SPORTS FOCUS: Behold! The college football problem

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It might be said that any effort is better than no effort.

But in the case of the College Football Playoff, no effort would have been better than any effort.

From the outset, when the big shakeup took place in the late 1970s that divided college football into Division I, Division I-A, Division II and Division III, only Division I was left to figure out its future when it came to a postseason. The other divisions devised a playoff system that, today, consists of 24 for Division I-A (it’s called Football Championship Subdivision now) and Division II; and 32 teams for Division III.

The Ivy League thought better of the whole playoff thing and decided to de-emphasize football and leave the bickering and chest-thumping to the other divisions.

Turns out, the Ivy League might have made the smart choice. The league that was competing with the big boys of college football for 50 or so years suddenly were playing just each other and other teams from its new tier.

Meanwhile, the Division I behemoths like Oklahoma, Alabama, Notre Dame, Penn State, and a host of other colleges and universities with burgeoning athletic budgets and revenues brought in by football, were fighting it out for superiority but only finding its destinies decided by the Associated Press and United Press International.

The structure of the Division I postseason was non-existent, as the growing number of bowl games was very entertaining and fun to watch but did little to settle the question of who the best team in the nation was. It is why, perhaps even today, the NCAA did not attach its name to the national champion. And, the winner of the cake and pie and ice cream and the main course was and should still be referred to as the “mythical” national champion.

It’s alright to speculate that when the current postseason matrix was conceived, and then rolled out in 2014, that Division I college football was heading in the direction of “super” teams. Years before, when divisions of the present Power 5 teams began expanding, the handwriting was on the wall. That was 1992. Three years later, and one year too late for Penn State fans that finished second behind Nebraska in both polls, the first Bowl Alliance game was played between Nebraska and Florida.

The drums continued to beat.

And they are still beating.

There are 129 FBS teams. Four playoff teams is a bit anticlimactic, especially when they are determined by a committee of not-so-likeminded individuals, some of whom know little if anything about football but resort to the same things that the computer guys did in the 1990s when determining Bowl Championship teams in weekly polls.

Most likely, four will become eight. But that will not change what has happened to major college football. Because, years ago an amateur sport was usurped and taken over by corporate giants and the rite of autumn became a parlor game.

Kudos to Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama and Cincinnati for being selected as the top four teams in America. No doubt, other teams will bust open the front door and find its name on the coveted list – the same ones who have been there since the CFP’s inaugural season seven years ago.

Maybe that is why there is and has been a growing chorus of folks who want the tournament expanded to six or eight teams. It’s doubtful that it will ever expand to 24 or 32. No, the big wigs who control the university systems, and the corporations who probably have a strong hand in decision-making that should be left to university board of directors, won’t allow such a drastic inclusion unless the money is right.

Indeed, in a world in which conference commissioners are earning multi-million dollar contracts and the CFP is handing out money like candy thanks, in part, to corporations doling out $20 million for bowl naming rights – and ESPN paying $600 million a year to air the playoffs.

Still, in the world of major college football, with so few teams seemingly built to dominate, a 16-team format probably wouldn’t work, because the same teams would rise to the top.

That doesn’t change the curiosity of what could be if there were more teams.

In 2014, TCU should have rightfully been included in the CFP. But Ohio State leapfrogged the Horned Frogs for the third seed. The Buckeyes went on to win the first CFP title, but that wasn’t the point. Same as Alabama in 2011 and 2017. The Crimson Tide did not win their conference but were still included in the CFP. Alabama won the national title both years, but that also wasn’t the point.

There’s always been the fly in the ointment that taints Division I college football. Ironically, it started in 1995 and has grown increasingly acute since then. The bowl games that followed the regular season provided something the sport and the viewing public needed: icing on the cake to an 11-game season.

Nowadays, when another menacing threat to the innocence (has it ever been innocent) of the game hovers in the form of legalized sports betting, it seems to me that all good intentions have been corrupted by greed and self-interest, and the future of big-time college football will be shrouded in decay brought on by those who thought they were doing right by teams but, in the end, were only dishing out the main course and dessert for themselves and their inner circle.

When it comes to college football, I consider myself an idealist – whose time has long passed. I remember the 1989 Holiday Bowl (Penn State vs. Brigham Young) like it was yesterday, with big plays and rallies and the right ingredients to add to the holiday season.

The greatness of college football lies in the moments of all competing teams, not just the chosen few. This is why I mourn the diminishment of bowl games across the board. The most exciting part of the season wasn’t when the top four are playing in the CFP, but the three weeks of bowl games which celebrated what college football is all about.

Now? There is no real excitement, even during the bowl season. The typical bowl games of the past are merely window dressing for the main show that comes later: the CFP semifinal games.

Let the chest-thumping begin! Or, more realistically, let the mourning continue for days gone by when it was a game, not a high stakes poker match.

Lee Goodwin writes about sports for Local.News. His column, “Sports Focus,” appears Fridays.

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