Same Old, Same Old: Playoff Field Delivers Star Power, but Little Originality

An extremely unorthodox college football season has come down to four teams fans are plenty familiar with on the playoff stage.
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A college football season of unprecedented tumult, in danger of never starting and then wheezing through the final weeks, rife with canceled games and player opt-outs and declined bowl bids, one that began with Notre Dame in a conference and ends with the Rose Bowl in Texas, has, in the final analysis, delivered a completely predictable playoff.

Of course.

Nothing, not even a life-altering pandemic, could keep Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State from their appointed rounds. Notre Dame gets to tag along as the College Football Playoff fourth, expected to serve as Crimson Tide cannon fodder and little more.

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The Tide, Tigers and Buckeyes were the top three teams in the preseason poll. They are the top three teams in the final poll. There was some weirdness in between, owing to Ohio State not playing until late October and depleted Clemson being upset in early November, but this all had an aura of inevitability—even in a year when nothing at all seems normal.

It is same old, same old. Alabama is making its sixth appearance in the seven-year existence of the playoff. Clemson is doing the same, earning a sixth straight berth. Ohio State is in for the fourth time and second straight. Those three have won five of the six CFP championships, with only a Joe Burrow supernova season preventing it from being six-for-six.

Notre Dame, no stranger to elite status itself, makes the field for the second time in the last three seasons. But its inclusion did provoke some controversy, given the wreckage of the Irish in Charlotte Saturday night at the hands of Clemson.

Most notably left out are Texas A&M at No. 5 and Cincinnati at No. 8. The committee probably wouldn’t admit it, but serving up the Aggies for a rematch of a 28-point beatdown at the hands of Alabama couldn’t be seen as an appetizing alternative. As for the Bearcats, they are handed the same bitter cup of disrespect that every undefeated team from a Group of Five conference has been given. Being ranked behind Oklahoma, the two-loss champion of a Big 12 that completely failed its nonconference test, is the final kick in the backside on the way out the door.

If ever there were a season to give a good outlier team its chance, and to demonstrate that the sport is more than just a cartel run by the super-rich, this was the season and Cincinnati was the team. Instead, Notre Dame gets in coming off a 24-point shellacking in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game and is immediately installed as a 17 1/2-point underdog against Alabama. The 9–0 Bearcats might fare no better against the Tide than the Irish, but at least we don’t have fresh evidence of how far they’re behind the elite the way we do with Notre Dame.

(Even while grading on a pandemic curve, this committee did a poor job.)

Programs like Cincinnati don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Programs like Ohio State, which has played all of six games and hardly overwhelmed the two quality teams it faced, always get the benefit of the doubt. And now it seems the Buckeyes will get the benefit of yet another Big Ten rule change, reportedly reducing its 21-day mandatory time away from competition to 17 days for players who test positive for COVID-19. Never in the history of college football has a league prostrated itself for its marquee team the way the Big Ten has for the Buckeyes in 2020.

Big picture: there are fresher faces in a mausoleum than in college football. The sport's status as a collection of immovable monoliths at the top is a problem, one that diminishes the game’s national scope and extinguishes outsider programs’ hope.

Just 11 programs have taken the 28 playoff bids to date. This is the first edition of the playoff without a newcomer. This is also the fourth consecutive playoff in which all the bids have gone to teams from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and/or Notre Dame. And if you’ve seen the latest recruiting rankings, you know that the power structure isn’t changing anytime soon.

“I’m sure some people get tired of Alabama, get tired of Clemson after a little while,” former Miami and Georgia coach Mark Richt said last week. “It would be nice to spread it around a little bit, but it doesn’t diminish the excitement for me.”

All that said, the sport does have a chance to end its most chaotic and messy season by sticking the landing. What the playoff lacks in freshness, it makes up for in star power. These are four huge names, big brands with big followings, and the matchups should bring tens of millions of fans to the TV screen on New Year’s Day.

There are three of the pre-eminent coaches in the sport in Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Brian Kelly, plus a rising star in Ryan Day. There are star quarterbacks in Alabama’s Mac Jones, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Notre Dame’s Ian Book. There are elite skill-position players in the Tide’s DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris, the Tigers’ Travis Etienne, the Buckeyes’ Garrett Wilson and Trey Sermon (coming off a 331-yard rushing performance), and the Irish’s Kyren Williams. There are All-Americans on the offensive lines and the defenses.

Fans like scoring, and there should be plenty of that. All four teams are averaging 35 or more points per game. The defenses don’t stink, either, all four of them ranking in the national top 25 in points allowed.

The problem could be competitive semifinals. This Alabama–Notre Dame game might not be quite as ghastly as the 2012 BCS championship game, but it still looks like a mismatch. Clemson–Ohio State is a rematch of a great game last season in the semifinals, but this Buckeyes team has not been as good as that one—which is why the Tigers have been installed as a 6 1/2-point early favorite.

If the semis produce a fourth Alabama–Clemson national championship game, that would be tasty but trite. Those two programs have come to define the Playoff Era, with no end in sight. Not even the chaos of 2020 can disrupt the iron-fisted order of college football, and it seems we are headed to yet another Tide vs. Tigers finale.