Monday, September 2, 2019

Is College Football Stagnating?

By Ross Lancaster

With the start of the 2019 college football season, we're now officially into the second half of the first decade of the College Football Playoff era.

That distinction might not be important to some of you — if you mainly watch the sport to follow one or two teams and those teams weren't ever in national title contention at any time, it probably doesn't. College football probably looks the same as it did a few years ago, and you probably just want your team to finish with as many wins as it can.

But I think this is an important milestone to think about in today's college football. After all, doubling the amount of teams eligible for the last and most important stage of the season was supposed to make things more interesting and open up to pathways to the sport's highest levels. There was even a chance that a team from outside the Power Five conferences could break the glass ceiling and play for a championship.

Instead, five years on, we're in an era where the regular season — at the top of the rankings, at least — feels merely like a precursor to the next Alabama/Clemson playoff meeting.

And right below that ultra-elite stratosphere, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Ohio State (all of whom have been in the playoff mix — or better — for a couple years or more) might be so loaded in talent and skill that two of the three could very well lock out the other two playoff spots should they have one or no losses after the first Saturday in December.

Oh, and that chance of a Group of Five breakthrough? Well, after UCF ran the table for two years straight and never got a sniff at the playoff, I'm willing to bury that fantasy in the ground.

On the first Saturday of the regular season, there were definitely some surprises, but those came at the expense of Power Five teams we never really expected great things from this year, anyway — Florida State, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Ole Miss.

Perhaps the one significant surprise on the evening was in the marquee game of the week, with Auburn coming back from 15 points down to beat Oregon. But even that was in a matchup Auburn was favored in and an ultimate result that probably wasn't all too shocking if you saw how many first-half opportunities the Ducks blew.

Among the top teams, it was totally business as usual. Clemson smashed Georgia Tech on Thursday. Ohio State jumped on an overmatched Florida Atlantic team by 28 in the first quarter and went on cruise control the rest of the way. Alabama started slow, but eventually ground Duke into a fine pulp. Georgia had no issues with Vanderbilt on the road. Oklahoma hasn't played yet as of writing time, but it's hard to imagine them having an issue moving the ball in Dana Holgorsen's first game with Houston.

As I've mentioned in other articles on this site, I don't mind periods of dominance in sports — in fact, I enjoy them quite a bit. But there's a difference between dominance and a sport becoming formulaic. And I can't help but think that college football is a bit formulaic at the moment.

In another article on this site after the first year of the playoff, I recognized that formula for getting in the playoff: win your Power Five league with 0 or 1 losses. So far, the only real dents in this theory were Alabama in 2017 (who was 11-0 on November 24 and ultimately won the national title) and Ohio State in 2016 (picked over 2-loss Penn State, had myriad wins over good teams that season).

As I was flipping between games and the U.S. Open on Saturday, I couldn't help but compare the states of men's and women's tennis to this era of college football.

In men's tennis, three players have dominated everything to the extent that it feels like a lot of major tournaments are competitions to see what player gets the fourth semi spot and which legend out of Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, or Roger Federer gets to add to their Slam wins tally.

If you're a fan of one of these players or a very casual follower of the sport, you probably love this. You know these players are going to be around at the business end of the biggest tournaments, just like a college football fan of any level knows that Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma will probably be in playoff contention in November.

Below the "Big Three," the main reasons to watch men's tennis right now are for enigmatic talents who frustrate the biggest names at times and sometimes make headlines for their off-the-court behavior (Daniil Medvedev, Nick Kyrgios) and to see how young stars (Stefanos Tsitisipas, Alexander Zverev, Felix Auger-Aliassime) develop — or don't, as has been the case for too many players to count in the Big Three era.

Somewhere, there's a column to be written comparing the Pac-12's recent college football plight and that of the "next gen" in men's tennis for the last 10-15 years.

Meanwhile, one could argue that women's tennis is in an amazingly strong place at the moment because there's not only an abundance of good players, but also young ones with the brains, talent and skill to defeat the established stars/champions on any given day.

Just four to five years ago, it seemed the sport was in a weird place because Serena Williams was just too dominant, reminiscent of the Alabama/Clemson duopoly today.

Of course, comparing individual and team sports to a T is somewhat folly. But in the case of college football, is it too much to expect that a regular top 10 team like LSU will beat Alabama more often in this era than once in nine years? Am I asking too much if I think Clemson should play a ranked team between the end of September and the start of the playoff?

Right now, the answer to both questions is, unfortunately, yes. And even if Clemson and Alabama are the two biggest programs for another decade, I hope the sport gets more competitive soon.

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