College football parity is scintillating, but it will ruin the College Football Playoff again

Cameron Smith

Don't believe the hype. Parity isn't always great. 

Sure, the concept of parity is a wonderful thing. The idea that any team can beat any other team is both thrilling and rewarding to the general Americanized universal value of egalitarianism. It's not about the name of the team, it's about how the team performs. Great. That's the way it's supposed to be. 

Yet, while that should drive huge attention and constant fandemonium, that's not how things tend to work out. And there's a reason for that: we Americans are full of it. Very few really want to see Maryland beat Notre Dame. Sure, plenty want to see Notre Dame fall in an upset, just for the sheer Schadenfreude of watching an established power lose to a school more comfortably associated with no fewer than five other sports. 

That's all fine and good for a week, but then everyone has to deal with the consequences of Notre Dame losing to Maryland. Suddenly the Fighting Irish aren't in the mix for the College Football Playoff, which has been built into the be-all, end-all of college football. Be there or bust. Maybe Maryland is in the mix for a hypothetical CFP matchup if it beat Notre Dame and then cruised through the season. And as great of a story as that might be to read here and in newspapers across the country, it would almost certainly deliver an absolute snooze fest in a national semifinal when it came time to put it on TV. 

Therein lies the real issue. College football is driven, almost entirely, by the need to feed sports television's insatiable appetite. And what sports television really wants is an updated, renewed version of classic rivalries so editors and producers can splice in old footage to gin up indulgent aww shucks memories of how great college football used to be (it wasn't) and remind viewers, (largely in the South and Midwest) "Hey! Look! These rivalries still exist! Isn't that cool?"

Once you accept that that is the real goal (why else would Texas have its own 24-hour television network?) of college football's season, it's not hard to see how parity is the problem, not the solution. Case in point: The current College Football Playoff standings. 

Thanks to a pair of truly shocking Big Ten upsets (Iowa routing Ohio State and Michigan State edging Penn State) the two "big brands" that the Big Ten was positioning in front of a potential CFP cue are now all but eliminated from contention. Both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have two losses. Michigan State does, too, but now finds itself next-best-placed to sneak in the back door of the playoff if undefeated Wisconsin trips up or is exposed. 

Or, maybe the Big Ten would miss out on the College Football Playoff altogether, which might be an even bigger problem for the committee. 

Yes, the CFP would still feature Alabama, Georgia and might even sneak in Notre Dame, Miami. Clemson or Oklahoma. Or it could end up with two of those aforementioned teams and a pair of the following: 

  1. TCU (8-1)
  2. Wisconsin (9-0)
  3. Washington (8-1)
  4. Auburn (7-2)
  5. Michigan State (7-2)
  6. Oklahoma State (7-2)
  7. Mississippi State (7-2)
  8. Virginia Tech (7-2)
  9. Central Florida (8-0)
  10. Washington State (8-2)
  11. Memphis (8-1)

    It goes without saying that any pair of those two teams competing in the College Football Playoff is a virtual disaster for college football writ large. There's nothing wrong with any of those teams, particularly Wisconsin, Washington, Auburn or Michigan State, all of whom have a certain amount of name caché. What they don't have is the glitz of the other two loss teams that are still technically in the CFP's orbit: Ohio State, Penn State and USC. 


    That's why even though a one-loss TCU squad would quite objectively deserve a spot in the national semifinals ahead of a two-loss Ohio State or USC, they may not get there if the playoff committee has anything to say about it. Because Ohio State fans will travel in throngs and drive huge television ratings, while TCU fans will ... wear purple, probably. 

    And that's the real point here. As much as the CFP committee makes a big stink about how it rates each team objectively every week, without consideration for its name, when it comes to the matchups produced in the playoff itself, the committee desperately needs the big, household institutions to come through. Without them there's just not that much for the casual fans who make up the eventual decision swayers on New Year's Eve to get behind, and that impacts TV ratings and the entire effort's bottom line. 

    So remember: Parity is fun, but it can also be evil. Particularly if you worry about the health of college football in America. 

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