, you should probably stop reading now—because it doesn’t get any better than that. Once the scores were in and the AP ballots were cast, Sunday morning was a sobering reality. Everyone’s pulse collectively took eight hours to slow after the 146th point scored in College Station, and suddenly, things looked a lot like they always do.

There had been upsets—but they were mostly perpetrated by the usual suspects, who aren’t at all used to being underdogs. Ohio State, with its two prior playoff berths, exposed Michigan’s elite defense in a 62–39 victory. The Wolverines, whose AP ranking fell from No. 4 to No. 8, were knocked out of CFP contention by The Game for the second time in three years.

Washington State, at 10–1 and cruising, lost its sixth consecutive Apple Cup to Washington. The Cougars were No. 8 in the CFP rankings, and a Pac-12 title game win would have garnered strong playoff consideration, especially with help from other leagues’ finales. Now with two losses, they’re out of the running—and out of the top 10 in the latest AP Poll.

UCF, thanks to a relatively weak schedule and its place outside the Power 5, had a tricky path to the playoff. But on Friday morning, there were imaginative ways to get them there: A Clemson loss, or a Michigan loss, or a Notre Dame loss, some wonky title game outcomes, or some combination of several of those results. The Knights won decisively on Friday night, and they’re off to the American Athletic Conference title game for a second straight year—but their star quarterback, Milton, suffered right knee injury so severe he was rushed into emergency surgery. Though UCF moved up to No. 8 in Sunday’s AP rankings, the Knights will be hard-pressed to rise any higher due to the loss of Milton.

Which brings us to Notre Dame. As secure as Alabama’s path to the playoff looks—the undefeated Crimson Tide would likely get in with a win or an improbable loss against No. 4 Georgia in Saturday’s SEC title game—the Irish are the only true lock. And yes, they’ve never been there before. But this is Notre Dame. It’s a brand-name power with the simplest path to the playoff of any FBS program: If it goes undefeated, it’s almost assured a spot. That’s that. The Irish won’t play again until whichever semifinal they’re assigned and don’t have to scoreboard-watch in the regular season until they lose a game. Forgive me for being just a little bit bored.

Right now, the most likely playoff field looks like some combination of Notre Dame, Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State or Oklahoma. Between them, they boast 12 playoff appearances and four titles during the four-year playoff era. After next’s weekend’s slate of lackluster conference championship games, it’s a near-certainty that the committee will name a field with three of the four teams who competed last year. Yawn.

The playoff era was supposed to usher in more possibilities, more surprises, if not a more diverse group of champions. It hasn’t—but that’s through no fault of the men who designed it. Four is better than two, and in year five of the playoff, the arguments that eight isn’t better than four are fewer and farther between. I spent the past month reporting an ever-evolving story about UCF, talking to anyone who’d take my call about the system that looked poised to keep an undefeated Knights team out of the final four for the second consecutive year. Miton’s injury complicated UCF’s complaint—it’s a legitimate reason to push the Knights to the lower half of the top 10—but I’m still struck by the tone of nearly all of my interviews: A team like UCF needs to prove itself, but any new name in the mix is good for the college game.

That’s what CFP director Bill Hancock told me, as it related to UCF—but that holds true for Washington State, or even Michigan or LSU, two traditional powers who have come up short in the first five playoff seasons. New blood, any new blood, makes this whole proposition more interesting, not to mention how much it spices up the pre-semifinal media availabilities where we’d otherwise ask the same players (in almost identical hotel ballrooms to the ones they’d sat in the year before) how this year’s playoff experience is different than last year’s. One of the worst things about college football in 2018 is that it’s not that different at all.

During my reporting for the UCF story, I also got a chance to sit in on a conference call with Orlando media and ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit. Sure, Herbstreit is a commentator, not a decision-maker, but ESPN’s message, for better or worse, is loud enough to mold the college football picture. Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, said on the call that he used to think an eight-team playoff would devalue the regular season. Now, he says, the playoff is “the same old brands and same old teams,” and he points out that an eight-team field would not only let in the best Group of Five team in some years, but also a host of new faces in almost every year.

Something about what Herbstreit said that day made me wonder if I, and many other voices that have criticized the playoff at times, are too deep down a rabbit hole. A UCF (or Boise State, or Fresno State, or Applachian State) playoff berth would be a blast, but what about Wazzu? What about Florida or Kentucky or LSU or West Virginia? At this point, a new face, any new face, even a team like the Gators with three titles in the past 25 years, would be a breath of fresh air.

At some point, of course, the expansion has to stop, and critics of a wider field will say this could lead to further growth. But that’s a massive leap. The playoff field needs to expand no further than the point at which every playoff rankings release feels like Groundhog Day. For now, though, novelty is a concept left behind in November.