What the College Football Playoff did when it supplanted the Bowl Championship Series was, among other things, kick the controversy down the road.
Instead of No. 3 screaming its helmets off for being left out of the BCS championship game, now it’s No. 5 in the final CFP poll for being left out of the semifinals.
And, sometimes, No. 6 or below.
For the first time in the first four years of the CFP, there isn’t an undefeated team among the semifinal mix. No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia are all 12-1, while No. 4 Alabama is 11-1.
The only unbeaten still going is UCF, which didn’t even sniff the semifinals. The Knights, No. 12 in the final CFP rankings, will be playing opposite the LSU-Notre Dame Citrus Bowl in the Peach Bowl against Auburn, the Atlanta appetizer for next Monday’s CFP National Championship Game there. Auburn, by the way, would have made it to the semis as the CFP’s first two-loss team if had beaten Georgia for the Southeastern Conference title.
While a little contentiousness can be good for business, greasing the publicity machine for college football like nothing else can, will it be as good if this year’s squabbles over who should be No. 4 turn into the new normal of relative parity for the CFP?
Breaking out the “P” word may seem a bit premature considering Alabama and Clemson are squaring off in Monday’s second CFP semifinal in the Sugar Bowl. This, of course, is the third straight year these two have collided in the CFP, with the first two meetings being in the championship game. You can make an argument that parity hasn’t exactly come home to roost if two of the four semifinalists keep banging into each other like the tightly packed cars racing at Daytona.
Still, there may be no other eventuality. From the home office in Irving, Texas — the actual home office of the College Football Playoff — here are four reasons (for the four CFP teams, get it?) why college football’s parity party may keep rocking into the new year and well beyond:
1. More conference games. Among the Power Five conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12), three have gone to nine-game conference schedules. For the 10-team Big 12 (sorry, that numerical disparity bothers me greatly), the nine-game schedule is actually a round robin, all-against-all format. There has been pressure, resisted so far in the SEC's and ACC’s mostly shared geographic footprint while they argue which is really the best conference going, to add a ninth game. But the next round of national TV contracts, from networks always eager to plunder a richer inventory of quality games, could eventually force a change. However it comes about, nine conference games generally means more evenly matched games which leads to more losses that someone has to absorb. Most of those losses fall to the bottom, but some stick in the branches of contenders on the way down.
2. Fewer FCS games. Call them crazy, but sometimes these FCS teams are not merely content to drop off their FBS guarantee checks at the bank on the way back to campus. Although they didn’t register on the CFP seismograph, the 2017 season started with a pair of FCS over FBS upsets when Howard won at UNLV and Liberty clipped Baylor. And we all know how close Nicholls State came to shocking Georgia last season and Texas A&M early in the 2017 campaign. If there are more Power Five conference games then naturally there will be fewer games to play against FCS teams. An all-out ban against them for the Power Five denizens has not taken hold, but those games may continue to prove more unfashionable as teams look to bolster their season-ending strength of schedule in the eyes of the CFP committee.
3. Neutral-site openers. These games may be the bane of season-ticket holders who wonder why they have to pay high prices to watch their team play Directional Tech, but there’s no doubting their appeal. College football fans were breathless in their anticipation of No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State in September, for example. The game turned out to be a dud after FSU quarterback Deondre Francois blew out his knee, but it was still the kind of game that’s often not getting played on campus anymore. Neutral site openers are also the kinds of losses that don’t get docked too heavily by the CFP committee, another important consideration at season’s end when teams are saying, “See who we played?”
4. Spreading the talent wealth. Meet Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, the 2017 Outland Trophy winner as the nation’s top interior lineman. If he wasn’t a sophomore, he might be the top pick in May’s NFL draft. But you can be sure to spot a couple of non-Power Five guys bear-hugging Roger Goodell during the first round, players like Josh Allen quarterback of Wyoming and wide receiver Courtland Sutton of SMU. More good players going play at a wider range of schools means more upsets in non-conference games. Will it put a non-Power Five teams in the playoffs one day? You may have to wait for the CFP to expand beyond four teams for that.