Through six years of the College Football Playoff experiment, the CFP semifinals have been a little bit like the Chicago Cubs‘ Kyle Schwarber — hitting only .250, but with three 500-foot home runs. Twelve combined semis have produced just three one-possession finishes, but all three of these games — 2014’s Ohio State-Alabama, 2017’s Georgia-Oklahoma, and now 2019’s Clemson-Ohio State — were classics.
Combined with three amazing championship games, the CFP basically gives us one sure banger per season. Beyond that, however, it has also helped to change some career narratives in subtle ways.
Here are the national title games we would have gotten had the CFP never replaced the Bowl Championship Series. (Games in bold differ from what we ended up getting from the CFP.)
• 2014: Alabama vs. Florida State
• 2015: Alabama vs. Clemson
• 2016: Alabama vs. Clemson
• 2017: Clemson vs. Georgia
• 2018: Alabama vs. Clemson
• 2019: LSU vs. Ohio State
Without the CFP, Urban Meyer never plays for, or wins, a national title at Ohio State. A 2014 BCS title game would have likely pitted unbeaten Florida State against Alabama, leaving the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl.
Without the CFP, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t get a chance to pull off a title-winning miracle in the 2017 finale — the Crimson Tide are in some BCS bowl while Georgia and the most flawed Clemson team of the past five years play for the title. (At the same time, the Tide potentially win a 2014 title that evaded them in reality.)
Without the CFP, Dabo Swinney’s unbeaten Tigers maybe don’t get a shot at the title at all in 2019, as computers almost certainly rank them behind unbeaten LSU and Ohio State teams with better schedules.
When looking back, we treat national titles as preordained in some ways. Nick Saban has seven of them, and it’s an exact measure of his greatness. Miami’s four titles in nine years made The U a late-1980s dynasty. Et cetera. But so much could have changed with just a slight change in format. And in just six years, the CFP’s mere existence has changed a lot — enough that it made me and my what-if brain wonder what it might have changed had we gotten a playoff before 2014.
In “War As They Knew It,” author Michael Rosenberg writes about how there was a growing clamor for a college football playoff in the late 1970s. For instance, the chaotic 1977 bowl season — in which Notre Dame (ranked No. 5 heading into the bowls) won the national title by wrecking No. 1 Texas, getting help from losses by No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 4 Michigan, and hopping No. 3 Alabama in the polls — was seen as proof of either the beauty of the quixotic bowl system or the dire need for a playoff.
Let’s pretend for a moment that those with the latter view actually won out eventually, and a playoff began in 1979. Using the top four in the final AP poll of the regular season, here’s how things would have taken shape.
There’s obviously a chance that voters look at certain teams differently if the No. 4 spot in the polls now carries more weight. There are examples through the years of two-loss conference champions getting the No. 4 ranking over one-loss champs and whatnot, and maybe some of that changes. But to keep things simple, we’re just going with the top four that actually existed.
Note: Teams that were banned from the postseason — Florida in 1984, Ohio State in 2012 — were omitted from this exercise. Auburn went 11-0 in 1993 but ranked fifth at the end of the regular season and thus wouldn’t have been included anyway.
1. Ohio State (11-0) vs. 4. Florida State (11-0)
2. Alabama (11-0) vs. 3. USC (10-0-1)
1. Georgia (11-0) vs. 4. Oklahoma (9-2)
2. Florida State (10-1) vs. 3. Pitt (10-1)
Upstart Florida State scores two early bids, and while Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles are likely no match for a loaded 1979 field, they might have the pieces to hold their own in 1980.
This makes you wonder if the “we’ll play anyone, anytime, anywhere” ethos that defined this period of Bowden’s program development — here’s your reminder that FSU played road games against Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt and LSU CONSECUTIVELY in 1981 — would hold true. Why play anyone anywhere if you are already an annual playoff contender?
1. Clemson (11-0) vs. 4. Nebraska (9-2)
2. Georgia (10-1) vs. 3. Alabama (9-1-1)
1. Georgia (11-0) vs. 4. SMU (10-0-1)
2. Penn State (10-1) vs. 3. Nebraska (11-1)
1. Nebraska (12-0) vs. 4. Illinois (10-1)
2. Texas (11-0) vs. 3. Auburn (10-1)
1. BYU (12-0) vs. 5. Nebraska (9-2)
2. Oklahoma (9-1-1) vs. 4. Washington (10-1)
1. Penn State (11-0) vs. 4. Iowa (10-1)
2. Miami (10-1) vs. 3. Oklahoma (10-1)
The early 1980s were a massive transition era for the sport. (After all, nothing says “TRANSITION PERIOD” in bold, blinking lights like Illinois making the CFP.) Only Nebraska played a consistent role in the title races during this period, and because of their 1984 Orange Bowl upset at Miami’s hands, the Cornhuskers never actually won a national title.
With a CFP, however, that Orange Bowl upset doesn’t get a chance to happen. Miami was fifth in the AP poll in 1983 heading into bowl season and won the title in part because No. 2 Texas and No. 4 Illinois both lost. (No. 3 Auburn was hopped by the Hurricanes despite a Sugar Bowl victory over Michigan, a massive disservice for a team that had been definitively better than Miami for almost the entire season.) With a four-team playoff, Miami is playing in some other bowl to finish up an intriguing but ring-free season.
Without a Miami title, does coach Howard Schnellenberger still leave for an ill-fated venture in the USFL in 1984? Possibly not. Does he continue to further the program’s momentum the same way successor Jimmy Johnson eventually would? And if Schnellenberger isn’t gone, how long does Johnson remain at Oklahoma State? Where might he leave for instead?
For this experiment, Miami indeed keeps rolling, but the simple existence of a playoff might have drastically changed the trajectory of what would become the most dominant power of the (rest of the) 1980s.
1. Miami (11-0) vs. 4. Michigan (10-1)
2. Penn State (11-0) vs. 3. Oklahoma (10-1)
1. Oklahoma (11-0) vs. 4. Syracuse (11-0)
2. Miami (11-0) vs. 3. Florida State (10-1)
1. Notre Dame (11-0) vs. 4. Florida State (10-1)
2. Miami (10-1) vs. 3. West Virginia (11-0)
1. Colorado (11-0) vs. 4. Notre Dame (11-1)
2. Miami (10-1) vs. 3. Michigan (10-1)
1. Colorado (10-1-1) vs. 4. Miami (9-2)
2. Georgia Tech (10-0-1) vs. 3. Texas (10-1)
Barring a change in Miami’s trajectory, the Canes end up making eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1985 through 1992, plus another one in 1994. Five other schools make multiple appearances in the 1986-90 range. The power consolidated in this part of the decade. (This, of course, assumes no change in Nebraska’s trajectory if the Huskers secure a ring or two in the early 1980s.)
1. Miami (11-0) vs. 4. Michigan (10-1)
2. Washington (11-0) vs. 3. Florida (10-1)
1. Miami (11-0) vs. 4. Texas A&M (12-0)
2. Alabama (12-0) vs. 3. Florida State (10-1)
1. Florida State (11-1) vs. 4. Notre Dame (10-1)
2. Nebraska (11-0) vs. 3. West Virginia (11-0)
1. Nebraska (12-0) vs. 4. Colorado (10-1)
2. Penn State (11-0) vs. 3. Miami (10-1)
1. Nebraska (11-0) vs. 4. Ohio State (11-1)
2. Florida (12-0) vs. 3. Northwestern (10-1)
Only four teams make multiple appearances in this range — three Florida schools and a resurgent Nebraska. This range of years, however, reminds us of one of the primary draws of having a playoff at all: fewer what-ifs. Miami and Washington maybe would have actually played each other in 1991, just as Colorado and Georgia Tech could have in 1990 and Nebraska and Penn State might have in 1994.
We might look back with fondness over the quirks of the pre-CFP or pre-BCS era, but in real time it left certain seasons feeling unfinished and unsettled.
1. Florida State (11-0) vs. 4. Ohio State (10-1)
2. Arizona State (11-0) vs. 3. Florida (11-1)
1. Michigan (11-0) vs. 4. Florida State (10-1)
2. Nebraska (12-0) vs. 3. Tennessee (11-1)
1. Tennessee (12-0) vs. 4. Kansas State (11-1)
2. Florida State (11-1) vs. 3. Ohio State (10-1)
1. Florida State (11-0) vs. 4. Wisconsin (9-2)
2. Virginia Tech (11-0) vs. 3. Nebraska (11-1)
1. Oklahoma (12-0) vs. 4. Washington (10-1)
2. Miami (10-1) vs. 3. Florida State (11-1)
Now comes Florida State’s turn as the sport’s brightest light — the Seminoles make all five CFPs from 1996 through 2000. In real life, the Seminoles won only one title in this span, but a playoff offers them a shot at a run of rings.
Again, a simple four-team format helps to complete seasons that felt incomplete — 1998, for instance, where maybe the two best overall teams (Ohio State and Kansas State) suffered late-season upsets, allowing a Florida State team without injured QB Chris Weinke to reach the title game instead.
This leads to a question: Is college football made better by its controversies? For some of the more controversial games and/or title selections of this time period, a playoff offers us a way out.
In 1982, Nebraska fell short in the national title race in part because of a horrific call late against Penn State; with a CFP, the two teams play again. The same went for Cleveland Gary’s fumble in the 1988 Miami-Notre Dame game. That basically determined the national title, but with a CFP it would have merely dropped Miami a spot or two in the rankings before a potential final rematch. In 1993, Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame beat Florida State but lost to Boston College the next week and fell short of the Noles in the polls. Here, we might get a rematch once more.
I feel college football is great despite these controversies and arguments, but I think a decent-sized strain of college football fans, writers, etc., almost celebrate these controversies instead of longing for a righting of old wrongs.
1. Miami (11-0) vs. 4. Nebraska (11-1)
2. Oregon (10-1) vs. 3. Colorado (10-2)
1. Miami (12-0) vs. 4. Georgia (12-1)
2. Ohio State (13-0) vs. 3. Iowa (11-1)
1. USC (11-1) vs. 4. Michigan (10-2)
2. LSU (12-1) vs. 3. Oklahoma (12-1)
1. USC (12-0) vs. 4. California (10-1)
2. Oklahoma (12-0) vs. 3. Auburn (12-0)
1. USC (12-0) vs. 4. Ohio State (9-2)
2. Texas (12-0) vs. 3. Penn State (10-1)
From 2001 through 2003, we see 11 different schools make a CFP appearance, a level of variety unfathomable to our 2020 selves. But then USC takes over. The Trojans go to three consecutive playoffs and only narrowly miss in 2002, 2006, 2007 and 2008. (I’m curious, actually, whether their running dominance would earn them some extra fourth-place votes in the 2006-08 range.)
1. Ohio State (12-0) vs. 4. LSU (10-2)
2. Florida (12-1) vs. 3. Michigan (11-1)
1. Ohio State (11-1) vs. 4. Georgia (10-2)
2. LSU (11-2) vs. 3. Oklahoma (11-2)
1. Florida (12-1) vs. 4. Alabama (12-1)
2. Oklahoma (12-1) vs. 3. Texas (11-1)
1. Alabama (13-0) vs. 4. Cincinnati (12-0)
2. Texas (13-0) vs. 3. TCU (12-0)
1. Auburn (13-0) vs. 4. Wisconsin (11-1)
2. Oregon (12-0) vs. 3. TCU (12-0)
Here’s another question: Do CFP bids add to your job security even if you don’t win a title?
Under Mark Richt, Georgia makes the show in both 2002 and 2007; the Bulldogs would have had a chance against Miami in 2002 but probably would have fallen short. In 2007, however, they were maybe the hottest team in the country and would have had an excellent shot at beating Ohio State and either LSU or Oklahoma. Does this help Richt to survive a run of lesser (but still very high-quality) play in Nick Saban’s shadow in the 2013-15 range? And does Les Miles get run out of Baton Rouge sooner if the Tigers lose in a 2007 CFP?
1. LSU (13-0) vs. 4. Stanford (11-1)
2. Alabama (11-1) vs. 3. Oklahoma State (11-1)
1. Notre Dame (12-0) vs. 5. Oregon (11-1)
2. Alabama (12-1) vs. 4. Florida (11-1)
1. Florida State (13-0) vs. 4. Michigan State (12-1)
2. Auburn (12-1) vs. 3. Alabama (11-1)
Solve one problem and create another: We get the Alabama-Oklahoma State game we deserved in 2011, but Auburn’s classic 2013 Iron Bowl upset of Alabama results in … a rematch with Bama, one in which the Tide would almost certainly be favored. Combined with the real-life 2017 season, this might mean twice in five years where Auburn beats Alabama to win the SEC West, then watches from home as the Crimson Tide play for the title.
So what did this exercise accomplish, other than giving fans of teams such as Illinois, Syracuse and California a chance to dream of their CFP moments and fill Auburn fans with both happy (1983 justice!) and less-than-happy thoughts (2013 rematch!)? If nothing else, it reinforces the idea of second chances. The biggest difference between now and the pre-CFP era is that we hand out a couple more mulligans each season than we used to. That might tamp down on lasting, decades-long controversies and debates, but it also allows us to right some wrongs.
It also adds to dynasty opportunities. Even with brilliant teams, the lack of extra mulligans meant that coaches like Bowden (two titles) and Tom Osborne (2.5) didn’t win quite as many rings as their overall records suggested they could have. Osborne could have ripped off a string of titles in the early 1980s, just as Bowden could have in the late 1990s, if not before. This could have paved the way for dynasties that didn’t quite take shape, too — Ohio State could have won it all in 1996 and 1998, for instance, paving the way for a long John Cooper run.
Whether this alternate reality is better is certainly in the eye of the beholder. But it’s incredible to think of how a slight change in format could have changed the way we view so many coaches and programs.