Nobody likes feeling left out. And one issue facing college football right now is that almost everybody is starting to feel that way.
We crowned a new champion Monday night when LSU dethroned Clemson, but this was another national title game that looked and felt more like a coronation in a different sport altogether. Or a different league, at least, watching two rosters stacked with NFL-ready talent coached by two staffs that earned nearly $30 million combined this season, including bonuses.
Too much? Or not enough?
That’s the question that’ll be raised again in the weeks and months ahead, because the College Football Playoff — midway through its initial 12-year contract with ESPN — has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, filling coffers — upwards of $500 million annually— while the gap between the sport’s haves and have-nots only grows wider.
Eleven different teams have made the College Football Playoff in its six-year run, but only six teams — representing four conferences — have reached the championship game: Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, Georgia and Oregon.
Compare that to basketball’s Final Four, which has featured 19 schools — from nine conferences — over that same six-year span.
And then tell me which looks better to you as a consumer: An exclusive Super Bowl party like the one we witnessed in New Orleans on Monday, or something that at least hints at parity? Like last April’s Final Four that included first-time guests Auburn and Texas Tech along with Michigan State and eventual champ Virginia.
“Well, it’s in the eye of the beholder,” said ESPN’s Chris Fowler, who handled the play-by-play duties for Monday night’s broadcast.
And just watch: Eventually the TV rights-holders will clamor for more, much like the fans who’ve been demanding an eight-team playoff. Or a 12- or 16-team tournament. Maybe even an 11-team design like Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has proposed.
“I think if you’re going to expand, you’re doing so for the objectives of inclusion and opportunity, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Fowler agreed. “If you want to include every conference champion in the Power Five (conferences) and add three at-large teams, that’s fine.”
Just don’t expect a different outcome at the end, he says, “Are you going to bring fresh blood to the podium to accept the trophy? I don’t think so. I don’t think an expansion of eight is going to produce a much different bracket of four.”
Similar to basketball?
At least not initially, based on what we all saw on the field Monday night, as Joe Burrow capped a record-breaking season with an MVP performance and the Tigers — LSU’s version, this time — staked a claim as one of the all-time best.
“This was a long time coming,” said Burrow, who celebrated with a victory cigar after LSU piled up 623 yards in a 42-25 win. “I'm kind of speechless right now. This was fun.”
It was entertaining, no doubt, and the TV ratings undoubtedly will reflect that. But I’m not sure how much fun everyone’s having with this current system, which leaves non-playoff teams wallowing in what ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit describes as “this feeling of dejection.”
“I’m a big college basketball fan, and you watch March Madness and then there’s also the NIT tournament, and the NIT tournament is kind of an afterthought for a lot of fans,” Herbstreit said last week. “And I almost feel like this (CFP) has gotten to the point where it’s like the four teams made it to the tournament and everybody else, they’re in the NIT tournament. I think we’re raising a generation of fans that feel that way.
“To me I don’t know what the answer to fix that. I don’t know if going to eight is going to change that. It might make it even worse.”
It might. But it feels inevitable that we’re going to find out, though probably not until this current TV deal expires after the 2025 season.
In the meantime, there are other changes coming that could alter the landscape as well. Namely, the nationwide push to allow college athletes to profit off their own name, image and likeness.
With courts siding with players against the NCAA, and individual states now taking up the legislative cause, it’s only a matter of time before universities are no longer the only brand names in major-college sports. Some of the players will be, too.
Cynics will point to that viral video clip of NFL star and LSU alum Odell Beckham Jr. handing out wads of cash to Tigers’ receivers in the postgame celebration, and others will commence their hand-wringing about it. (For what it’s worth, LSU officials reportedly said it was fake money.) But if anything, the NIL changes could do more to level the playing field, by giving other schools that want to prioritize — ahem — value-added relationships with athletes a legal way to do exactly that.
Maybe it's wishful thinking to suggest that might help spread the wealth of talent. But no more so than the narrative being told about NIL freedom resulting in entrenched power. Because that’s what we’ve already got in college football.
Elite talent to elite programs
Of the 28 five-star recruits in the 2020 recruiting class, according to 247Sports composite rankings, 17 signed with a handful of elite programs — Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and LSU. That’s more than 60 percent of the best players all going to the powerhouse teams.
Those same five programs also had 35 players drafted last spring, and don’t surprised if more than half of this year’s 32 first-round picks come from one of those schools. The next couple years won’t look much different, either, when you consider the talent Clemson — which played in the national title game for the fourth time in five years — has coming back, led by quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
“I wouldn't trade that guy for nobody,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who, as college football’s highest-paid coach at $9.3 million this season, won't have to, thanks to the NFL's draft eligibility rules. “And he is special. I know exactly how he'll respond. He'll get right back to work, and we're going to have a really, really good football team next year. We've got tons of guys back.”
And tons of new ones already in the program. A whopping 15 members of Clemson’s top-ranked 2020 recruiting class are mid-year enrollees already on campus, including the nation’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback — and Lawrence’s likely successor — in DJ Uiagalelei. (To put that in better perspective, the team Clemson destroyed in the ACC title game last month, Virginia, only has 12 players signed in its 2020 class. Swinney has 15 already on campus.)
Clemson likely will start next season ranked No. 1 in the polls again. And most of the “way-too-early” top-25 projections you’ll see this week — and again once spring practice is underway — will have those same five teams ranked at the top, in some order: Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and LSU.
It might be too early to guarantee one of those teams will win the national championship. But soon enough college football is going to have to decide if that's the best way to do business.