January’s epic Championship Game rematch between Clemson and Alabama marked the third year of the College Football Playoff’s existence. Although three years is by no means enough of a sample size to draw conclusions about this new system, there have been a few trends that we have seen forming. By using what has transpired thus far, one can also make predictions for what to expect from the College Football Playoff moving forward.
Three Trends the College Football Playoff Has Shown
1. Power Lies in the East
One of the biggest questions that College Football Playoff had to answer was who would be left out. Five Power Five conferences but only four Playoff slots available meant that one conference would be watching the Playoff from home each year. In the first three years of the Playoff only conferences west of the Mississippi have been left out. Not only have the Big XII and Pac 12 struggled to get a permanent bid, but they have also struggled in actual Playoff games. These two conferences only accounted for one Playoff victory in three years and still await their first national champion in this new system.
2. Semifinal Snooze-fests
Outside of Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama in the Playoff’s first year, Semifinal games have been awful. The other five games averaged a 29 point margin of victory. Every year has also seen a blowout of at least 31 points. The one saving grace has been the epic championship game matchups. Without the thrilling endings provided by the Championship Games, the first three years of the Playoff would be far from memorable.
3. Parity Problems
One thing lacking from the Playoff thus far has been a variety of teams. Three teams have occupied seven of the 12 possible slots the Playoff has to offer. Now this lack of parity is hardly the Playoff’s fault. That credit belongs to the incredible coaching and recruiting jobs that Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, and Urban Meyer have done. It should be unrealistic to expect Alabama, Ohio State, or Clemson to make the Playoff every year but, so far they have been able to defy logic. However, the amount of distance they have created between themselves and the other teams in their conferences is shrinking.
Three Things to Expect from the College Football Playoff Moving Forward
1. A Power Five Only Party
One thing that has been missing from the Playoff so far has been an invitation to a Group of Five school. Do not expect that to change any time soon. The Selection Committee has shown early and often that they value strength of schedule. An undefeated Group of Five team will have trouble providing an impressive enough resume to break through the glass ceiling. The lone exception would have been Houston in 2016. They had impressive wins against Oklahoma and Louisville, however losses to Navy, SMU and Memphis halted the Cougars’ Playoff dreams. It will be a while before another Group of Five team has as much consideration that Houston received.
2. Conference Championships Will Be a Trump Card
The College Football Playoff selection process has not been without controversy. The Selection Committee raised eyebrows in the Playoff’s inaugural season when they decided to leave TCU out of the Playoff. The Horned Frogs were ranked third in the final regular season poll but dropped to fifth in after the conference championship games. The committee’s defense of the move centered around the lack of a conference championship game for the Big XII and the season ending with the conference naming TCU and Baylor as co-champions.
After a relatively calm 2015 season, controversy returned again in 2016. Ohio State, who had been consistently in the top 4, was left out of the Big Ten title game. However, because the Committee viewed the Buckeyes as “unequivocally” one of the four best teams, the Buckeyes were allowed into the Playoff as a three seed. Not only were the Buckeyes ranked above one loss conference champion Washington, but they made the Playoff over a Big Ten champion in Penn State who owned a head to head victory over Ohio State. To make matters worse, the Buckeyes were shutout by Clemson 31-0 in the semifinal game.
Ohio State’s lackluster performance in the Semifinals made it substantially harder for a team that did not win it’s conference championship game to get in. The Selection Committee will be looking to avoid conflict and controversy whenever possible. If two teams with similar records are being discussed, the conference champion will more than likely get the nod.
3. No Expansion Anytime Soon
Since its inception, critics of the College Football Playoff called for an expansion to either six or eight teams. However, the pageantry that the weekly rankings reveal shows bring will make it hard to see more teams included. Money runs college football decisions and the ratings that come with the mystery of who will be left out are too good to turn down. To that point, the current charter for the playoff system, as controlled by the P5 schools, says that if the playoffs expand beyond four teams, the NCAA takes over controlling interest of the event. That means the NCAA would negotiate the TV deals, the corporate sponsor contracts, the venues, and they would get the majority take of the revenue. The remaining percentage would be dispersed to an expanded number of teams over what the four teams get now. There is little financial incentive for the P5 schools to make that change right now. Expansion could come down the road. However, the Playoff’s immediate future is set at four teams.