Bradley’s Buzz: Behold college football, where things just get worse

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart leads Georgia defensive lineman Zion Logue (96), defensive lineman Warren Brinson (97), and others onto the field for warm-ups before their game against Florida State in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Jason Getz/Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart leads Georgia defensive lineman Zion Logue (96), defensive lineman Warren Brinson (97), and others onto the field for warm-ups before their game against Florida State in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Jason Getz/Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

The four-team playoff lasted 10 years. It was an improvement over the BCS, which lasted 15 years and paired two teams chosen by sketchy selection. The four-team playoff was the best thing college football, historically the silliest of sports, ever did. Being college football, it decided to do something different, something bigger and better.

In this case, bigger will not be better. This is college football, where things just get worse.

There was no reason for the College Football Playoff to triple in size. There will never be a year in which a dozen teams, the Group of Five mystery guest included, are playoff-worthy. But a fatter bracket hands ESPN eight more games under the banner of a championship tournament, even if four will be staged on campus, even if the bloated event will last longer than March Madness.

Apologies for ranting, but the state of college football can make even a neutral observer scream so loud as to shake down the thunder. The underdog in Monday’s final could become the first Pac-12 team to win the playoff; it also would be the last. The team favored to lift the championship trophy saw its coach miss half the regular season – three games at the start, three more at the end – because of separate suspensions.

A sampling of scores from lesser bowls: 45-0, 59-10, 40-8, 35-0. The average margin in non-playoff New Year’s Six bowls was 26.5 points. How might non-playoff games look when the playoff grows from three games to 11?

After the Orange Bowl, Georgia’s coach offered a rant of his own. Not incidentally, his team won by 60 points over disgruntled-for-good-reason Florida State, which had 25 players, 14 of them starters, opt out. Said Kirby Smart: “People need to see what happened tonight and they need to fix this … College football has got to decide what it wants.”

What does college football want? TV money. Florida State has stated its intent to exit the ACC because of the relative lack thereof. We know people will watch football, even if it’s bad football. Why else would ESPN own/operate 17 bowls? But when Smart speaks of “they,” it’s unclear if such an entity exists.

“They” aren’t the NCAA, which washed its hands of the sport decades ago. Nor do “they” include the doomed Pac-12, or the ACC, which has troubles of its own. “They” aren’t the 13 folks on the CFP committee, which changes – not for the better – over time. If college football has a governing body, it’s the SEC/ESPN and the Big Ten/Fox. It’s two self-absorbed leagues and the holders of their media rights.

Even as we ask, “What, in the year 2024, is college football?”, we need to go granular. Who plays college football? In the age of NIL, should we bother to call them “student-athletes”? Five of the past seven Heisman Trophy winners? Transfers. Six of the top eight in 2023 Heisman voting? Transfers.

The website On3 reports 2,727 players entered the transfer portal the past month. There are 261 FBS/FCS schools. That’s 10.4 exits per program.

Two days after losing to Michigan, nine Alabama players signaled their intent to leave. Both losing semifinalists had star receivers – Jermaine Burton for Bama, Adonai Mitchell for Texas – who’d helped Georgia take national titles. The same Georgia, having lost its first game in two calendar years, saw 19 players enter the portal.

When the playoff started, there was no portal, no NIL. Ten years later, the CFP is back where it began, with a final matching a Big Ten team against a Pac-12 representative. Difference is, next season will find Michigan and Washington cheek-by-jowl in an 18-member Big Ten, just as losing semifinalists Bama and Texas will be brethren in the league where It Just Means More.

Ten years ago, this correspondent believed – really and truly – that the sport where champions once were decided by vote had stepped into the light. Ten years later, the same scribe wonders if college football, which is “college” football in name only, is worth the aggravation.

Asking again: If this weren’t the sport you grew up watching, would you still be watching? Or would you have opted out?

The above is part of a regular exercise available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Buzz, which includes extras like a weekly poll and pithy quotes, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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