It’s O.K. for College Football’s Playoff and New Year’s Schedules to Play by Different Rules

Semifinal Saturday fell three days before New Year’s Day this year, which turned college football's two biggest days into two very different parties.
Publish date:

December can be a slog in college football; great games are looming, you just know it, but first there’s the Cure Bowl, a bazillion-hour rainstorm parked over the First Responder Bowl and whatever madness took hold of the Cheez-It Bowl. It took until New Year’s Day for bowl season to deliver a slate of great teams playing high-level football: Ohio State held off a late Washington comeback in the Rose Bowl, Texas upset Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, UCF lost for the first time since 2016 in the Fiesta Bowl—and none of it mattered.

The College Football Playoff semifinals, which were played on New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve for the first four years of the format, had been over for days. Those games were held Saturday, Dec. 29, and the championship, between Alabama and Clemson, looms Monday. Instead of history-making stakes, New Year’s Day gave us upsets, exciting football, tradition. It was a blast. What does that say, then, about the playoff itself, with its recurring characters and penchant for blowouts and perennial contenders and the unceasing debate over how this whole operation could be done better?

The answer is that it doesn’t say much at all. In the current system, an entertaining slate of New Year’s Six bowl games is just that, and a dull evening of semifinals is something else entirely. Georgia players and fans crowed during the Cotton Bowl as Notre Dame got eviscerated, suggesting the Irish’s spot should have been the Bulldogs’ (no matter that if Georgia had gotten a berth, it would have been most likely at the expense of Oklahoma, not Notre Dame)—and then Georgia lost to Texas three days later. The transitive property of playoff inclusion should have died there, but it’ll be back next year, because the most entertaining and certain thing about college football’s current postseason is the debate, followed by the complaining and clamoring for something different.

Those sideplots will temporarily fade as the two best teams in the country prepare to play in Santa Clara on Monday. But it’s a familiar constant in the sport; I’ve certainly lent plenty of words to my own suggestions about how this thing could run better. Dreaming up modifications to the postseason is part of the fabric of the game, integral to the experience of the season. Sure, other sports have implemented postseason tweaks over the years—MLB added the wild-card game in 2011, the NFL added a second wild-card team per conference eight years after the introduction of the concept in 1970, March Madness created the so-called First Four in ’11—but college football’s determination of a national champion has been a decades-long evolution (and more subjective than any other sport’s), and the playoff committee has never quite shut the door on the idea of expansion. In fact, it seems more likely than not at this point. And so we argue everything from the ideal number of playoff teams to the ramifications of expansion to the implications of Notre Dame’s status as an independent.

This year, that in and of itself has been the entertainment. A weird confluence of factors has led to the games feeling almost like an afterthought. The games were a few days too early, a touchdown or two less competitive than most would have liked, and the ratings reflected both factors. The Orange Bowl pulled in a 10.4 overnight rating, the Cotton Bowl a 10.3; only three of the eight prior semifinals did worse. Meanwhile, the Rose and Sugar Bowls did well in terms of viewership, pulling 9.7 and 7.8 ratings, respectively. Those numbers give the playoff games a run for their money and show that fans are watching New Year’s Day regardless of the lessened stakes. That interest comes in part from an almost morbid curiosity about how the first few teams left out respond to their snubs, as well as another chance to collect data for future playoff and conference supremacy debates.

Until the playoff expands, this discussion will play out every December. There have been enough years of the four-team format to predict that blowouts are going to be an annual tradition; the average margin of victory in the 10 semifinal games has been 21.3 points, and five semifinals have seen one team held to seven points or fewer. A team or two each year is going to look lost in its semifinal, and another team or two on the cusp and their fan bases will stomp their feet about being left out. Eventually, it seems, the field will expand to eight teams, and that’s when the powers behind the CFP will have a choice: Do they lay out a concrete plan—eight teams, period, or even a specific timeline for moving from eight to 12 or 16—or leave room for future unspecified evolutions of the format?

It’s impossible to say which future of the postseason is the right one, with unintended consequences looming for everything from the number of playoff teams to the criteria by which they’re determined. For now, the spirit of college football comes in the debate, the disgust and the brainstorming and the retrospective squabbling over who belongs and why or how, exactly, the so-called wrong decision got made.

You may be cranky, but admit it: You’re entertained.