The College Football Triumvirate

If Bama wins the National Championship, it will be their third of the college football playoff era. If Ohio State wins, it will be their second.

But either way, we are guaranteed that College Football will continue to be dominated by The Triumvirate of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.

They are the only teams to make multiple National Championships. There have been 14 teams to play for the National Championship since the 2014 playoff. 11 of those 14 teams have been Bama, Clemson or Ohio State. Clemson has been to 4 National Championship games, Bama is appearing in their 5th and Ohio State will be in their second.

The only other teams to make a Natty: Oregon in 2014, Georgia in 2017 and LSU in 2019.

Ohio State, Clemson and Bama will now have won 6 of the 7 National Championships of the Playoff Era. 2019 LSU was the first and only team from outside of those three to break through and win a Natty.

Clemson is the only team that has ever beaten Ohio State in the playoff. Ohio State and Clemson are the only teams to have beaten Alabama in the playoff. And Bama and Ohio State are the only teams to have beaten Clemson in the playoffs other than LSU beating Clemson in last year’s National Championship.

Against all other programs, Bama, Clemson and Ohio State are a combined 7-1 in the playoff, again with the only loss being Clemson’s to LSU in last year’s National Championship game.

Not only that, but it hasn’t been particularly close, either. In those 8 games, Bama, Clemson and Ohio State have a combined point differential of 298-160, or +138.

Essentially, Bama, Clemson and Ohio State have separated from the rest of college football. They are now in a league of their own. They’ve left their respective conferences in the dust.

We know Bama, Clemson and Ohio State have a 7-1 record against all other playoff teams, but against one another, it’s far more competitive: In the playoff era, Ohio State is 2-2 against Bama and Clemson combined. Bama is 2-3 vs. Clemson and Ohio State combined. And Clemson is 4-3 against the other two combined.

There’s Bama, Clemson and Ohio State, and then there’s everybody else.

Sure, LSU won it all last year, but 2019 LSU was somewhat of an anomaly. They managed to get their hands on a transcendently great QB via the transfer portal who led them to the National Championship, won the Heisman, threw for an absurd 60 TDs, and will go down as one of the greatest college football players of all time. The only reason Joe Burrow even transferred from Ohio State is because he broke his hand before his QB competition with Dwayne Haskins in 2018. Now that he’s gone, LSU was 5-5 this year. Before Burrow’s two seasons in Baton Rouge, LSU was a perennial 4-5 loss team. Here’s LSU’s final AP rankings in the seasons prior to Joe Burrow’s arrival: 18, 13, 16, unranked, 14, 14.

LSU is a very good program. They almost always pull in a top-5 recruiting class. And they’ve won three National Championships since 2000. But between those Championship years–2003, 2007, 2019–they’ve gone through down periods. They’ve never been able to sustain that greatness consistently. And if they didn’t have Joe Burrow last year, they wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as they were.

Last year was LSU’s first and only appearance in the CFP. They can attain true greatness for a season here and there, but they cannot sustain it. If LSU was truly an elite program, they would not be 5-5 this year. You can blame it on Covid, but why was LSU unable to overcome Covid while Bama, Clemson and Ohio State all were? Because LSU isn’t a top-tier program, while Bama, Clemson and Ohio State are.

There’s Bama, Clemson and Ohio State at the top of college football, and then there’s everybody else. Nobody else really has a shot, unless they somehow get their hands on a Joe Burrow.

How can this be fixed? How can we bring more parity to college football? I’m not saying the best teams shouldn’t win every year, but I am saying the sport shouldn’t be this lopsided.

You might think it’ll get better next year, as Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Devonta Smith will all have moved on to the NFL. But do you really think Bama, Clemson and Ohio State aren’t just going to reload and replace them with more studs?

Clemson replaced DeShaun Watson, one of the greatest college football quarterbacks ever, with Trevor Lawrence. And Bama has always had talent for days. Last year they had two wide receivers go in the first round, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy. Ohio State has multiple stud QBs on the roster waiting in the wings, and they just secured a commitment from the #1 high school recruit of 2022, a QB from Texas named Quinn Ewers.

These programs simply reload. They don’t have down years. Bama had 11 guys taken in the 2020 draft, while Ohio State had 10. Clemson had 7 guys drafted. And yet, here they are again at the top of college football.

Look at the top 10 high school recruits for the 2021 class. Bama and Ohio State have combined for 5 of the 10:

And, surprise surprise, guess who’s the favorite to land J.T. Tuimoloau? Ohio State. It’s probably going to be 6 of the top 10 going to Bama and Ohio State.

These guys even reload at the head coaching position! Urban Meyer, one of the greatest college football coaches of the modern era, retires at Ohio State? Doesn’t matter. Ryan Day is an absolute genius and looks like the next big name in coaching, plus Ohio State’s recruiting hasn’t slipped at all.

Conventional wisdom is that Nick Saban is going to retire in the next 2-3 years. Now, there’s no guarantee that Bama’s transition to their next coach is as seamless as Ohio State’s was, but they’re going to have their pick of the very best coaching candidates in the country. When Saban finally does retire, Bama will be the biggest job opening in college football, bar none. Hell, Bama might even poach Dabo as their successor to Saban. Dabo is Bama born and raised, played wide receiver at Bama, was on their 1992 National Championship team, and got his coaching start at Bama.

Do not discount the chances of Bama poaching Dabo when Saban retires. The great Bear Bryant set the standard in that category. In the 1950s, Bryant was the coach at Texas A&M, and had turned them into national title contenders, but left to become head coach at Alabama, which, at the time, was way down in the dumps as a football program. When asked why he would leave the successful A&M program that he himself had built, he replied, “Mama called, and when Mama calls, you just have to come running.” Dabo has no doubt heard those famous words, and it’s going to be unbelievably difficult for him to say no when Mama comes callin’ one day.

And then, I’m sure whoever replaces him at Clemson will be a heavyweight. If somehow Dabo doesn’t go back to Alabama, then he’ll stay at Clemson and keep them elite. And then Bama will just find some other A+ level head coach. This reign of dominance by the Big Three is not going to stop after Saban retires.

I think expanding the playoff to 8 teams–with all the Power Five Conferences having automatic bids–could have the effect of spreading out the talent, at least somewhat. I wrote about this in the past, but I really do think it’s the best way to bring more parity to the sport.

Otherwise, what’s the solution? Cut the number of scholarships teams can hand out? That would only hurt the players. That’s a terrible idea. The idea of depriving kids of scholarships is just ridiculous.

Right now, the top recruits only want to play for programs that consistently make the playoff. That’s where the stage is biggest, the competition is toughest, and where players have the biggest opportunity to make a name for themselves. Programs that don’t make the playoff are basically afterthoughts in the eyes of top recruits.

But if you have automatic bids for all major conference winners plus three at-large bids, it could, after several years, bring about more parity in the sport, because more teams would have a shot at making the playoff. Players would know they’d have a crack at the playoff even if they don’t play for a top coach at a top program.

Every team in the FBS would know, without a doubt, that if they win all of their games in a season, they will be the National Champions. There would be no political/popularity contest aspect of it with automatic bids.

We could say the Power 5 Champs all get automatic bids, and then if Notre Dame finishes in the top 10, they’re in. Then there could be one guaranteed spot for the Group of 5 team with the highest ranking. And then one wild card spot that the committee can hand out to whichever team it deems fit with no rules or restrictions.

Right now, the playoff is viewed as a golden ticket by top recruits, and they flock to programs like Bama, Clemson and Ohio State because those programs have shown an ability to consistently make the playoff and win games there. With 8 spots instead of four, you might take away a lot of “monopoly power” that Bama, Clemson and Ohio State have.

A recruit would be able to look at a school like Cal or Colorado or Arizona and know that he still has a shot to make the playoff there. He knows all he the team has to do is win the conference and they’re in the playoff.

The way recruits look at it now, is like “There’s 4 spots and 3 of them are basically reserved for Bama, Ohio State, Clemson, and the 4th is usually Notre Dame or Oklahoma.”

So the rich keep getting richer. This is why the Pac 12 Chairman proposed an 8-team playoff in September.

An 8 team playoff could have the effect of leveling the playing field somewhat.

Now, I use words like “could” and “might” because there’s no guarantee this will bring more parity to the sport. After all, the FCS level of college football features a 24-team playoff and yet North Dakota State has won 6 of the past 7 championships. So maybe expanding the playoff won’t bring more parity to the sport.

But clearly public opinion is at a point where most people agree that 4 teams isn’t enough and this thing needs to expand. It’s going to happen someday. Colin Cowherd on his radio show last week said he thinks it’ll happen in the next year or two.

The initial 12-year CFP contract expires 5 years from now, but there’s a chance the commissioners of the 10 FBS conferences (Power 5 + Group of 5) could work together to implement the 8 team playoff before then. After all, there’s going to be a financial incentive to do it. People are absolutely going to watch all the playoff games, and that’s more money for everyone involved.

But the main concern here is the competitive balance of the sport. It’s just not sustainable to have a system where there are 130 teams in the FBS but only three of them have a realistic shot at winning a Championship. It’s just not fair to these college athletes to tell them that unless they go to Bama, Clemson or Ohio State, they basically don’t matter and they’re just playing in glorified exhibition matches. Basically the best they can hope for right now is to upset Bama, Clemson or Ohio State in the regular season and spoil their playoff odds.

It’s time to go to 8.

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