If you’re a Georgia fan, you spent Sunday afternoon fuming because Alabama’s 12 previous opponents had failed to come within three touchdowns of the Crimson Tide, and the Bulldogs forced the SEC championship game into what-have-we-here mode before gamely falling by a measly seven points. Surely, such a performance against peerless Alabama — to go along with an 11-2 record — means Georgia is among the four best teams in the country.
If you’re an Ohio State fan, you spent Sunday afternoon fuming because your team won the Big Ten by emphatically beating its archrival in the regular season finale and then manhandling Northwestern in the conference title game. The cognoscenti in Columbus, Ohio, and beyond might have quibbled about the aesthetics of some of the Buckeyes’ victories, but in the end, 12-1 and a conference champion is 12-1 and a conference champion.
Let’s be clear about this: The College Football Playoff is so much better than the system used to determine a national champion even five years ago. Imagine if Sunday were used to determine that field: a national title game between Alabama and Clemson, with an undefeated Notre Dame left out? Blimey!
So let’s be thankful for what we have: Alabama vs. Oklahoma and Clemson vs. Notre Dame in a pair of national semifinal games. Big-boy football games between four teams that have played 51 games this season and lost one of them — Oklahoma to Texas, by three points.
But let’s also be clear about this: The system is flawed, too, or at least impossibly subjective.
This is, in a way, the opposite of what sports is. In a given year, there may be clarity, but that would be achieved by happenstance, not by a true meritocracy. On Sunday afternoon, after the selection committee made its announcement, there was clarity in Norman, a muddled mess in Athens, Ga., and Columbus — and Orlando, which we will get to.
Cast the football playoff process against that of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. There are 321 Division I programs. Each of them begins the season knowing: If we win our conference tournament, we are in the field. If we don’t, we’re handing our fate to the selection committee, and who knows what will happen with them? Gripe about seeds or the résumé of one of the last four teams out vs. one of the last four teams in, but the rules were clear from the beginning: Win and you’re in.
The rules in football: Win — and wait.
And what if you win all your games and the waiting yields nothing? For all the hand-wringing in Athens and Columbus, the answer might be: Um, beat LSU, Georgia, and don’t lose to Purdue, Ohio State. The answer to Central Florida is — what, exactly?
The Knights’ last loss came Dec. 17 — 2016 . They concluded last season by beating Auburn — you know, Auburn of the unparalleled SEC — in the Peach Bowl to finish 13-0. Criticize the Knights’ schedule all you want. Their only game against a Power Five opponent, a September date against North Carolina, was canceled because of Hurricane Florence, but who thinks UCF would have struggled with the 2-9 Tar Heels?
All the Knights did, for the second year in a row, was win each game that was put before them, including the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday against Memphis without injured quarterback McKenzie Milton. And their reward is: not even a sniff of a chance when the four spots were handed out Sunday.
This isn’t to argue that UCF should replace — well, any of the four teams that made it in. But it is to state the plain truth: Teams from a non-Power Five conference — and that includes Boise State and Western Michigan and others from years past — have zero opportunity to make the College Football Playoff. That’s not a crime, necessarily. But given that fact, the system can’t be presented as equitable. It’s one that offers a path for 65 of the teams it professes to serve but not the other 64.
And ask Ohio State, champion of one of those Power Five conferences, whether it feels all that equitable, even to one of the sport’s blue bloods.
“It’s not a playoff,” UCF Athletic Director Danny White tweeted Sunday. “It’s an invitational.”
He’s exactly right.
I have argued this before, and I will argue it again: The answer, of course, is to expand the field to at least six and, more appealingly, eight. Don’t let anyone make you believe the arguments against it — that college presidents want to protect “student-athletes” from too much football, that the regular season would be irreparably diluted — hold water, because they don’t. Television executives know it. Conference commissioners know it.
A field of eight would include the five champions of the major conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — plus the best team from outside those conferences and two at-large bids, regardless of conference. Seed them, have the higher seeds host the first-round games on campus, and — boom! — a smorgasbord.
This year, that would bring the following quarterfinal matchups: Alabama-Washington, Clemson-UCF, Notre Dame-Ohio State and Oklahoma-Georgia. In that case, the aggrieved party would be Michigan, left out because Pac-12 champ Washington needed a spot. But at least then you would be able to say to the Wolverines: Beat Ohio State, and the problem takes care of itself.
I love the College Football Playoff. It’s so much better than the system that preceded it, and it’s important to remember that.
But you don’t have to live in Athens or Columbus or Orlando to understand that the system we have remains imperfect. The schools from those towns will report to their bowl games and try to use those stages to further prove how wronged they were — rather than having the opportunity to decide it on the field. That’s what Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma all have. How great would it be if Central Florida, Georgia, Ohio State and Washington had that chance, too?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.