SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The home of this season’s biggest college football game was once the home of a tiny college football program that twice bowled over the LSU Tigers.
The Santa Clara Broncos traveled east to the Sugar Bowl in 1937 and 1938 and shocked an LSU program that was a top-10 perennial at the time (the Tigers finished No. 2 in the inaugural Associated Press top 20 after the 1936 season leading up to the 1937 Sugar). The Broncos beat the Tigers 21-14 in 1937 and 6-0 the following year.
Alas, that was pretty much the high-water mark for Santa Clara football, though it later gave the world Houston Oilers quarterback Dan “Luv Ya Blue” Pastorini.
Santa Clara made only one more postseason appearance, the 1950 Orange Bowl against Kentucky (Paul “Bear” Bryant was UK’s coach, LSU coaching legend Charles McClendon a player) before the program was disbanded in 1993.
Santa Clara’s picturesque mission-style campus lies only about six miles south of the San Francisco 49ers' home, Levi’s Stadium, where Alabama and Clemson square off Monday night in the CFP National Championship Game. Wouldn’t it be funny that a town so football-challenged — I’m looking at you, too, Niners — served as the place where college football’s championship format underwent a major San Andreas-like shift?
The talk of the town this postseason has not really been of Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Kyler Murray, or of Alabama coach Nick Saban stalking a record seventh national championship (the first one, of course, came in 2003 at LSU) or even UCF’s late, great 25-game winning streak.
The talk has been of expanding the College Football Playoff.
It’s funny, in some respects, because you could make an argument that this year, the old two-team BCS formula would have served just as well in providing us with a championship showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson.
Though Notre Dame was also undefeated before being eliminated by the purple and orange Tigers in the Cotton Bowl, it is not eye-rolling argument to make that Alabama and Clemson have separated themselves a bit from the pack.
But as the CFP reaches its five-year anniversary, there is a growing demand for, well, growth. An expansion from four to eight teams to include the likes of Georgia — which nearly took down Alabama in the SEC Championship Game before turning turtle against Texas in the Sugar Bowl — or Ohio State, which rode the ragged edge of disaster all the way to a 13-1 mark and a Big Ten title.
In the interest of equal time, my colleague, Advocate LSU beat writer and college football raconteur Brooks Kubena, offers up an NFL-style playoff with a college football twist.
He would like to see the playoff expand from four teams to six, not eight, with the top two seeds receiving first-round byes, same as in the NFC and the AFC. According to the Kubena Compromise, the Power Five conference champions plus the top-ranked non-champion would be part of the playoff. One assumes the Kubena plan would involve putting Notre Dame in a headlock until it finally agrees to joining a conference, which may make expanding the playoff worth it on that basis alone.
That said, an eight-team playoff is the most popular choice among the expansionists. It is such a format that supporters say would finally still college footballdom’s restless heart with a system that everyone would then agree is right and just.
“I think inevitably the playoff is going to expand,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “I think that’s just the way that it’s headed.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly added his two cents before the Cotton Bowl: “I sure am one that would register a vote on the expanding the playoff. And where that takes us, I'm sure they'll kind of figure that out.”
Really, Brian? Really? Figuring it out is the part everyone leaves out.
One can not just wave a magic wand and have the playoff double in size.
Deciding where to play the quarterfinal games is a huge logistical issue. More bowls, or on-campus sites? Another layer of bowls is a huge economic demand that would have even the most ardent fans balking. And playing on campus is no easy option. I’m told, for example, that Penn State shuts off the water at Beaver Stadium after football season ends. De-mothballing college stadia with only a couple weeks' notice is no small feat.
What of the lucrative conference championship games? Some say they will have to be eliminated to keep the maximum number of games the same (15). I say you will have to pry a championship game out of the SEC’s cold, dead hands. And if the SEC don’t play, this is all a non-starter.
Then there’s who you invite. A table for all the Power Five conference champs, plus three wild cards, sounds swell — but what if Pittsburgh had managed to upset Clemson in the ACC title tilt? You can say a 12-1 Clemson would be an at-large, but what if 6-6 UCLA beats 8-4 Oregon to claim the Pac-12’s slot? Someone worthwhile is getting left out then, for sure.
For now, expansion talk is just that. Talk. The initial 12-year CFP contract still has most of its life to run. Change comes slowly to this sport. Remember how long it took for us to get to the start of the BCS in the first place in 1998, then how long it took to create the CFP.
Meanwhile, the best approach is probably the practical one, as voiced by LSU coach Ed Orgeron.
“If they do expand and invite us, we’re going,” Orgeron said. “But other than that, we’re going to work to get in that top four.”
Good advice, because that next four does not exist.