Opinion: College Football Playoff pairings feel like a rerun, lack drama

The College Football Playoff has been around for seven seasons now, and at this point we might as well all be Bill Murray waking up to “I Got You Babe” over and over again.

Instead of making the sport more democratic, the CFP has become Groundhog Day, with the same small group of elites playing for a national championship. 

It’s nobody’s fault. The dominance of Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State over their conferences for this long of a run is almost unprecedented. 

And yet, for all the buildup, the CFP pairings seemed as inevitable and predictable before the season started as they did Sunday morning. 

Alabama vs. Notre Dame. Clemson vs. Ohio State. 

Rinse and repeat. 

First of all, while plenty will air grievances over this outcome, nobody has a legitimate gripe with the way the pairings shook out. 

The selection committee was given an imperfect set of circumstances to sort through this year because of COVID-19, including teams playing different numbers of games and lack of non-conference play. Simply put, the season was a mess and there was no clean, easy way to compare Ohio State’s unbeaten six-game season to a team like Texas A&M.

So it comes down to an eye test. The same as it ever was. 

The selection committee telegraphed from the beginning that the Buckeyes, as long as they won all their games, would be in. They also made it clear that they didn’t like unbeaten Cincinnati enough to overcome its conference affiliation in the American, affirming that the bar for a Group of Five team to get in the Playoff is unfairly high. 

Texas A&M running back Isaiah Spiller runs the ball while defended by Tennessee linebacker Tyler Baron (9) during their game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. (Photo: Brianna Paciorka, Knoxville News Sentinel)

As far as the Aggies, who will certainly howl that they belonged over Ohio State and/or Notre Dame — see coach Jimbo Fisher’s argument Saturday about deserving to get in because they are a one-loss SEC team — this is probably the best outcome possible. Texas A&M doesn’t have to subject itself to another blowout against Alabama — there’s little reason to believe a second meeting would be different from their four-touchdown loss earlier this season — while playing up the grievance.

But let’s be clear, the Aggies weren’t robbed. The committee clearly saw this as a Texas A&M vs. Notre Dame debate, and there just weren’t many data points in favor of the Aggies. Both teams had blowout losses to the top two of similar magnitude (Notre Dame lost by 24 to Clemson in the ACC title game). Texas A&M’s best win over Florida wasn’t as strong as Notre Dame’s best win against Clemson in their first meeting in November. And Texas A&M’s second-best win over Auburn wasn’t as good as the Irish’s second-best win over North Carolina.

That’s a fairly straightforward decision. 

In the bigger picture, though, it’s not great for the health of the Playoff that another year passes without any new programs crossing the threshold. 

In seven years, the SEC has had just three members make the field (Alabama, Georgia, LSU), the ACC two (Clemson, Florida State), the Pac 12 two (Oregon, Washington), the Big Ten two (Ohio State, Michigan State) and the Big 12 just one (Oklahoma). 

That means just 11 programs have earned 28 possible Playoff berths since this system started in 2014. Long-term, that’s not a great formula for expanding interest in the sport. And given the way these top programs are recruiting, it’s going to be hard to knock them out anytime soon. 

It’s not the committee’s job to engineer new blood into the Playoff field, but when the sport is this predictable perhaps some energy should be directed into how to make things more equitable. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports' columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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