When Clemson and LSU play for the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship in New Orleans on Monday night, it will mark the six-year anniversary of the playoff system.
Top-seed LSU (14-0) won easily in its semifinal matchup with Oklahoma, routing the Sooners 63-28. Third-seed Clemson (14-0) knocked off No. 2 Ohio State in a tighter contest, winning 29-23. Clemson rallied from down 16-0 to advance to the championship game when quarterback Trevor Lawrence led a dramatic a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
When the four-team College Football Playoff debuted after the 2014 season, culminating with Ohio State beating Oregon 42-20 for the inaugural playoff championship in January 2015, it gave fans their long-awaited wish of a champion being determined on the field instead of from polls and computers.
It didn’t take long before calls for a change of the format began. Fans, and even some coaches, have questioned the four-team format from the beginning, suggesting deserving teams have been left on the outside.
Still, as Monday's game approaches, it doesn't appear that expansion is likely, at least in the short term.
One criticism of the College Football Playoff is that it has become a members-only club. In its six years of existence, teams from the Power Five conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — have appeared. Notre Dame, an FBS independent, made its inaugural College Football Playoff appearance last season. No members from the second tier of major conferences informally known as the Group of Five — AAC, Conference-USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt – have finished in the top 4 to secure a bid.
Central Florida, unbeaten AAC champions in 2017 went as far as to crown itself the national champion after it went 13-0 and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
“I’m OK with it if they are worthy of being included,” said former Florida wide receiver and current SEC Network analyst Chris Doering. “I don’t like the idea of including a Group of Five team just to include them. If they are worthy, I still think the criteria should be like it is now with the best four teams. So I think if there’s a Group of Five it’s definitely an expanded playoff to eight teams, it’s a better likelihood that one of those Group of Five teams will be considered one of those best five teams. But just to have them in there, for the potential of a Cinderella, I think would be unfair.”
Anthony Herron, who played on Iowa’s defensive line in the late 1990s before landing in the NFL and the Arena Football League, now works as an analyst for the Big Ten Network and the Pac-12 Network. He likes the current setup.
“I’m completely comfortable with a four-team playoff,” Herron said. “I think every version of it that gets expanded is just going to continue to go toward attempting to kind of satisfy our appetite for more.”
This year, LSU, Ohio State and Clemson dismantled their regular-season opponents as the three teams combined to go 36-0 in the regular season and added conference-championship wins to their seasons’ resumes.
While the 13-member committee’s top three teams left no doubt, the fourth spot became a major topic of discussion as the regular season neared its end.
Following the release of the third College Football Playoff ranking of the season, College Football Playoff Committee chairman Rob Mullens was asked about the gap that separated teams four through eight.
“There's no measurement for that,” Mullens said. “What I can tell you is four through eight, there's plenty of discussion and a lot of debate about each of those teams. Their strengths, their weaknesses and where they should be ranked, and this week you can see how the committee voted in their rankings.”
A week before the conference championship games, Georgia, Utah, Oklahoma and Baylor had identical records of 11-1. Utah, Georgia and Baylor lost their respective conference championships, and Oklahoma received the fourth-place spot in the Week 14 ranking with its win over Baylor, setting up a Peach Bowl semifinal between the Sooners and LSU.
By halftime of that game, which LSU led 49-14, calls for expansion were revived.
“You had Ohio State, LSU and Clemson just leading the pack throughout the entire season, and whoever ended up in the fourth spot, could or would someone in the fourth position given LSU a better game than Oklahoma? It’s possible,” Herron said. “But when it comes down to it, I don’t think anyone else I saw in the country this year would have defeated any of the three teams at the top.”
In the 12 College Football Playoff semifinal games since 2014, nine higher-seeded teams have earned wins. No. 1 Alabama (2014-15), Oklahoma (2017-18) and Ohio State (2019-20) lost their semifinals.
But in the College Football Playoff title game, lower seeds have knocked off higher seeds in all five games. No top-ranked team has won the previous incarnations of the playoff.
Right teams selected
Doering said he thinks the committee has selected the right teams for its playoff. He said LSU’s blowout win had more to do with its level of performance rather than Oklahoma not being a worthy recipient of the fourth spot.
"I think you can say Oklahoma was not worthy, you can say they were worthy, I think what happened is they ran up against a really good LSU team that’s difficult to stop and I think you are going to see the same things on Monday night,” Doering said. “The offense, I’ve been watching them all season long covering them for the SEC Network, I keep waiting for them to have an off night and they don’t have an off night and you can see that by the statistics with (Joe) Burrow, 78 percent competition percentage, you can see all the numbers they put up and what’s scary is that they are finally putting things together on defense and seem to be hitting the stride at the right point in time.”
Entering this season, the Big Ten had been excluded from the last two College Football Playoff semifinals. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany retired this month, but he long held the belief that his conference’s nine-game league schedule should be taken into account by committee members. The ACC and the SEC play an eight-game league slate, while the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 play nine league games.
“I wish we had a little more continuity,” Delany said during Big Ten Media Days last July. “I wish they would demonstrate as well as state the stronger commitment to strength of schedule. We should be playing comparable schedules and if we’re not, there should be somewhat to differentiate that.”
The College Football Playoff’s current contract is set to expire in six years. While calls for a playoff expansion continue, Heron said it’s not likely to happen until terms for a renewal of the contract are discussed.
“We’re at least going to see this first contract of the College Football Playoff play out,” Herron said. “And it will expand at some point. I don’t think the NCAA or anyone else is going to be in a hurry to do it, because right now, you have the interest of some many folks getting drummed up just by the fact that there’s the risk involved with major programs and major conferences not getting in.”
Doering echoed Herron’s sentiment.
“I think we’d be naïve to see that it’s not going to expand, whether that’s six or eight I think it’s coming here,” Doering said. “It’s too big of a potential moneymaker, there’s too many fans that want it. I think it does open some things up for potential mismatches that will continue to. I mean let’s be honest, you look at the gap between the haves and the have nots, and it’s never been bigger.”