Opinion: College Football Playoff pairings feel like a rerun, lack drama

Dan Wolken

The College Football Playoff has been around for seven seasons now, and at this point we might as well all be Bill Murray waking up to “I Got You Babe” over and over again.

Instead of making the sport more democratic, the CFP has become like the movie "Groundhog Day," with the same small group of elites playing for a national championship and the upstarts getting systematically shut out. 

The first part is nobody’s fault. The dominance of Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State over their conferences for this long of a run is unprecedented. It may be as predictable as ever, but it’s hard to argue that the committee screwed up with Alabama vs. Notre Dame and Clemson vs. Ohio State in the semifinals based on the available data.  

Rinse and repeat? Sure. 

But even if you’re, say, No. 5 Texas A&M, it’s hard to have a legitimate gripe, try as the Aggies might. In a straight up Aggies vs. Notre Dame debate, there just weren’t many data points in their favor. Both teams had blowout losses to the top two of similar magnitude (Notre Dame lost by 24 to Clemson in the ACC title game). Texas A&M’s best win, over Florida, wasn’t as strong as Notre Dame’s best win, against Clemson in the first meeting in November. And Texas A&M’s second-best win, over Auburn, wasn’t as good as the Irish’s second-best win, over North Carolina.

Texas A&M running back Isaiah Spiller runs the ball while defended by Tennessee linebacker Tyler Baron (9) during their game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

That’s a fairly straightforward decision.

But on the back end of this thing, the selection committee has cloaked one indisputable fact in all of its blather about data points, bodies of work and strength of schedule: It will never, ever, ever consider a Group of Five team for a four-team playoff. Even further, it will do whatever it can to make sure one of the sport’s little guys doesn’t take any money or prestige off the table for a power conference school, no matter how undeserving they are. 

Cincinnati, which finished 9-0, had the No. 1-ranked defense in the country statistically and dominated some strong teams throughout the season, finished No. 8 in the committee’s rankings behind a Florida team that lost three games, including its last two. It’s clear Cincinnati, which will play Georgia in the Peach Bowl, wasn’t given serious consideration for the fourth spot.

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Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina conveniently finished No. 12, a couple spots shy of where the Chanticleers needed to be to get an invitation to a New Year’s Six game despite an unbeaten record and two wins over top-20 teams. Instead, we’re going to get Florida, Georgia and Iowa State. 

“When the year starts out, everybody has the same opportunity to be evaluated,” selection committee chairman Gary Barta, the Iowa athletics director, said Sunday in response to a barrage of questions about how his colleagues have treated the Group of Five.

With all due respect to Barta, that is not a serious answer. Ensuring that a Cincinnati, a UCF or a Boise State will never compete for a national title is a feature, not a bug of college football’s caste system. 

Just consider what Barta said specifically about why Florida remained ranked ahead of Cincinnati. He cited Saturday night, with the committee watching the SEC championship game and the AAC title game simultaneously and that three-loss Florida just looked better being involved in a competitive game against Alabama than Cincinnati, which was in a fourth-quarter struggle over a Tulsa team that was at the bottom end of the Top 25.

Never mind the whole body of work, which the committee cites when it wants to. Or the fact that Cincinnati’s defense held some very good offenses like Memphis and SMU well below their season averages. Or the blowout after blowout Cincinnati put on the board most of the season.

“Both great seasons and terrific teams but in watching the games and evaluating just asking the question — which team is better — Florida or Cincinnati, the committee believes Florida is the better team,” he said. 

Does that sound like “everybody has the same opportunity to be evaluated" to you? 

A couple times, Barta was asked what it would take for a Group of Five team to get in the Playoff. He cited BYU — which before the pandemic struck had Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Missouri and Stanford on its schedule — as a team that would have been able to give the committee a better idea of its Playoff worthiness had it won those games. 

Telling, isn’t it? 

Look, the selection committee was given an imperfect set of circumstances to sort through this year because of COVID-19, including teams playing different numbers of games and lack of non-conference play. Simply put, the season was a mess and there was no clean, easy way to compare Ohio State’s unbeaten six-game season to a team like Texas A&M, much less a Cincinnati vs. a Notre Dame. 

But they’re not even hiding it any more. If you’re not in a power conference, you do not have a legitimate chance. 

“You just want a path and I think that’s really important, that everybody starts the year with a path to the national championship,” Cincinnati athletics director John Cunningham said in an interview on ESPN. “I’d put our eye test up against almost anybody if you go back and watch the games we played, who we beat and how we beat those teams, that’s really important.”

With each passing year, it’s clear that the angst about this Playoff format is growing. 

Whether it’s the obvious bias against outstanding Group of Five teams or the fact that the same programs are getting in year after year, it feels like there are going to be more calls for change in the near future. 

There are forces within the SEC, for instance, that are furious about the privilege awarded to the Buckeyes getting in with a six-game schedule while the Aggies got left out with an 8-1 mark. If we had an eight-team playoff, Oklahoma and Georgia would be teams nobody wants to draw because of how much better they played at the end of the season than the beginning. The Pac-12, which has sent a team to the Playoff in just two out of seven years, should be pounding the table for expansion.

With the attention of the sport becoming increasingly geared around the Playoff, it’s concerning how few new programs are getting a taste of it. 

In seven years, the SEC has had just three members make the field (Alabama, Georgia, LSU), the ACC two (Clemson, Florida State), the Pac-12 two (Oregon, Washington), the Big Ten two (Ohio State, Michigan State) and the Big 12 just one (Oklahoma). 

That means just 11 programs have earned 28 possible Playoff berths since this system started in 2014. Long-term, that’s not a great formula for expanding interest in the sport. And given the way these top programs are recruiting, it’s going to be awfully hard to knock them out anytime soon. 

It’s not the committee’s job to engineer new blood into the Playoff field, but it can expand to eight, decrease the subjectivity of the process with automatic bids and ensure that everyone gets a fair shot no matter which conference they play in. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports' columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken