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The Four Elite Teams of the Four-Team Playoff Era

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Four programs stand head and shoulders above the rest of the sport. Playoff expansion would not be in their best interest.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Media Day Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The college football playoff just finished its seventh season and although it didn’t unfold as Clemson would have liked, they can take pride in making it for the sixth straight season. If playoff berths are a fair metric for measuring which teams are elite, then there are four elite teams in college football.

Alabama and Clemson have each made six of the seven playoffs with Alabama notching three championships and Clemson two. Ohio State and Oklahoma have made the playoff four times with Ohio State securing the first National Championship of the college football playoff era. These are the elite programs of the playoff era. Interestingly, in the last six college football playoffs, three of these four elite programs have been in the field. Never have all four been in the field together.

Despite often lopsided scores, especially this year, discussions about expanding the playoff always heat up after the playoff field is announced. This year it was because Cincinnati didn’t make the playoff (they then lost to a heavily-depleted Georgia in the Peach Bowl). What’s frustratingly missing in so many of these discussions is this simple starting point: Do you want the most deserving champion or do you just want to be entertained?

The NCAA basketball tournament is the best example of a playoff built for pure entertainment value and not for crowning the most deserving champion. The result is a very fun tournament, but also one that de-values both the regular season and the NIT. Imagine how important every game would be if the NCAA tournament invited just 16 teams as it did in 1952. Certainly, a 35-point loss, like the one Clemson just suffered to Virginia, wouldn’t be so easily brushed off. NIT ratings would be much higher too.

If college football ever decides to expand, similar tradeoffs would exist. Non-playoff bowls would see even more opt-outs and struggle to draw interest as attention grew more focused on the playoff. Regular season games for teams that have already clinched or been eliminated from the playoffs would become a lot less interesting. Additionally, unlike basketball, in which a hot shooting night from beyond the arc can give even a big underdog a chance, those sorts of huge upsets are less common in football. Expansion could lead to some very boring matchups like Alabama vs. Cincinnati and Clemson vs. Iowa State.

On the flipside, expansion could help keep fans of Pac-12, Group of Five, and good-but-not-elite teams (e.g., Wisconsin, Georgia) more engaged.

For the four elite teams of the college football era, expansion means another hurdle to the championship, but for the teams just a tier below, I don’t blame them. Let’s just start the debate with our goals stated clearly. Do you want the most deserving champion, or do you just want to be entertained?