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OPINION: The College Football Playoff has to be expanded to save the sport

<p>Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. </p>

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

This is an opinion article. Any views expressed belong solely to the author and are not representative of The Cluster.

As the clock wound down on UGA’s historic victory in the CFP National Championship game Jan. 10, the list of narratives that ran through the contest was flying through every fan’s mind. Georgia’s return to the mountaintop of college football was likely at the forefront for most of those thoughts, but the championship game also cast a glaring spotlight on a huge issue within the game.

The Dawgs were considered by most to be an underdog when facing Alabama in the game, despite the fact that they were ranked #1 for the vast majority of the season, favored by the spread ahead of the game and respected as a perennial championship contender in recent years.

Let me repeat: they were considered an underdog by almost everyone. While their struggles against the Crimson Tide historically certainly contributed to this, it’s also a result of the CFP offering the same tired results season after season. 

This is only one of the many reasons why the College Football Playoff absolutely has to be expanded to include more teams.

Let's tackle the obvious right out of the gate. The CFP committee's subjectivity in the rankings is a factor in this equation that needs to be removed, or at least tamed. Countless articles by USA Today, CBS Sports and others have already laid out this problem. Most college football fans are probably well aware of it, and it's clear that an expansion with automatic bids for teams would do a lot to fix the issue. There are a multitude of other reasons for CFP expansion that have to be talked about instead.

The barrier placed by the CFP between the top four teams in the nation and everyone else is a huge issue. All of the focus is given to three or four teams while the rest of the college football landscape is left in the dust.

A large part of this issue is admittedly a result of dwindling parity in the game. Unlike in the NFL, where the Draft grants the worst teams a shot at a generational player, the biggest teams continue to rake in the best recruits and stay talented while the little guys are left in the cold. The Blue Chip Ratio from 247 Sports, a ratio of teams’ four and five star players to regular ones, demonstrates this perfectly.

Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State all have blue chip ratios of over 75 percent, with UGA and Bama topping a ludicrous 80 percent ratio of blue chips to average players. The next closest team to these three is Clemson, and they are more than 10 percent behind Ohio State. Clemson has won two national championships in the last five seasons and made the CFP for six consecutive years, and yet they still cannot catch up to the juggernauts of college football in terms of recruiting.

The CFP Committee can’t fix this parity problem immediately since they don’t control recruiting, but expanding the playoff would do a world of good to help other teams close the gap. What is it recruits are looking for when they choose a school to play for? They want rings, and they want winning teams that can bolster their NFL draft stock.

The bigger the playoff, the bigger the pool of schools that can boast chances for players to win a championship. A school like Utah, who had a dream season and played in the Rose Bowl this year, would have been in the CFP against a legendary team in Ohio State if it were expanded. The recruiting value of such a game cannot be understated, especially considering how well Utah played against a team like the Buckeyes that out-recruits them by such a massive margin.

Sadly the Rose Bowl, along with many other New Year’s Six bowl games, has been relegated to becoming consolation prizes. Since they’re not a part of the CFP Championship bracket, the games don’t get big billing from ESPN and are deemed unimportant by many fans and players.

This brings us to the next huge set of problems with the CFP: viewers, exciting games and commodities.

This year's Peach Bowl is a great example, as it’s one of the biggest postseason games in college football. It regularly acts as a College Football Playoff matchup and is one of the “New Year’s Six” bowls. These games also include iconic games like the aforementioned Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl.

These bowls used to mean something to fans and players and, importantly, NFL scouts. They don’t anymore.

Prior to this year’s Peach Bowl between Michigan State and Pitt, each team had its two best players opt out of play, choosing instead to focus on NFL preparation and attempting to avoid a catastrophic injury. This meant Pitt quarterback and Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett and Spartans star running back Kenneth Walker IV would both not be playing, drastically changing the game and making it less interesting for fans everywhere.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of Pickett and Walker’s decisions to opt out. Those were warranted, smart decisions to protect the millions of dollars they’ll likely earn on the NFL stage. The only reason they chose not to play, though, is because the Peach Bowl simply doesn’t mean anything to people when it isn’t a CFP game.

Expanding the playoff would give these players something to play for in the postseason and give more teams more chances at something that is considered a success. Expansion would also go towards fixing another huge root of the problem for the playoff in the form of ESPN’s marketing of the CFP.

ESPN spends the halftime shows of other bowl games advertising and previewing the CFP bowl games. ESPN also broadcasts nearly all the games in college football, with the exception of a few games on Fox each weekend and Notre Dame’s games airing on NBC. Everything else goes straight to ESPN and Disney's family of channels, including all CFP games regardless of the teams and conferences involved.

When one network has complete control of the entire CFP broadcasting process in addition to an iron grasp on basically all college football being televised, it leads to the CFP being advertised as the only thing that matters. ESPN has fostered the image of all other bowls being virtually worthless for its own financial gain since it airs those CFP games on New Year's Eve each year.

ESPN’s own commentators then proceed to double down on how awful they think it is that players like Pickett and Walker opt out of games. Kirk Herbstreit, one of ESPN’s signature college commentators, repeatedly stood by his position that opting out is ruining the game, as covered by USA Today. The same article lists multiple examples of star players suffering injuries in these bowl games that ESPN markets as inferior to the CFP, including linebacker Jaylon Smith in 2016 and quarterback Matt Corral just this year.

If ESPN just wants to focus on the CFP to boost its own ratings, how can their own affiliates critique stars for opting out of the non-CFP games? Smith’s injury in 2016 resulted in his draft stock plummeting and him likely losing millions of dollars in signing bonuses. If it’s between making millions in the NFL Draft and being a part of what is essentially a cash grab for ESPN and the bowl game’s sponsors, the players should choose (and have chosen) the former without batting an eye.

Expansion would allow for more playoff games to be played and would almost assuredly lead to a new agreement between the CFP and multiple television networks, breaking the monopoly that ESPN holds over the games. It would also lead to the integration of these “worthless” bowl games, leading to fewer opt outs and more exciting games for fans.

That’s the last piece of this puzzle: the games themselves. Even without the consideration of ESPN’s stranglehold on broadcasting it, the CFP has its own problem in the form of the action on the field. With such a huge recruiting gap, the semifinal games prior to the National Championship game have become farcical and imbalanced

Alabama smothered major underdog Cincinnati in the first semifinal game of 2021, while UGA had virtually doomed Michigan by the time the first quarter was over in the second game. The trend stretches back to many blowouts in the semifinals including LSU over Oklahoma 63-28 in 2019 (that was in the Peach Bowl), Oregon beating Florida State 59-20 back in 2015 and Clemson dismantling Ohio State 31-0 in 2016.

While a few semifinal games have been exciting overall, the clear norm is that the teams are often unbalanced and play uninteresting games with outcomes that are all but certain before they’re even played. Expanding the playoff would solve this by creating more games and more potential for upsets among the seeds. It could also provide the interesting wrinkle of automatic playoff bids for Power 5 conference champions, allowing for much more interesting matchups and varying talent levels and removing the flaw of the committee's subjectivity.

The bottom line is that the CFP has to be expanded to keep college football evolving to meet its fans’ expectations. ESPN can’t be allowed to saturate the rest of football with their ceaseless plugging of the CFP and monopoly over televised games. Perhaps most important of all, though, more college athletes should get opportunities to play in meaningful and potentially life-changing games.

Micah Johnston

Micah Johnston ‘22 is a journalism and media studies double major who has written for The Cluster since his freshman year at Mercer. He has written on and reported for Georgia Public Broadcasting, The Macon Telegraph and The Macon Newsroom on a variety of topics. He received the Center for Collaborative Journalism’s Junior Honors Award for the 2020-2021 academic year. Micah’s other interests include obsessively following Braves and Mariners baseball, constantly listening to all kinds of music and probably eating junk food.

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