Those of you who watch college football know that we’ll be seeing Clemson take on Alabama in the College Football Playoff (CFP) for the 4th year in a row (3 out of those 4 times, including this time, that meeting will be in the National Championship game). Clemson steamrolled Notre Dame 30-3, and Alabama generally controlled Oklahoma 45-34.
The Clemson-Alabama matchup is becoming a lot like the Cleveland Cavaliers–Golden State Warriors matchup in the NBA–repetitive and boring. Now, a lot of people (myself included) have been quick to point the finger at the selection committee for the CFP, and to a certain degree, that is fair. For example, UCF deserved to be in the CFP this season after two straight undefeated seasons, including a bowl victory over last season’s Auburn team that beat eventual National Champion Alabama. However, I probably would have picked UCF to replace one-loss Oklahoma, who actually put up a better fight than undefeated Notre Dame. Interestingly enough, the team that may have put up the best fight is actually two-loss Georgia, who had Alabama on the brink of defeat in the SEC Championship.
Which leads me to my point: I don’t think the selection committee is at fault here. Sure Georgia gave Alabama a fight, but they still lost. Who’s to say that result would be different if they played again? No, I think the problem lies in the fact that Georgia is the best fight for Alabama, but they can’t ever seem to quite get the victory. Much like Golden State in the NBA, Alabama is a super team that is very nearly impossible to beat because they have the best talent in the country.
It’s not just Alabama, either. Consider this: Of the four CFP teams this season, ALL OF THEM have changed their starting QB in the past year. And yet, the only slip up any of the four teams had during the regular season was Oklahoma’s 3 point loss to a high-quality Texas team, which they later avenged (by 12 points) in the Big 12 Championship.
The Warriors’ NBA super team was created by the one-time massive boost to the salary cap a few seasons ago, which gave the Warriors the cap space to sign the five All-Stars they have on their roster. That problem should be rectified as soon as the upcoming offseason, when at least one of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green will likely be suiting up for another team. In college football, however, it’s not about money.
College athletes don’t get paid. Therefore, recruits commit to universities based largely on three factors: winning, pro potential, and playing time. In theory, the best recruits are going to get good amounts of playing time no matter where they go because smart coaches find ways to get great players on the field, even when they have multiple great players at the same position (see: Alabama with QBs Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts).
So, it’s down to winning and pro potential. Technically, pro scouting teams are supposed to be scouting ALL college athletes, so if an athlete plays well enough at any university, that athlete will get drafted. However, playing at Alabama gives an athlete better pro potential for two reasons. 1) They get to play in a pro-style system with a coach who has coached in the NFL, so he knows what NFL teams are looking for. 2) They get to play in a conference that has many programs with pro-style systems and high-level coaches, which attracts more high-level, NFL-caliber competition for them to play against. Players at Alabama have a MUCH better shot at going pro, even if they are bench warmers for the majority of their college career.
In terms of winning, yes, even a team like San Jose State could potentially go undefeated and win a conference championship with the right mix of coaching and roster talent. But even if they did, the best they would get out of that season is a New Year’s Six Bowl, which ISN’T EVEN GUARANTEED IF ANOTHER GROUP OF 5 CONFERENCE CHAMPION FINISHES WITH A HIGHER RANKING. But even if they are the undefeated, highest ranked Group of 5 Conference Champion, they wouldn’t get to compete for a National Championship (see: UCF for TWO STRAIGHT SEASONS.). So, obviously, if you want to win a National Championship you are at least going to a Power 5 team, and you’re going to shoot for one like Alabama or Clemson who has a history of playing at that level.
If you want a more competitive CFP, there needs to be a way to level out the recruiting field so not all of the top recruits go to Alabama and Clemson. One way to do that is to abolish the “Power 5” and “Group of 5” conferences and just say the four teams with the best records will play each other, regardless of conference. This alternative would solve the problem with the “winning” component of recruiting. That way, even San Jose State could compete for a National Championship.
However, the best way, in my opinion, is to solve the problem in the same way I expect the Warriors superteam problem to be solved: the restrictions of a salary cap. Yes, I’m suggesting PAYING COLLEGE ATHLETES. I know you’ve heard it before a billion times for a billion different reasons, many of which are (admittedly) kind of bulls***. Some are actually valid. One of the valid ones is helping to level out the playing field. Recruits care about Alabama’s ability to get them to the pros because they want to make money playing their sport. But, if they can do that at the college level, the pro potential advantage becomes less advantageous, and teams like San Jose State can reel in five-star recruits with the promise of a big paycheck. Just like in professional sports, a team would only be able to afford to pay so many stars under a salary cap, meaning teams like Alabama and Clemson would not be able to stash five-star backups on their roster all the time. Ergo, star athletes would be more evenly distributed across college football, meaning any team could have the talent to win a national championship at any time (again, just like in the pros).
The College Football Playoff won’t be fixed by changing the system as a whole, but rather by changing pieces within the system. The first piece that needs to be addressed is the disparity in talent, caused by the disparity in recruiting. In my opinion, that piece has a price.