College football is broken. Here's how it can be fixed.

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·7 min read

The College Football Playoff begins on New Year’s Day with No. 1 Alabama taking on No. 4 Notre Dame in one semifinal (5 p.m. ET) and No. 2 Clemson facing No. 3 Ohio State in the other (8:30 p.m.).

It is a familiar field — all four participants have previously made the 7-year-old playoff system. It’s the sixth appearance for Alabama and Clemson and the fourth for Ohio State. Of the 28 all-time playoff slots those three teams (plus Oklahoma) have taken up 20. (Notre Dame is making its second playoff appearance.)

Only six teams have ever won a playoff game, with LSU, Georgia and Oregon joining Bama, Clemson and Ohio State. Only LSU (last year) has won a title other than the big three.

The lack of diversity at the top has proven problematic for the sport and frustrating for fans (especially of other teams). It feels like every year you can pencil in Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State and the entire season boils down to who gets to be the other guy.

Even worse, since the selection process is subjective, the past actually matters. And since top recruits naturally want to compete in the playoff, postseason success appears to beget even more postseason success by expanding the gap between the select few powers and everyone else.

Regional competition has weakened — Clemson and Oklahoma have won their respective conferences six consecutive times, while Ohio State has won the Big Ten four times in a row. Once-proud leagues such as the Pac-12 have become afterthoughts nationally — this is the fourth consecutive playoff without a West Coast representative.

So how does it change? How does college football get some semblance of competitive balance back?

Some of it is inevitable (Nick Saban can’t coach forever, after all). Some of it can be procedural.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama head coach Nick Saban, right, talk before the Sugar Bowl semifinal playoff game in New Orleans on Jan. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama head coach Nick Saban, right, talk before the Sugar Bowl semifinal playoff game in New Orleans on Jan. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Expand the College Football Playoff

This might seem counterintuitive, especially in a season where there may only be two great teams (Clemson and Alabama), but while adding schools to the playoff might not alter the immediate result of who raises the trophy, it should greatly impact the future.

Recruiting is becoming increasingly concentrated with the playoff teams. Top players want to compete for a national title, and right now, very few teams offer a realistic path. With improvements in scouting, media and communication, it has become far easier for a team from, say, the Southeast to recruit West Coast stars.

In the class of 2020, Clemson signed the No. 1 player in California, per Rivals.com. Alabama signed the No. 2. That never used to happen.

By moving to an eight-team playoff and granting an automatic bid to all five of the major conference champions (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC), plus the best from the other leagues, there is more access and geographic balance. For a recruit living in Los Angeles, the path to the playoffs no longer has to run through leagues thousands of miles away. You can just win the Pac-12 or perhaps even the Mountain West Conference.

Moreover, almost any team can play its way in, not just get there based on perception. By granting a couple of extra at-large bids, a good team that stumbles would still have a chance, increasing the competition level. And by playing at least the quarterfinals on campus, major events would be scattered throughout the country, spreading the excitement of college football everywhere. Just winning a quarterfinal game would be celebrated and seen as a building block (the way reaching a Final Four is in basketball).

Would Alabama and Clemson still do best in recruiting? Sure. Probably. But this is about the margins. If a few more five-star recruits go elsewhere (literally anywhere), the entire sport becomes more competitive.

In the classes of 2017-2020, per Rivals, Alabama signed 17 five-star recruits. Notre Dame landed one. Is it a surprise the Tide are 20-point favorites on Friday? The Fighting Irish are an excellent program. They are completely out of their weight class, though, once the playoff comes.

It’ll probably be the same for whichever team is No. 4 next year, too. After all, nine of the 12 semifinal games ever played have been decided by double digits and five by 27 points or more.

Returns to prominence

A number of historically powerful programs are currently treading water. Nothing would change the make-up of the playoff quicker than great programs once again fielding great teams.

There is nothing stopping Florida, Florida State, Miami, Texas, USC and Oregon from getting back to their peak. Other programs such as Texas A&M, Auburn, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, UCLA, Virginia Tech or even Tennessee certainly have the potential to get to the national level.

A playoff is always going to be dominated by the biggest, richest conferences. It would be a bit more interesting if it was at least different teams from the same conferences.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney greet after the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney greet after the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Name, Image and Likeness

A Supreme Court decision in 2021 could upend or delay this, but laws across the land will soon begin to allow college players to profit off their fame and talent. No one is quite sure what is to come, but this should result in sponsorships, endorsements and promotional appearance money.

While many think the big schools will benefit the most, it is more likely that by bringing above-the-board money into the recruiting game, the talent will actually spread out.

Even at Alabama, there is only so much money (especially compared to other schools that also care about football). Being a big star in a smaller pond will be more profitable than just being another top recruit or top player in the Tide juggernaut. Put it this way: If you are a three-year starter at quarterback at Nebraska, there is a lot more NIL money to be captured in Lincoln than sitting on the bench in Tuscaloosa.

Compensation is what drives a huge portion of employment decisions in the real world, let alone professional sports. By letting money talk, a lot of different mid-level programs can level the field in recruiting — say a Michigan State or Arkansas or Boise State or Baylor or wherever. At least for some recruits.

Again, this is about the margins. If that spreads out the top recruits, then it will matter. The number of Rivals five-star recruits (35 in the class of 2020) is roughly the same as first-round draft picks in the NFL (32). In 2020, Alabama, Clemson and Georgia combined to sign 14 of the 35 five-stars in America. Imagine a NFL draft where just three teams had 40 percent of the first-round picks?

Lower that percentage and not only do the best teams get weaker but other programs get stronger, not to mention having star players worth watching even if they don’t reach a playoff.

NCAA transfer rules

Players are now allowed to transfer one time without having to sit out a season. The transfer portal means that recruiting never ends and players are free to move around and find the best fit for them.

This could work both ways, of course. Alabama could pluck a good offensive lineman from a mid-tier ACC team and solve a potential problem spot. It also could mean, however, that a mid-tier ACC team can offer playing time for guys stuck in the loaded Tide depth chart.

We will see what happens, but this, like a lot of things, is a potential disruptor worth watching.

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