ESPN color commentator Jordan Rodgers offered a comment on the telecast of Tuesday’s Cactus Bowl between Kansas State and UCLA that was both fundamentally flawed, and of growing prevalence among certain circles of college football media and fan bases:
“Success in college football is making the College Football Playoff…Every move should be a step in that direction. Not a lateral step.”
The sentiment makes enough sense, even reflective of the American Dream. Every program should set an ultimate goal of winning a national championship — well, every program given an opportunity to win a national championship, anyway.
But the College Football Playoff is just that: an ultimate goal.
So much focus among those who cover the sport turned to the College Football Playoff upon the system’s inception, that the Playoff’s now woven into everything. This singular emphasis on the Playoff is a natural evolution, for better or worse.
College football was once more localized, with the pursuit of conference championships taking priority. Cable TV’s proliferation in the 1980s bridged the distance between regions, and the split national championships that had long been a sometimes-unavoidable reality of the sport made less and less sense.
Clamoring for a truer national championship produced the Bowl Coalition, which gave way to the BCS, and finally, the College Football Playoff. With every step toward a “true” national championship, the importance of both conference championships and bowl games degraded.
That leaves us at a point in 2017 where a not-insignificant minority of the USC fanbase on social media clamors for Clay Helton’s firing after seasons of 10-3 with a Rose Bowl Game win, and 11-2 with the program’s first conference championship in nearly a decade — all because the Trojans have yet to participate in the College Football Playoff.
I use USC as a case-study through which to break down Rodgers’ comments. USC is a college football blue blood; a program rich in history, both ancient and recent, boasting the resources to compete at a high level each and every year.
The Trojans won the Pac-12 this season, but finished out of the Playoff top four, ostensibly because of a three-point loss to a Top 25 team, played in the conference’s most remote outpost on six day’s rest — which is to say that the definition Rodgers (and untold others both among the taste-making punditry as well as fans) defines success is wildly narrow.
Of course, USC enjoying the benefits of rich history, a deep, local recruiting pool and virtually endless resources means Helton will eventually have to reach the Playoff to keep his job. Athletic director Lynn Swann said as much in the moments immediately following January’s Rose Bowl. Helton himself, despite touting a conference title as the primary goal before the season, has alluded to that being the ultimate goal.
But what of the 50-to-60 Power Five-conference programs that do not have the lineage of USC, that also lack the nearby recruiting base, and do not have the same resources, whether monetary or academic? Because Rodgers voiced what so many others think on a telecast featuring Kansas State, let’s consider the Wildcats.
Before Bill Snyder came to Manhattan, K-State football toed the line of extinction. In his two tenures as head coach, Snyder built an unlikely, consistent winner.
The program lacks meaningful history before Snyder, and despite his success, is not exactly built to maintain a high standard after he retires. Manhattan itself is no recruiting hotbed, and the state of Kansas in general isn’t teeming with elite prospects.
Snyder’s had to get creative, as any successor would have to in order to maintain K-State’s place as an annual bowl participant.
It’s not realistic to expect Snyder or any coach who may follow him to have the same standards as USC. Though Snyder proved challenging for Big 12 championships is a realistic possibility, that often marked the culmination of the perfect confluence of factors.
And, in years past for college football, a conference championship would be celebrated as the pinnacle of success for a program like K-State.
For Jordan Rodgers to voice such an opinion on program success comes with its own irony, Rodgers having played quarterback at Vanderbilt.
In his time with the Commodores, they reached just the second and third bowl games for the program in a 25-year span. Those bowl games were also just the fifth and sixth in Vanderbilt history. The first of those postseason bids, in 2011, was earned with a 2-6 SEC record.
And was Rodgers’ time at Vanderbilt a success? Given the program’s history and its rigorous academic standards dwindling the recruiting pool, the answer is unequivocally yes. Vanderbilt may play in the SEC, the self-professed best football conference, but the Commodores ever competing for a national championship is an unrealistic expectation.
But the topic isn’t Vanderbilt nor Jordan Rodgers, who simply voiced a narrative that’s been repeated in less blunt terms throughout the College Football Playoff’s short life.
And why shouldn’t it? Coaches are being paid a national championship wage, they should be expected to deliver a national championship result. Right?
Well, it’s true that coaching staffs now earn exponentially higher salaries than even just a decade ago — but it’s the case across the sport. What was a national championship-staff wage in the early 2000s is a solid Conference USA contract in 2017.
Meanwhile, at Power Five programs, a $3 million-a-year contract does not beget top-tier expectations if it’s the conference median.
The situation will eventually become untenable, or the market will self-correct. Athletic departments cannot cycle through coaches every few years without stunting the rebuilding process. USC taking nine years to win a conference championship is an example.
The negatives may also outweigh the positives of taking on one of these Power Five jobs, possibly making Group of Five positions that are inherently not in the College Football Playoff discussion more attractive.
Consider Lane Kiffin, fired at USC 18 games removed from a 10-win season and dismissed from his offensive coordinator’s position at Alabama amid a Playoff run. Because salaries have risen across the board, Kiffin will earn pretty damn good at FAU for as long as he’s there. And, so long as the Owls continue to reach bowl games and compete for C-USA championships, he will be asked to stay at FAU for as long as he wants (barring scandal).
So long as success is defined exclusively by the College Football Playoff, college football is almost entirely doomed for disappointment. It’s an unrealistic and unattainable standard, and one that if maintained, could lead to profound changes.