Four Downs on Week 1: The Grim Specter of the College Football Playoff

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I wasn’t trolling this spring when I wrote the College Football Playoff sorta sucks. Now, I really don’t like to go into the first full Saturday of the season’s Four Downs on a pessimistic note, but Week 1 offered plenty of reminder that the Playoff looms over everything with a Dracula-like presence, threatening to suck all the joy out of the sport beyond a simple narrative of “Who’s In?”

We still have a few weeks before The Open Man gets spooky in time for Halloween, but the Week 1 edition of Four Downs takes aim at a few of the ghoulish specters to be aware of this season. Consider the following less of a lament, and more of a public service announcement.

Prepare yourself. Thwart their advances.

FIRST DOWN: WHO’S OUT

So much discussion of WHO’S IN after one damn week, and not every Power Five program has played yet! On Friday night at halftime of the Stanford-San Diego State game, the FS1 studio show panelists launched into a discussion that wasn’t exactly original, declaring the Pac-12 out of the College Football Playoff race if Washington lost to Auburn on Saturday.

Washington did indeed lose, by less than a touchdown, in an ostensible road game wherein the Huskies controlled for good stretches but failed to capitalize on opportunities. Likewise, Auburn had missed opportunities early when it controlled. It was an exciting game with sloppiness inherent to the first game of the season.

Both will improve — just as Auburn did last year when it lost early to Clemson and went on to win both the SEC West, and two regular-season games against the finalists of the College Football Playoff.

Residual doubt toward the Pac-12 is justified based on last year’s awful bowl performances, and offensively anemic home losses for UCLA and Arizona do nothing to help. But Stanford looked much improved from a season ago (when it won its division), and Oregon and Utah have reason for optimism.

The microscopic sample size of just one week suggests that seemingly top-heavy Big Ten East has reason for concern, with both Michigan State and Penn State needing last-minute rallies to beat unheralded Group of Five opponents, and Michigan losing to Notre Dame (not an elimination game, to be clear). Big 12 teams needed a furious fourth-quarter comeback against a middling FCS opponent, Texas Tech was routed by an unknown in Ole Miss, and Texas again opened a season of high expectations with a thud.

And what all that means right now, on Sunday, Sept. 2? Who knows?

For those in need of a refresher, here is perhaps the best tweet in College Football Twitter history to explain why you shouldn’t write off a team (or entire conference, for that matter) in early September.

Now, that’s not to say some teams have not yet been eliminated from the Playoff. Here’s a rundown:

  • Two-loss New Mexico State
  • Two-loss Colorado State
  • Realistically, any Group of Five team with a loss
  • Kansas

Certainly one could argue that any number of Power Five programs with a Week 1 loss removed themselves from the conversation, but the beauty of the college football regular is that outside of the small handful of examples cited above (based on and backed with precedent) no one knows.

Let us enjoy the chaos without Playoff Predictor graphics or contrived studio-show arguments based on nothing. I think it’s fitting for a Pac-12 alum to have the best advice applied to Who’s In conversations this early in the season:

SECOND DOWN: CONTROL FREAKS

Winning as often and as resoundingly as Nick Saban requires laser-focus and a domineering presence that begets the buy-in of 85 players with a single goal. He owes his six total national championships, including the five won at Alabama that rendered him something of a living folk hero among fans and a media he openly reviles, to an unwavering approach.

So, the $7.5-Million Dollar Contract following the Crimson Tide’s annual tradition of smoking a Power Five conference opponent on a neutral field: Would Alabama really stopping dominating the sport if Nick Saban treated reporters with a modicum of respect?

For a necessary concession to perhaps explain, or at least understand Saban’s blow-up on ESPN reporter Maria Taylor, one can refer to First Down in this very column. College football media at large, and ESPN more specifically (and most aggressively) pushes narratives that range from eye-rolling to downright infuriating.

But in that moment, Taylor asked a reasonable question any reporter worth her salt will pose to a coach playing two quarterbacks — one of whom led his team to a national title game (twice) and the other, who effectively won a national title.

Most coaches would handle the controversy — which Saban insists isn’t a controversy, despite one of the quarterbacks, Jalen Hurts, saying just last month he had not been spoken to about his standing before fall camp — with a simple cliche.

You may counter, “Nick Saban isn’t most coaches, which is why he’s so successful.” Or, a more comment sentiment I have gleaned from social media, “He’s already been asked that question.” The latter is incorrect, since Taylor did not ask for a depth chart going forward, and rather an assessment of the game Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa just played. The former is debatable.

Saban’s surliness toes a line beyond the kind of absurdity ripe for parody, a la San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich…

…and a downright meanness, as put on display after Saturday’s blowout of Louisville.

There is a touchiness to the Hurts-Tagovailoa subject, however, that warrants more conversation. Hurts’ revelation he had not been addressed by his own coaches, from a staff notorious for internal control, encroaches on the larger dynamic of student-athletes’ control of their own destiny in the big-time football landscape.

A world in which Hurts has a 2018 season as a back-up laid out for him is conceivably a world where he’s playing for, say, UCLA, and Chip Kelly is not putting an overwhelmed true freshman in Dorian Thompson-Robinson into Saturday’s loss against Cincinnati.

These discussions that illuminate how little control athletes are afforded threatens the control coaches exert.

THIRD DOWN: FCS OVER FBS COUNTER = 4

Another fear that has to keep coaches up at the night: the prospect of losing to an FCS opponent, particularly for coaches of Power Five programs.

Lloyd Carr, for all his success at Michigan, has his legacy tied forever into a final season that opened with a loss to Appalachian State. The Mountaineers again threatening a Big Ten opponent on the 11th anniversary of the Michigan shocker, to the day, was poetic, even if Appalachian State is no longer FCS.

Kansas State, on the other hand, needed a kickoff returned for a touchdown and a stout defensive effort in the fourth quarter to narrowly survive against FCS South Dakota. Sunshine State counterparts in Lawrence were not so fortunate.

Nicholls State’s overtime win at Kansas will not resonate through the annals of college football history in the same way as Michigan’s 2007 loss to Appalachian State. However, there’s a comparable symbolism.

If Armanti Edwards running around the Michigan defense, and the Wolverines’ inability to keep up highlighted the evolution of the game — and, by extension, Lloyd Carr’s inability to adapt — Kansas looking like the inferior team against an FCS opponent demonstrates just how far the Jayhawks have fallen behind.

At the same time, however, a program need not be in the dire straits Kansas has faced for almost a decade in order for one to glean that the sport has never been more competitive from top-to-bottom.

That might seem like an absurd statement in an era when Alabama dominates the landscape, and only a very exclusive club of the usual contenders — Clemson, Ohio State and maybe Oklahoma or Georgia — look capable of knocking the Crimson Tide from their perch.

But consider the record number of FCS wins over FBS opponents, 10, has been reached twice. Both times occurred in the 2010s. Perennial FCS heavyweight North Dakota State routinely beats FBS competition, including Power Five competition, and a reasonable case could be made that North Dakota State could contend for the New Year’s Six bowl bid with the opportunity. NC State, which won’t be a slouch in the ACC, had a dog fight against 2017 FCS runner-up James Madison.

The 2018 season kicked off with Penn State having to rally against Appalachian State, and Michigan State doing likewise against Utah State. That’s less of an indictment against them it is a testament to the more robust, competitive landscape of college football in this era.

FOURTH DOWN: CREEP

My own hesitance to embrace the College Football Playoff ahead of its inaugural campaign was rooted in the concern the tournament would dominate the fall so overwhelmingly as to devalue what was (and still is) the best, most exciting regular season in sports.

It’s no secret that my first sports love was college basketball, and it remains my 1-B with college football. But growing up in the 1990s, I remember the college basketball regular season being treated with gravity, with meaning beyond data points to applied toward the NCAA Tournament.

Big Monday, Super Tuesday, Thursday night triple-headers, and fully stocked Saturdays were presented as can’t-miss television. In the 21st century, however, the college basketball regular season’s importance eroded proportionate to an ever-earlier emphasis on Selection Sunday.

Yes, the idea that every game matters toward making the Field of 68 would, in theory, heighten importance makes sense. But that’s not the case when influencers and pundits treat only March as meaningful, writing off teams in November. Before my green bean casserole had digested last Thanksgiving, I read at least one nationally recognized college basketball personality declare NC State, which ended up being pretty good and made the Tournament, as not being March-caliber.

You can only tell your audience something sucks for so long before they start to believe it and stop caring. Casual basketball fans were told for a decade-plus that only March matters, and as a result, the college basketball regular season can best be described as marginally more popular than niche.

A devaluation of the regular season drives down the actual value of inventory, forcing more aggressive investment into a more concentrated money-making endeavor. It’s why March Madness feels bigger and more garish than ever when college basketball’s regular season feels its most inconsequential in the post-cable era.

To that end, the college football audience being told only a handful of teams matter — I saw one article that posited just 14 teams could make the College Football Playoff this year — leads directly to the creep of expansion.

While rights-holder ESPN shoehorned Playoff talk into as many conversations as it could, the first two seasons of the four-team tournament assuaged my fears somewhat. They produced memorable games with worthy national championships and the four most worthy participants.

But as divisional runners-up made the field each of the last two years over opponents with head-to-head wins, and the BCS glass ceiling was reinforced with concrete last season, the system’s flaws become evident. And as flaws are exposed, the contingents not content with a four-team Playoff (who, in all honesty, probably never were) have added ammunition.

And even then, more ammunition can still miss the target. Let’s consider the following:

To Mike Tirico’s first point, yes: Michigan-Notre Dame matchups are great for college football. But they aren’t great for the College Football Playoff.

Alabama got into the field last year with a Sagarin strength-of-schedule that hovered in the 50s and 60s for much of the regular season, while SEC counterparts Auburn and Georgia boasted some of the toughest schedules in the nation. Ditto Ohio State.

Does Alabama get in if conference champions Ohio State and USC play nonconference games against lesser opponents than Playoff participant Oklahoma and Playoff contender Notre Dame? Does Auburn get the benefit of winning the division and beating Alabama head-to-head after the SEC Championship Game without the Clemson loss?

The precedent the College Football Playoff set isn’t so much its own, but rather than extension of the BCS years. Looking at the first season of the BCS shows power-conference teams scheduled much more ambitiously until the standard became rewarding record over competition.

The Playoff committee was presented an opportunity to change that, but kowtowing to the conferences that refuse to play nine games and penalizing teams for challenging themselves suggest the opportunity’s been missed. And if the aggressively pushed talking point of the weekend holds true — Washington cannot make the Playoff for losing what was ostensibly a road game against a good Auburn team, or Michigan’s out of the mix for falling short in its rally effort at Notre Dame — than Tirico’s argument is the exact opposite of true.

Expansion to an eight-team field does nothing to address this. As the flaws perpetuate — flaws the sport’s unsuccessfully tried to remedy with the Bowl Coalition and the BCS and the College Football Playoff — no amount of expansion will ever be effective. It will only serve to devalue the regular season to a point when January becomes football’s March.