As one one-sided semifinal bled into another Saturday, as 12 months of anticipation, fueled by three months of regular season, fell apart like a sand castle at high tide, all I could think was this:
Thank goodness. Maybe this will quiet the talk of playoff expansion.
The playoff semifinals fit in nicely with the rest of this December. If you judge the December bowls the way we judge most football seasons these days, you would fire the coach. The games stank. Average winning margin: 20 points. Of 27 bowls played going into Monday, only 10 had a one-score margin at any time during the fourth quarter. Things got better over the past two days, when nine of 11 games were decided by one score (eight points or fewer).
As for the semifinals themselves, No. 3 Notre Dame, beset by injuries — which can happen when a team plays an opponent with bigger/stronger/faster players — fell apart in the final minute of the first half against No. 2 Clemson.
No. 4 Oklahoma came out against No. 1 Alabama and played the worst first quarter in a big game since, well, Oklahoma played the BCS final 14 years ago. Those Sooners took a 7-0 lead against USC and trailed 38-10 at the half. The Trojans won 55-19.
So it’s crushing. We discovered that Alabama and Clemson, the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 to start the season, are every bit as good as predicted.
Being right is no fun, is it?
This is the third time that Alabama and Clemson will play for the national championship in the five years of the playoff. In all three games, they have been No. 1 and No. 2. Put another way: Including the championship game Monday, the Crimson Tide and the Tigers will have won 11 of the past 12 playoff games. These two programs are succeeding simultaneously at a level that we haven’t seen in recent memory — more on that in a minute.
In the other two playoff seasons, when Alabama didn’t play Clemson for the title, the No. 4 team beat No. 1 in the semifinal, and then beat No. 3 for the national championship. It’s safe to surmise that, this season notwithstanding, the four-team format provides meaningful, compelling competition to determine the national champion.
However, I think it’s also fair to say that this season’s one-sided semifinal games also serve as persuasive evidence that expanding the playoff from four teams to eight will do nothing to make the postseason more competitive.
The reasons to expand the playoff are mostly political. Some leagues are sore at being left out. The experts argue over which team should be No. 4, and expansion this season, for example, would have made the argument over Oklahoma vs. Georgia vs. Ohio State moot. Everyone would have gotten a trophy.
But expansion would not automatically create a better product.
You want to expand the playoff? No. 7 Michigan, which wilted in the second half against No. 10 Florida, would have played No. 2 Clemson, the same Clemson that humiliated No. 3 Notre Dame, the same Notre Dame that beat Michigan.
Too strong a reaction to a Wolverines team that, beset by player desertion and injury, lost its mojo? Fine. Let’s look at five seasons of playoff history.
After the Michigan loss, the No. 7 team is 2-3 in its bowl games during the playoff era, with losses to No. 10, No. 12 and No. 12.
Look at how the No. 8 team has done in the playoff era:
2014: No. 5 Baylor 42, No. 8 Michigan St. 41
2015: No. 7 Ohio St. 44, No. 8 Notre Dame 28
2016: No. 8 Wisconsin 24, No. 15 Western Michigan 16
2017: No. 5 Ohio State 24, No. 8 USC 7
2018: No. 11 LSU 40, No. 8 UCF 32
That’s one win and four losses by the teams that would be the No. 8 seed. For the five years of the playoff, only Alabama and Clemson have been No. 1. Does anyone believe any of the above eighth-ranked teams, which haven’t beaten any team ranked above them, would have challenged a top-ranked Alabama or Clemson?
Take another look at that list. You see those two victories by No. 5 over No. 8? Those are the only victories by a fifth-ranked team in the playoff era.
Georgia made so many uncharacteristic mistakes — poor ballhandling, missed tackles, etc. — Tuesday night in its 28-21 loss to No. 15 Texas that the Bulldogs played as if they had a bad case of Woe Is Us.
Granted, there would be a lot fewer disappointed teams ranked 5-8 if they got slotted into a playoff instead of a bowl. There would be a lot fewer stars bailing out to preserve themselves for the NFL draft. I would like to think that those players would remain in college uniform for the chance to win a national championship.
And it might be shortsighted to write off the possibility of upsets. Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney won’t be coaching forever.
The most memorable trait of Saban’s Crimson Tide teams, other than their season-ending habit of taking confetti showers, is their ability to remain focused. They beat the teams they are supposed to beat by the margins by which they are supposed to beat them. It took the oddsmakers most of this season to figure out there’s no such thing as a spread too high for Alabama.
Alabama is one second short — the time remaining when Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson found Hunter Renfrow in the end zone two years ago — of playing for its fourth consecutive national championship. As it is, the Tide are looking for their sixth in 10 seasons. In those 10 seasons, Alabama has lost a total of 12 games, only three of them by more than one score.
Over the past four seasons, Clemson has reached that same level of dominance. Swinney’s Tigers have lost four games in that time, only one by more than one score — last year’s 24-6 semifinal loss to Alabama.
Maybe we just should wait until Saban and Swinney retire before we consider expanding the playoff. You could say that their Alabama and Clemson teams are draining the hope out of the postseason for everyone who isn’t a Tide or Tigers fan. Not to mention that extending the season, even if it’s just for eight teams, is a tough sell in an era when player safety and player compensation are being scrutinized more closely than ever.
But it seems pretty simple. If the goal is to make the postseason better, giving a chance to more teams that are less talented doesn’t achieve that goal.