WHY THIS COLLEGE FOOTBALL SEASON IS GREAT: ONLY 4 PLAYOFF TEAMS, NOT 12
Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Caleb Williams are all we need in America, but the forthcoming 12-team format would give life to Ohio State, LSU and even Clemson — diluting the $2-billion-a-year spectacle
For two billion reasons, each and every season, college football’s 12-team playoff cannot be stopped. You’ll stand a better chance of keeping Caleb Williams out of the end zone and photobombing his Heisman poses. Expansion will happen the year after next because media executives are megalomaniacs, university presidents are greedy S.O.B.s and elite head coaches want a fourth house in the Bahamas.
I’ve been a supporter of the bloat, figuring an uninterrupted three-week spectacle beats the current oxygen suck — stopping the season in early December, continuing on New Year’s Eve, finishing 10 days later. With first-round games on campuses and byes for the top four teams, it seemed fun and sensible. Gives Kirk Herbstreit a chance to do more commercials, as well, and we never can have enough of those. But now I’m wondering about the unwieldy, needless gluttony of a dozen teams. You too?
If the bigger brackets were in place this season, Ohio State would earn a berth when fans prefer to say good night to Ryan Day. And Alabama would stay involved despite two losses and no division title. And Tennessee would be in with two losses, no division title and no Hendon Hooker. LSU could qualify with four losses. Clemson would survive as Dabo Swinney ponders an escape hatch to the Carolina Panthers, or anywhere but Death Valley.
Why reward futility? Why dilute a good thing with volume?
In particular, why give new life to Day after he punted on fourth-and-5 from the Michigan 43, trailing by four points against an unstoppable offense as time slid away, and handed the No. 2 national ranking to Jim Harbaugh and the younger version of his smug self, J.J. McCarthy? “You have to play the field-position game. I felt the right thing to do was to punt,” said Day, after losing 45-23 amid boos, calls for his head and schadenfreudian glances from Urban Meyer, who surely wants his old job back.
Day’s approach was timid when juxtaposed against Michigan’s renewed swagger, which went AWOL for years and is about to swallow us all. “It feels great,” said a smiling Harbaugh, “to sing ‘The Victors’ in Columbus.’’
He felt even greater, a day later, when asked about his players planting a large Michigan flag on the block “O” logo at midfield. “I want to get that flag and put it in our museum,” Harbaugh said. “I think there's already plenty of fuel to the rivalry. They have songs, the one about they don't give a damn about the whole state of Michigan. It's all good. It's been going on for a century, don't you think? It's all good.”
His attitude rubs off on his quarterback. “Just give me the ball when we need some gritty yards,” said McCarthy, who waved goodbye to sulking fans in the Horseshoe after throwing three long touchdown passes and running for a fourth. “Let me go get them.”
He wants more of the gritty. “At the end of the day, this one doesn't even matter," McCarthy said. “The job's not finished, we have so much more to do and so many places to go, so we're ready to get after it.”
Michigan won this supersized version of The Game. Hail to the victors. Let the Wolverines advance and play for a national championship.
Ohio State imploded. Get out of the way, imposters. That’s how it works in 2022. But if this scenario happens again in November 2024, the Buckeyes will remain in the College Football Playoff instead of appropriately bowing out. Doesn’t seem right. Doesn’t seem healthy, either, for a mega-spectacle described as a threat to the NFL’s postseason.
What we have at present, deliciously, is a compelling quartet of worthy semifinalists and narratives. Georgia is the new Alabama, eyeing a dynasty as Kirby Smart heeds the best lessons of mentor Nick Saban and disregards the worst. Michigan brings the unanticipated revival of Harbaugh, who was forced to take a massive pay cut, snuck off to Minnesota and interviewed for an NFL gig he didn’t get, then coaxed every sweat bead of skill and joy from a team that abused the Buckeyes for the second time in 12 months. TCU is the interloper dropped from the sky, still undefeated and lending a fresh entree to a sport that needs an updated menu.
A villain is in the picture, too. USC threw $110 million at Lincoln Riley, then held its nose as he shepherded Williams to Los Angeles in a package deal, jilting Oklahoma like two hedge-fund raiders jumping Wall Street firms. Only this was the transfer portal, legal but shady, a device used to stock a thin roster with 26 new players. Williams is a showman in an entertainment town, and on a night when he raced and passed — and even punted, for 58 yards — he wasn’t about to let down his teammates when they demanded a Heisman Trophy pose.
“They kept saying it, so I just ended up doing it in the moment,” said Williams, who has accounted for 44 touchdowns this season and might be the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick after he picks up a stiff-arm statue next month in New York. Then again, he’s already a professional with his own national TV commercial, making him the foremost symbol of an NIL revolution that compensates college athletes for names, images and likenesses. Imagine the endorsements awaiting him in Hollywood, from an industry overloaded with USC types, if he leads the Trojans into the national title game a few miles from campus at SoFi Stadium. He and his team don’t seem collegiate, making them the perfect rogues providing they beat Utah in the Pac-12 title game, no easy Vegas side trip but an expected cash-in.
Enjoy the foursome while you have it. What fun to see Georgia-USC and Michigan-TCU in the semifinals, with Harbaugh salivating to conquer the world 10 years after he lost Super Bowl XLVII to his brother. He had the nerve to replace the successful Cade McNamara, who beat Ohio State, with a first-year QB starter. No one is questioning the move today. Pressured to win without the full health of Michigan’s most explosive weapon, running back Blake Corum, McCarthy exposed the enemy secondary. If he wasn’t so damned sure of himself, I wouldn’t burden him with this observation: He threw like Tom Brady and carried himself like Aaron Rodgers. Individually, his season had been sporadic, but external doubts never entered his brainstream. “I never let it creep in. I was always going to keep firing,” McCarthy said. “I always had 100 percent trust in every single one of my guys and in myself, and just to be able to do it today, it was so special. There's still so many things that we need to do to work on and get better, but it was just great to finally see it come to fruition.”
“He’s got it,” Harbaugh said of his young leader. “He’s got that ‘It Factor’ in every way.”
I find myself rooting for USC to beat Utah, because we know the chaos ahead if the Trojans lose. The push will be on for the Buckeyes, whose only loss was to the second-ranked team, to move into the No. 4 playoff spot. Already, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is lobbying hard for two teams. “One hundred percent. Clearly, Michigan and Ohio State are two of the best four teams in the country,” he told ESPN. “Great football game. Epic football game. You look at all the games you watch. Put even the rankings to the side. If you ask yourself, who are the teams that are better than these two football teams in the country?”
Also lobbying was … Ryan Day. “I thought we were in it, and we were fighting there at the end. It obviously got out of control down the stretch, but it wasn't like we were outmatched in terms of just overall play, I don't think,” he said. “As we get to those decisions, I think you have to get to the body of work and what we've done. We've got a lot of good pieces on this team and we came up short today. But I think if we were able to get a shot in the top four, we'd be a dangerous team.”
Really? “You can feel when their will breaks,” Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett said of the losers. “You can feel it go out of them.”
Also politicking was Saban, who smells an opening after losses to Tennessee and LSU seemed to eliminate Alabama. “I don't make those decisions, but I know what a resilient football team this has been," he said. “We've lost two games to top-10 opponents, both on the last play of the game and both on the road. We could have easily won both games but didn't. We're a good football team and hopefully people will recognize that and we'll get a chance.”
Ugh. One redeeming quality of a 12-team tournament: The arguments would be turned way down, with little interest in the 13th team left out, opposed to the furor when No. 4 squeezes out No. 5. But as sure as Bob Iger has returned as ESPN’s overseer, expansion is happening in 2024 — 11 playoff games, not three — which removes importance from a regular season that effectively has served as an incremental weeding-out process. Relentlessly maligned, the sport’s paradigm never has felt cleaner, crisper, better.
But now they’ll diminish it all by mixing the stumbling riff-raff with the established best, the dented wrecks with the shiny machines, and reduce instant classics to friendly postseason lead-ins. Is it too late to reconsider? This being college football, I’m afraid it is.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.