Chances are we'll see Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama's Nick Saban greeting one another after another playoff championship game. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
Photo: David J. Phillip/AP
Photo: David J. Phillip/AP

Heavy favorites at the top make college football predictable

Those who read my Weekly Predictions (back next week!) know that I don’t like favorites. It goes back to my roots as a horseplayer at Churchill Downs. There is little joy in cashing a meager ticket after backing the popular choice. Anybody can do that. The excitement (and the profit) is in the unexpected. 

My distaste for “chalk” is why college football often leaves me flat. There will be some good games here and there, perhaps an upset or two, but the ending is predictable. That’s true for the College Football Playoff generally, and this year particularly. 

There have been 20 berths CFP berths in five years. Five of those slots went to Alabama, four to Clemson and three to Oklahoma. There are 130 teams at the NCAA’s top level of football, but you can confidently pick those three programs to make the CFP every year. Another safe bet: Alabama or Clemson to win the championship, which one or the other has done every year since Ohio State won the first CFP. 

It’s the same thing this season. Clemson and Alabama are heavy favorites to make the CFP. Convert their betting odds to probabilities, and the market puts Clemson’s chances of making the CFP at 85.7 percent and Alabama at 77.8 percent. 

Chalk eaters, rejoice!

Theoretically, the 62 other teams from so-called “Power Five” conferences (plus eternal exception Notre Dame) are vying for the other two playoff spots. Realistically, maybe six have a chance. Pretty much every top-five ranking includes Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State. I put LSU at No. 5 after also considering Notre Dame and Michigan, programs that pass for scrappy underdogs in this playoff race. 

The CFP was hailed as some leap forward for the game’s egalitarianism. Finally, college football would have a true champion. That’s only because the bar was so low. 

For 130 years the NCAA used polls to designate the champions of its top football division. Over the next 16 years it used a formula that combined polls and opaque computer formulas to select two teams for the championship game. Now a committee of people who may or may not use data to evaluate teams decides which four make the playoffs. 

Progress! 

The other major domestic sport leagues offer expansive playoffs. The NFL’s playoffs include 12 of 32 teams. More than half of NBA teams (16 of 30) qualify for the playoffs. More than half of NHL teams (16 of 31) go to the postseason. Everybody knows NCAA men’s basketball has the most entertaining postseason tournament because underdogs always get in and they often win. 

Meanwhile, big-time college football favors its favorites. It eliminates nearly half of teams from playoff consideration before the season even begins. Teams outside the Power Five conferences will never get picked for the CFP. The moniker explains it: These are the programs with all the power, and the rest will fight over the scraps. 

It comes down to money, of course. The big-time programs make a lot of it, including CFP revenue. They would like to keep it that way. Even within the Power Five, only so many programs have the resources to compete for one of the two playoff spots that doesn’t belong to Clemson and Alabama. 

According to a USA Today database, Texas had the most athletics revenue in 2017-18 with $219 million. That’s more than twice as much as Missouri, No. 31 on the list. The top five schools combined for $1 billion in athletics revenue. Nos. 15-20, which includes traditional football powers Tennessee and Nebraska, made $830.7 million total. 

Clemson seems like an outlier among college football’s elite at No. 27 on the list with $121 million in total athletics revenue. It’s not. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney will make at least $8.25 million this season. That’s about $2 million more than the total salaries for new Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins and his entire staff, according to reporting by the AJC’s Ken Sugiura

A simple way to make college football more competitive is to allow schools to pay salaries to players and institute a per-program cap. Then more teams could attract star players, none could horde all the talent and player development would gain importance. But that would mean a smaller pool of money (and less power) for coaches and athletics administrators, who will always fight any effort to share a bigger piece of the pie that players make. 

So, here’s to another season of pretending that more than five or six teams have a real chance to make the CFP. Or stop pretending and ignore all the mismatches in between the handful of games with actual stakes. I’ll root for some genuine upsets to interrupt the annoying sound of chalk rolling over college football with little resistance. 

Then again, I also dislike the NFL’s version of parity. It makes for a group of bland, indistinguishable teams trying to get lucky and make the playoffs. Am I hard to please? No, it’s the leagues that are wrong.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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