The College Football Playoff Selection Committee releases its first set of rankings this week, which means that playoff speculation will dominate the national conversation for the rest of the season. This will be the third year of playoffs in college football and, by all accounts, they’ve been an unmitigated success. But it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to this point.
Up until 1998, the national championship was determined by polls, rather than settled on the field. The main recognized polls were conducted either by football writers (Associated Press) or football coaches (first United Press International, then ESPN and USA Today). The polls weren’t always taken at the same time—some were conducted at the end of the regular season and some after the post-season bowls—and they didn’t always agree. So “split” championships weren’t uncommon, spawning lots of water cooler discussion and media controversy.
In 1998, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was created, matching the No. 1 and 2 ranked teams as determined by a combination of human and computer polls. History will view the BCS as a mixed bag. Its main achievement was expanding college football from a regional to a national sport. Because of potential BCS ramifications, football fans in Columbus, Ohio were suddenly interested in the results of games in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and fans in Los Angeles were interested in the outcome of Texas-Oklahoma.
As for matching the top two teams, the BCS, for the most part, got it right. The main exception was 2003, when the championship game didn’t include the AP’s No. 1 ranked team, USC. Lots of fans, including this one, thought the Trojans were the best team in the country that year.
During the last 10 years, as college football overtook Major League Baseball as the nation’s second most popular sport (after the NFL), both the media and the public clamored for a playoff that would include more than two teams. Finally, the commissioners of the five major conferences, along with the Notre Dame athletic director, bowed to pressure and created the College Football Playoffs, a four-team tournament that began in 2014.
The four participating teams are selected by a 12-member blue-ribbon committee that includes five athletic directors (one from each of the Power Five conferences), four former head coaches, a former NCAA vice-president, a university provost, and a former college football reporter from USA Today. No computers are involved.
While media pundits and college football fans everywhere will have a lot of fun dissecting and debating these rankings, it’s important to remember that it’s still early and much could change before the four teams are selected for the playoffs on December 4, otherwise known as Selection Sunday.
Last weekend: A number of undefeated teams went down to defeat Saturday, including No. 7 Nebraska, No. 8 Baylor, No. 10 West Virginia and No. 13 Boise State. Meanwhile, No. 1 Alabama had a bye, while No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Washington all registered impressive victories on the road. Those results may have made things a little easier for the selection committee.
Bears trapped: Cal was overwhelmed by resurgent USC last Thursday in Los Angeles. The Trojans have been on a roll since switching to redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, but the Pac-12’s made-for-TV schedule also may have affected the outcome. The Bears were playing their second straight weeknight game (after hosting Oregon the previous Friday), had only six days in between games, and had to go on the road. The Trojans, meanwhile, were coming off a bye week, had 13 days to prepare, and didn’t have to travel.
Academics? We’re used to hearing a lot of lofty rhetoric from conference officials, school presidents and athletic directors about concern for the "student-athlete.” When it comes to scheduling, however, it seems that concern for the almighty TV dollar takes precedence over any worries about missed class time. Consider these comments from Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott in response to a question about Cal’s back-to-back weeknight games: "That hasn't been a parameter, academic schedules per se, so it hasn't come up at any of our discussions…at the bottom, we’ve got obligations with our business partners."
Salary inflation: Last week USA Today published its annual listing of the salaries of college football head coaches. Leading the way was Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh at a tidy $9 million, or $9,004,000 to be exact. Not bad for a guy who was sent packing by the 49ers two years ago. Alabama’s Nick Saban was second at $6,939,395 with Ohio State’s Urban Meyer third at $6,003,000 (exactly two-thirds of Harbaugh’s base). I suspect Meyer will bring that disparity up to his president if the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines later this month.
In all, 36 college coaches are making $3 million or more this year. Stanford’s David Shaw was 19th on the list at a reported $4,067,219. Cal’s Sonny Dykes was 39th at $2,900,000.
A little perspective might be of interest here. I was Sports Information Director at Stanford in the late 1970s and served on the search committee when Bill Walsh was hired as head coach. Walsh’s salary in 1977 was $40,000, which according to the Social Security Wage Index equated to $196,760 last year (2016 numbers are not yet available). Of course, in Walsh’s day only one or two games per week were televised and mega-rights fees were unheard of. Now the Pac-12 is getting $3 billion in TV rights over 12 years, and 60 games per week are televised on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ABC, Fox, Fox Sports 1, CBS, NBC and conference networks.
Heisman update: 1. Lamar Jackson, Louisville QB—had another Heisman moment with a game-winning TD pass in the final seconds vs. Virginia; 2. Deshaun Watson, Clemson QB—led Clemson to a huge win over Florida State with 430 yards total offense; 3. Jake Browning, Washington QB—not a big game statistically, but orchestrated an important win over Utah. 4; Jabrill Peppers, Michigan—do-everything cornerback ran for a score and returned a failed 2-point conversion attempt; 5. Donnell Pumphrey, San Diego State RB—won’t win because of mediocre opposition, but may get an invite to New York. Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook are starting to make some noise, but it’s most likely too little, too late.