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College Football Has a Competition Problem

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College football has never had parity, but this is ridiculous

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game - Florida State v Alabama
They aren’t the only problem but... blech.
Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

College football is broken.

This is the seventh year of the CFP, and it has become increasingly difficult for any team that is not the bluest of blue bloods to break into the playoff. We have descended into an era of extreme stratifictation which… well, it’s boring as hell.

What’s the point of watching when only a small handful of teams have any hope of winning. We fought so hard for a more meaningful regular season, only to have an essentially non-competitive one. Every game matters, but the games have never mattered less, as the top programs have less chance of losing than ever before.

In seven playoffs, Alabama and Clemson have qualified for six of them each. By next week, they will have accounted for five of the seven titles if Bama takes care of business against Ohio St (they will). There has not been a national title game since the inaugural CFP that did not have at least one of the two, and four of them, from 2015-18, had both.

Ohio St and Oklahoma have each made four playoffs apiece, and while OU is yet to win a playoff game, Ohio St. is in its second title game and it won the 2014 playoffs. These four teams have accounted for TWENTY of the 28 CFP bids ever awarded.

Notre Dame is the only other team to get multiple invites (two) and LSU is the only team outside the Big Four to win the title. Which was awesome. But needed perhaps the greatest team in college football history to break the hammerlock of the top four programs is a bit extreme.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… when has college football EVER had parity? And that’s a good point. This has always been a sport of haves and have nots. Stratification is not new, but what is new is just how extreme this stratification is. And it’s not healthy.

First, a bit of history.

In 1984, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, 468 U.S. 85 (1984). The NCAA controlled the number of games each school could appear on national TV, which obviously resulted in only a few of the most powerful schools getting national TV exposure. Ironically, it was the big schools who sued the NCAA, as they wanted ALL of their games on TV.

The Supreme Court sided with the schools, ruling that restricting the schools’ ability to negotiate TV contracts was a restraint on trade. The big winner here was not OU, but the little (ok, slightly less big) schools, who suddenly had the same access to national media exposure. In the wake of the decision and the resulting TV contracts, we were ushered into the most extreme era of parity and non-blue bloods winning titles.

It was the era of Miami, BYU, Colorado, and Washington. It was really, really cool. But let’s face it, it was always destined to be short-lived. Alabama, Oklahoma, USC, and the other blue bloods weren’t all going to be mediocre forever.

Now, let’s look at the domination of each major conference today:

ACC – Clemson has won 6 consecutive ACC titles.

Big Ten – Ohio St. has won 4 consecutive Big Ten titles and 5 of the last 6.

Big 12 – Oklahoma has won 6 consecutive Big 12 titles.

Pac-12 – A model of parity, the Pac-12 has had four different schools win the conference in the playoff era. Oregon has won 2 consecutive titles, and 3 of the 7 playoff-era titles.

SEC – Bama has only won 2 of the last 4 SEC titles, but it has won 5 of the past 7.

What has occurred is essentially only a small number of schools are playing on the national level, and they have completely outpaced the rest of their conferences. Interestingly, the best and worst Power 5 conferences are the most competitive, but for different reasons: the Pac-12 lacks a national contender, so it has maintained parity as no team has distanced from the pack (though Oregon is threatening to). And the SEC has multiple schools who compete nationally, which has barely kept the Bama dynasty in check.

Still, this year’s five champions of the major conferences have won a combined 19 consecutive titles. 16 of those coming from three teams (Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio St).

So… is this consistent with historic domination? No, it isn’t. If nothing else, most historic powers at least had another school as a counter balance, so it was more akin to the current SEC. But having one school simply dominate so many conferences all at once is almost unheard of.

Let’s show our work.

ACC

Prior to Florida St joining the ACC in 1991, no team had ever won the ACC more than three consecutive years. It was a feat accomplished by Duke (1960-62), Maryland (1974-76 and 1983-85), and Clemson (1986-88). And then Florida St showed up and won every ACC title from 1992 to 2000.

The thing is, FSU is like the canary in the coal mine. They demonstrated the problem of a national program running roughshod over a conference that simply wasn’t play on the same field. It was a laugher for a decade, and the ACC has never really recovered. Once every program became a second tier program, they all sort of accepted that fate and played like it.

Virginia Tech broke Florida St’s stranglehold, but it is interesting to note that they came from outside the conference. They were a Big East power and they joined the ACC the same year as Miami, 2004. They won the title in their first year. But the longer the Hokies have been in the ACC, the stronger the pull has been back to mediocrity.

Big Ten

Fames as the Big Two and the Little Eight, the Big Ten had the reputation as perhaps the most unbalanced of the major conferences. And from 1968-1980, one of the two schools won the Big Ten every year. The key here is that it was at least a two school domination. Neither team would win consecutive undisputed titles in that span. They shared a few, but no school completely dominated.

Post-1980, the Big Ten did not have a team win three consecutive titles until Ohio St did it from 2006-09 and even that required some creative accounting (the Big Ten didn’t break ties back in the day, so Ohio St shared a Big Ten title with a Penn St team with the same record that had beaten the Buckeyes). The real mark of a Big Ten champ is the Rose Bowl bid (or the CFP/BCS title game birth). No team pulled that trifecta until Wisconsin did it from 2010-12. And the Badgers lost to Sparty, the team they shared the title with in 2010. They went to the Rose Bowl due to the rule that the Big Ten sent the team that hadn’t been for the longest.

Post Woody/Bo, Ohio St’s four straight titles is unprecedented. And it was even unprecedented in that era, too. No one has won four consecutive undisputed Big Ten titles in history. Until now.

Big 12

We’ll have to go back to some earlier conferences for this one, but OU has always been the big dog of the Big 12. The Big 12 officially formed in 1996, and OU had been the only team in history to win three consecutive title, from 2006-08. They have now doubled that feat, extended their run to six years.

Historically speaking, this is normal, but only because the Big 8 was a massively non-competitive conference with, famously, some of the worst programs of all time. Kansas St, Kansas, and Iowa St would set records for football futility while Oklahoma reeled off an astounding twelve consecutive conference titles from 1948-59.

So modern OU has some work to do, though they are competing against far better teams than Bud Wilkerson was. Still, there’s a reason 1950’s Oklahoma is considered one of the greatest dynasties in sports history.

Pac-12

Yes, USC has historically dominated the conference. But not quite by the margin you think. USC won a share of the Pac-12 title from 2002-08, but only won the title outright from 2003-05. Before then?

USC’s longest run of titles was from 1966-69… just four years. That was a feat matched by Cal from 1920-23. USC has always been the big dog out west, but the other schools have been routinely competitive and even dominant themselves (like UW from 1990-92 and Oregon from 2009-11.

But, being a non-factor in the national title race has helped the Pac-12 achieve parity in an era of domination.

SEC

Bear dominated the 1970s. From 1971-79, Bama won eight SEC titles (but maxed out at four in a row) and lost just three conference games during the same span. Bryant is also widely regarded as the greatest college football coach of all time, prior to the modern era.

Saban hasn’t quite match him, but he’s come close. And the SEC was widely viewed as a football backwater in the 1970s due to its reluctance to integrate and the aforementioned Bear domination.

Summing Up

Every conference has had periods of domination: Oklahoma in the 1950s, Ohio St/Michigan in the 1960s, Alabama in the 1970s, Florida St in the 1990s, and USC in the 2000s. But here’s the thing, it rarely has all happened at the same time.

Also, these periods of domination were usually the function of an all-timer great coach. Bud. The Bear. Woody. Bo. Bowden. Even Carroll... we’re now getting dominated by the likes of Lincoln Riley and Ryan Day. Hey, they are good coaches, but are they really on THAT level?

We currently have three conference completely dominated by one team, and a fourth in the SEC that is coming pretty close (and to be fair, Bama does have an all-time great as its coach). There’s never been a time in college football history like this, when nearly every conference is non-competitive, and the only way for a conference to be competitive is to be nationally irrelevant.

The problem is we are going back to the pre-Board of Regents era. Sure, everyone can get on TV now, but now only a few team can realistically make the playoffs, and a small cadre of teams are virtually guaranteed to make it.

Recruiting is more national than it has ever been, and if you are a five-star recruit, are you going to go to Local State U or are you going to one of the Big Four of Bama, Clemson, OU, and Ohio St?

The talent is starting to concentrate at the top schools, and their distancing themselves from the pack in terms of talent. It’s no coincidence that the last team to win the title without meeting the fifty percent Blue Chip Ratio was 2010 Auburn… it was a different era then. You really could win with a slightly less talented team.

Now, that’s becoming a pipe dream. There just isn’t a pathway for a team to catch Oklahoma, so top players in the footprint flock to Norman, leaving the rest of the conference further behind. Could the RGIII Baylor Bears happen in 2021? I’m not so sure. But I’m near positive the 2015 Michigan St. Spartans couldn’t.

Even worse, the system is becoming more and more rigged in favor of the blue bloods. While a conference title is almost a requirement for selection, only three teams in seven years have been selected without winning their conference: Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio St.

Even when the blue blood fails, they get a reprieve. One that other schools won’t get. Ask Texas A&M (2020), Baylor (2014), TCU (2014), Wisconsin (2017), or Iowa (2015). All were Power 5 teams with just one loss who missed the playoffs.

The only solution is to allow more teams in. Not because more teams “deserve” a shot at the title. That’s almost irrelevant. The best teams do end up winning it. We need to let more teams in so they get playoff exposure and can keep pace with the blue bloods to at least some degree. It’s about having a decent sport to follow from Septmeber to December.

The playoffs are destroying the college football regular season. The only solution is to abolish it, which won’t happen, or to expand them. Which seems counterintuitive. But a “less meaningful” regular season will likely bring back a more meaningful and competitive regular season.