This was the year. This was time. This was the opportunity.
The College Football Playoff could’ve added excitement and intrigue to its event. It had the chance to use the fractured season as a test run for an extended playoff, to follow MLB, the NHL and the NBA.
Instead, the powers-that-be stood still. They didn’t make any changes. They kept the stale status quo.
College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told The Post the idea of expanding for just this season was discussed, but the management committee decided it wasn’t the right thing to do. The talks began after the season had started, and the committee didn’t feel it made sense to change the format at that time.
“Looking back, it was the right thing to do,” Hancock said. “I’m glad we’re not sitting here trying to get in seven playoff games. Getting three played will be plenty of a challenge.”
And so Sunday’s announcement gave us the same predictable teams with the same predictable championship game feeling inevitable. For the sixth time in seven years, Alabama and Clemson were invited, seeded one and two, respectively. For the fourth time, No. 3 Ohio State will be one of the four teams. For the second time, fourth-seeded Notre Dame will be included. So it is teams from the SEC, ACC and Big Ten, though the traditionally independent Irish are spending just one year affiliated with a conference.
Yet again, an undefeated non-power-conference team was left out. This time it was Cincinnati playing the role of Central Florida, the little guy with no shot. In the seven-year history of the playoff, a Group of Five program has never been included. It hasn’t even finished in the top seven. Cincinnati was ranked eighth on Sunday, behind three-loss Florida and two-loss Oklahoma.
If you line up the résumés, it’s understandable why the Bearcats weren’t really part of the discussion. They had just one win over a top-25 team and their best victory, over No. 24 Tulsa, could hardly compare to Notre Dame defeating No. 2 Clemson and No. 13 North Carolina, or Texas A&M beating No. 7 Florida, or Oklahoma knocking off No. 10 Iowa State and No. 20 Texas.
“No matter the name of the school or the name of the conference, the committee watches the games and fills those four spots with what the committee believes … are the best four teams in the country,” said Gary Barta, the committee chair.
Barta said had this been a regular year, BYU could’ve been the rare non power-conference school to reach the playoff, since it was scheduled to play five power-conference programs. That, of course, didn’t happen.
He was asked several times if he was concerned that power conferences programs have a monopoly on the playoff, that the sport lacks a Cinderella, and he danced around the question each time. His answer, ultimately, was it is the committee’s job to pick the four best teams.
He’s right. That is its job. The problem doesn’t land with the committee. It is the archaic system that doesn’t allow the committee to include a David, only Goliaths. It gives us the same teams every year. If Alabama and Clemson win their semifinal contests as expected, they will play for the title for the fourth time in five years.
That’s not to say eight teams would lead to a different championship game or even different semifinal pairings. We may wind up with the exact same four teams in the final four.
But maybe we wouldn’t have. Maybe we get an upset. Maybe we get different teams playing for a title. At least, some new programs would have a chance. In this system, only a handful of teams can really dream big.
The playoff could have decided, in the interest of fairness, it was expanding this year, because it would be so hard to evaluate teams fairly due to so few non-conference games and a differing amounts of games being played. On Sunday, Barta brought up the difficult nature of evaluating teams without crossover games.
This could’ve been used as an experiment, to see what an eight-team playoff would be like, to grant bids to the five power conference winners, the highest-ranked Group of Five team and add two wild cards.
North Carolina coach Mack Brown and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, whose team finished fifth behind Notre Dame, both said Sunday the playoff should be expanded, and use bowls in that expansion. There has been a recent trend of star players sitting out meaningless bowl games to protect their professional interests. This could somewhat solve that problem.
“I’m a traditionalist and never thought I would say that. But in today’s times, we do [need playoff expansion],” said Fisher, who was otherwise muted in his criticism of the committee.
This year, of all years, screamed for innovation and flexibility. We saw plenty of it during the regular season. Games were scheduled on the fly, teams played significantly shorthanded, and players made sacrifices.
But that can-do attitude didn’t extend to the playoff. College football will get more of the same on New Year’s Day and Jan. 11, the date of the title game. The sport missed a golden opportunity.
The chance to boost stock is over. There are no more games left until the votes for the Heisman Trophy have to be in. The deadline is Monday, the finalists will be announced Thursday, and the award will be presented in a virtual ceremony on Jan. 5.
Here is how The Post ranks the top five contenders:
QB Kyle Trask, Florida
He’s the nation’s leader in passing yards (4,125), touchdown passes (43) and passing yards per game (375). He nearly upset undefeated and top-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship game, tossing three touchdown passes and throwing for 408 yards. Playing with a sieve of a defense, the pressure was on the senior every week to put up massive numbers, and he was consistent, producing at least three scores in each of the Gators’ 11 games.
QB Mac Jones, Alabama
The numbers — 76.5 completion percentage, 32 touchdown passes, 3,739 passing yards — are obviously impressive. The consistency is hard to ignore. He led Alabama to an undefeated regular season and just one close game. But is Jones even the Crimson Tide’s most valuable player? Is he more important than dynamic wide receiver DeVonta Smith and do-it-all running back Najee Harris. It’s hard to give the Heisman to a team’s third-best player.
QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Lawrence delivered a strong final statement, dominating Notre Dame in the ACC Championship game to the tune of 412 total yards and three touchdowns. He finished what will likely be his last college season with 29 total touchdowns in nine games, four interceptions, and most importantly, an undefeated record as the starter. If not for those two games he missed due to a positive COVID-19 test, Lawrence may have become Clemson’s first Heisman winner.
WR DeVonta Smith, Alabama
Smith, Alabama’s all-time leading receiver, more than picked up the slack for injured star Jaylen Waddle, racking up 98 catches for 1,511 yards and an SEC-record 17 touchdown receptions. His 40 career touchdowns is another conference record — and he was this Crimson Tide’s No. 4 receiver last year. Mind-boggling depth.
RB Najee Harris, Alabama
Yes, three Alabama players make my top five. They are the engine to the best team in the country. Harris, the leader in rushing touchdowns with 24, produced five scores in the SEC title game, and would have rushed for far more than 1,262 yards had the Crimson Tide’s games been more competitive and he didn’t spend so much time on the sideline.