In 2017, sports fans were treated to competing visions of how a playoff should look.
The NHL playoffs were marked by parity. The two favorites in the West — the Blackhawks and Wild — were eliminated in the first round, with one being swept. The Senators made the Eastern Conference Finals despite being outscored during the regular season. And the Predators made a run to the Finals despite having the worst record of any playoff team.
The NBA playoffs were an exercise in dominance. The Cavs and Warriors combined to lose one playoff game before meeting for the third straight year, when the favored Warriors won in five. Games were uncompetitive, but unlike the NHL, there was a sense that the best teams are gaining their just rewards.
So where would we expect college football to fit on this continuum?
One would think it would be on the latter side. The sport has been dominated by a power elite, such that feudal analogies are appropriate. Recruiting allows the best teams to perpetuate their advantages. There is no salary cap or draft to even out talent, and the prohibition on paying players prevents the sugar-daddy phenomenon that allows European soccer clubs like PSG, Chelsea, and Manchester City to upset the established order.
But for reasons we’ll discuss, it rarely works like that. Alabama’s in the middle of the greatest run ever, but college football still looks nothing like the old Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
If college football were to be dominated by two teams, Bama would be one. Ohio State or Clemson might be the other.
- Bama has made the first three playoffs.
- Ohio State eliminated Bama in 2014 and is a three-point loss to Michigan State from also making all three.
- Clemson has made a pair. The fact that Bama-Clemson was CFB’s first true title rematch shows how hard it is for this sport to have a duopoly.
- And Clemson beat OSU in major bowls in 2013 and 2016.
- Nick Saban and Urban Meyer have combined for eight titles at four schools. Saban and Meyer have four times as many as the rest of active coaches combined, as Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney are the only others.
- Given the strong link between blue chip talent and national titles, it is foreboding that Alabama has seven straight No. 1 classes, Ohio State had a higher average in 2017 and is off to an epic start in 2018, and Clemson holds verbals from the top two 2018 players.
- Meyer, Swinney, and Saban are above-average in overachieving their expected results, with Meyer one of the best at squeezing extra wins out of his teams.
Rivals have to overcome talent deficits, which means beating Saban, Swinney, and Meyer at development, scheming, and strategy. Sounds simple.
So what would prevent Bama and Clemson from meeting in a third straight championship game, matching the Warriors and Cavs? Or Bama and Ohio State starting a string of meetings, renewing acquaintances after they played in 2014? Or Clemson vs. Ohio State in another few playoffs?
In other words, what about college football prevents it from becoming the NBA?
1. It’s hard to find a truly transcendent player
Clemson shut out Ohio State, came from behind to beat Alabama in the 2016 Playoff, and is one surprise season away from a potential three-match with Bama. The Tigers are not a historical blue blood on par with Bama and Ohio State, but they are in this conversation in no small part because of one player: Deshaun Watson.
Just as the 73-win Warriors in 2016 found themselves helpless against LeBron James, Alabama had no answers for Watson. In two games, Watson put up 825 yards passing with seven touchdowns and only one pick. He added in 116 yards rushing.
Alabama and Ohio State cannot monopolize talent, so one transcendent player can beat the best. Put a player like Watson in the right scheme and with good teammates, and even Saban will be reduced to surprise onside kicks.
2. The variability of football results
The NBA tends to have predictable results because it is a high-scoring game with only five players on the court, limited substitutions for the best players, and seven-game series that reduce the possibility of upsets. Michael Mauboussin, take it away:
College football will never be as predictable as the NBA. The regular season is short, and the playoff is small, so one bad game can be fatal.
Ohio State might have had the best team in 2015, but one instance of a poor game plan in bad weather conditions cost the Buckeyes even a shot at defending their title.
The Warriors could get away with a stinker in Game 4 against the Cavs this year,, because a seven-game series affords that luxury. Ditto for the Cavs’ casual approach to the regular season.
College football is more exciting in the sense that teams do not get the slack that pro teams have, but the flip side is that it is harder for teams to dominate.
3. Coaching turnover
Meyer was on the cusp of a dynasty at Florida, in which case the Saban-Meyer rivalry would have continued at the Georgia Dome. That dynasty was derailed by a number of factors — Meyer’s health, a loss of control over the program, Cam Newton throwing a laptop — but a major reason is that Meyer did a poor job of replacing Dan Mullen. Meyer promoted Steve Addazio, who presided over an offense that collapsed (Addazio’s Boston College finished 124th in Offensive S&P+ last year.)
Meyer made a similar mistake after the 2014 championship. Meyer replaced Tom Herman with Tim Beck and Ed Warinner as co-coordinators. The result was the horrible game plan against Michigan State, followed by an offense that struggled to throw or hit big plays. Meyer has since hired Kevin Wilson, who has a sterling reputation as an offensive mind.
Saban has had similar issues. After losing Jim McElwain following 2011, Saban handed the offensive reins to Doug Nussmeier before replacing him with Lane Kiffin. Kiffin did a fine job, then left for Florida Atlantic, leading to one game of Steve Sarkisian and then Brian Daboll from the New England Patriots. Will Daboll be able to match Kiffin’s work? Can Alabama win a shootout if a quarterback like Watson proves impossible to stop?
This is a particular risk for Clemson. Swinney is not noted as an expert on one side of the ball like Saban (defense) or Meyer (offense). His program took off when he hired Chad Morris to run his offense and hit another gear when he hired Brent Venables to run the defense. He’s handled turnover so far.
4. Rising rivals
Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State are limited to 85 scholarship players. As good as recruiting services have gotten, there is still unpredictability as to how 18-year-olds will perform.
It’s entirely possible that Michigan will have better luck with its six 2017 top-100 signees than Ohio State will have with 11, or that LSU will have more luck with its seven top-100 recruits than Bama will with 15. Clemson is in a division with Florida State, a perennial recruiting power that just pulled in a class with 12 top-300 recruits.
It’s possible that Pep Hamilton and Greg Frey will upgrade Michigan’s offense more than Wilson will Ohio State’s. The same is true for Matt Canada at LSU. Ohio State need only look at the Big Ten team that beat OSU last year (Penn State) to see the effect that one smart hire (Joe Moorhead) can have.
Players cycle through every four years, and coaches move constantly. These winds push against even Mount Rushmore coaches.
A historical example
College football was closest to a recent duopoly in the ‘90s. Florida State and Nebraska had the best records of major-conference teams during that decade. They combined for five national titles and 15 conference titles. They had legendary head coaches in their primes.
And they only met in one title-equivalent game, which was fittingly a classic. (In fairness, with a four-team playoff, they would have had a good chance of meeting in ‘97 and ‘99.)
- Some years, one ran into a rival at the top of its game, as Florida State was kept out of title games by Miami early in the decade and Florida in the middle.
- The Noles can also attribute their failures to win national titles in 1995 and 1996 to a transcendent player: Danny Wuerffel.
- Some years, they had a bizarre result deprive them of title shots, like Nebraska’s losses to Texas in 1996 and 1999.
- And Nebraska was ultimately felled by Osborne’s retirement.
The Rule of Two may work in the NBA, but it is a virtual impossibility in college football.