There is a good chance that your favorite college football team doesn’t have a player on its roster that was born in 1996.
That year is significant because that’s the last year college football had a first-time national champion, Florida. Every champion since then has won at least one before. Usually, that champion has come from either the SEC or the ACC.
College football has always had a parity problem, but it sure seems worse in the playoff era. Even in the bid-budget BCS era that famously squeezed out small budget programs, it at least felt like more than a handful of teams had a shot at a title. We seem to be headed to only a few teams having a true chance. This isn’t just a reaction to Clemson and Alabama dominating recently, but because of how they’ve been doing it, and what that might mean for the future.
Blue bloods have historically dominated college football since at least the post WW2 era, and and that won’t change, but it wasn’t that long ago that a few outliers snuck through. Georgia Tech and Colorado won titles in 1990, and BYU somehow won a championship in 1984. Even as the sport went more chalk-heavy into the 90’s, a different team won every year outside of Nebraska’s 94 and 95 titles. Miami won three champions in the 1980s, but in one of the sport’s most turbulent decades, other schools grabbed the other seven.
If Clemson or Alabama win the title this season, they will have combined to win seven of them from 2011-2019. There’s chalk, and then there’s chalk.
There’s no reason to think their run ends any time soon either.
Clemson is on pace to land perhaps the best recruiting class ever, especially if they land four of the top five players in the country, which they are currently favored to do. Alabama had the number one recruiting class in the country per 247’s composite from 2011 to 2018 save for one year, and it’s not like they were recruiting like Kent State before Saban got there.That doesn’t even get to Georgia and Ohio State, who are routinely in the mix for one of the top four spots. Elite talent may be clumping together like never before.
A very good tool to use to view parity as it comes to the championship is the Blue Chip Ratio that Bud Elliott puts together. To put it bluntly, Elliott’s statistic shows that no team in the BCS era or beyond has won a championship without signing more blue clip recruits than non-blue chip recruits. Over the last five years the average amount of teams to hit that ratio is just 12.
Not only has every post 1998 champion hit the blue chip ratio, only two teams, 2014 Oregon and 2015 Michigan State, even made the playoff without hitting that elite level of recruiting. And looking at the landscape this season, you can probably count the number of teams with a credible goal of making the playoff that aren’t on the blue chip list on one hand. Oregon, Utah...maybe somebody from the Big Ten West?
Alabama enjoyed top level success for years, despite not always having elite QB play, because they were just absolutely loaded at every other position. But usually, the teams that compete for championships have ace signal callers to go with NFL-caliber playmakers across the roster. Alabama isn’t hurting for QB talent now, and a look across the other elite squads in the sport, your Clemsons, your Georgias, your Ohio States, your Oklahomas, shows nothing but high level QB prospects, with more options on the way.
From 2013 through 2018, one of those five teams landed one of the top two quarterbacks in the nation. Clemson also has the top ranked quarterback in the 2020 class, and Georgia and Ohio State have blue-chip prospects in their class as well. On paper, the pass-throwing pipeline for the best schools should keep on going.
Teams going on a run and recruiting at a high level isn’t unheard of. We’ve had some runs recently, but they’re not quite what Alabama and Clemson are doing.
Clemson and Alabama have created what is essentially a Cavs/Warriors situation in college football where the same two teams are trading championships, something we didn’t see with say, dominant Florida State, Ohio State or USC teams in recent memory.
That’s hard to do in college football, since there are so many teams, making it much harder for one or two to consolidate so much talent. What we are seeing is ahistorical to what we’ve seen in the last 40 years of college football. Two teams dominating the model that was built to crown the champion. And not only that, there are so few teams behind those top two who have been able to get a seat at the table.
Just look at the typical semifinal game. Oklahoma has had two straight Heisman trophy winners who have led a prolific offense, and they’ve recruited pretty well too... and they couldn’t get to a title game.. Georgia’s won a lot of football games against teams not named Alabama, but that hasn’t been enough for a championship.
In four of the five years of the playoff, the third seed has combined to score a grand total of 23 points. They’ve been completely shut out twice. Instead of a wide open postseason, like the NFL playoffs, or the NCAA basketball tournament, the college football playoff is highlighting how little parity we actually have.
A lack of parity, maybe even a big lack of parity, is a problem, but not a unique one in college football history. But now that the playoff dominates every facet of the conversation, it makes those problems much worse.
College football has become all about the post season in a very similar way that college basketball has been for years. We talk about the playoff before the season even starts. We’ll all hear about it during broadcasts of games between teams that don’t even have a shot. They even make a preseason announcement for when we will get the first weekly announcement of the standings. The goal was to put the focus on the championship...and all we’re getting is the same thing over and over again. With television ratings being down for the semifinals of the playoff last year, the powers that be have to be asking themselves if these repeated matchups are good for the overall product.
I think we all tend to focus on the die-hard fans and the media aspect of the playoff, but what about the casual fans? There’s a reason that Alabama became persona non grata late in the BCS age and beyond. Most fans don’t want to see the same team win it or even be in it year in and year out, especially a team that did it in a joyless way like Alabama, The Tide has been in the title game in six of the last eight championship games, while the rest of the country devolved into people just cheering for the other team. Does the sport really want another run of that if Clemson continues the trend that they’re on?
So, whats the solution? Expand the playoff.
Right now, the top teams in the country only have so many opportunities to be upset during the regular season, especially in the SEC, where they might only play eight conference games. The more games they have to play against legitimate opponents, the higher chances we see an upset. The logistics of the expanded playoff was laid out really well by Bill Connelly back in 2016. Adding an extra weekend isn’t very disruptive to the overall schedule and, as Connelly points out, it could allow for existing bowl tie-ins.
The natural push back against expanding the playoff is the argument that it still doesn’t guarantee a fair playoff. However, when you look through the final playoff standings, the top eight teams are a fair representation of college football. There have been a few instances of one conference having three teams in the top eight, but the Big Ten is the only conference that is averaging more than two teams a year. To stave off the imbalance with the conferences, it would make sense to add a cap for conference participation to the playoff, or add automatic tie-ins for G5 programs.
Plus, this makes the playoff a truly national event, rather than a southern invitational. If conference champs are guaranteed a bid, we’ll see teams from the midwest, west coast, great plains and the south, which will improve the TV viability and nationwide interest in the postseason, and the sport, generally.
Let’s not forget that college football has a growing attendance problem and it has nothing to do with cell phones. The lack of marquee games is a factor on top of the fact that the sport has been doing everything it can to drive people to watch games on television. Better—at least on paper— games are a win-win for the sport. Everyone gets a better product and you have a better chance for upsets that can change the course of the season. The committee doesn’t have the jurisdiction to force those during the regular season, but maybe more in the postseason might help.
The playoff was a good idea that had good intentions but the plan just didn’t work out in a way that made the product better. It made it more profitable and it made the stage much bigger and those things aren’t necessarily bad for the sport but I don’t think anyone saw the clustering that we’ve seen at the top.
The sport has to find a way to create more parity to stave off the potential of Alabama and Clemson becoming they type of dynasty that we haven’t seen in the last forty years.
If they don’t, the rest of the country might just find something else to watch. And that’s bad for everybody.