Is College Football About to Lose its Soul?

To me, one of the best things about the history of college football is that it's been a largely regional sport where the biggest matchups and rivalries are able to develop over the course of many years and teams largely play culturally and geographically adjacent schools.

Such is the regionalism of college football that one could easily make an argument that all national championships were "mythical" until the advent of the College Football Playoff in 2014. Throughout the vast majority of the years the sport has been around, the goals for elite Division I programs in a season were to win their conference, win as many games as possible, and win a top bowl game.

That era is gone now — and has been to some extent since the creation of the BCS in the late '90s. In this playoff era, that good bowl as a "reward" for winning your conference might be outside of the semifinals, meaning the selection committee didn't see your season as one of the four best in the country, per its subjective opinion.

I'm not naive enough to think that the days of regional preeminence in college football are coming back. After all, when someone in Honolulu or Seattle can watch all the same games as someone in Tuscaloosa or Raleigh, it's a national sport whether you like it or not.

Those important regional rivalries in the sport still do mean a lot, as do conference championships. But balancing the regional heartlands of the sport with the nationally motivated desire for more playoff spots and superconferences is, in my opinion, a huge concern for college football going forward.

It's all but a certainty that the College Football Playoff will expand from four teams to 12 sometime in the next few years. The exact timing is quite unclear, but it's probably happening by 2025 or before.

That 12-team format — as proposed — would have the six top-ranked conference champions and six top-ranked at-large teams.

On its surface, this is a good thing for a sport where the playoff teams have become too predictable over the years. With six conference champions qualifying, the Boise States of the world who run the table but don't play in a Power 5 conference won't be shut out from playing for a championship. It also means that at least one or two teams from one of the Western time zones is likely to qualify. In the playoff era, it's been a bit too easy to ignore the Pac-12.

Six at-large teams means we're almost certainly going to see an abundance of SEC and Big Ten schools. If those teams are deserving, it won't be a problem for national championship tournament that actually covers the whole nation. But it also means 2- and 3-loss teams making the playoff will become commonplace. And in the conferences with the most ranked teams, the selection committee's reliance on schedule strength means we could even get some weird outliers like a 4-loss team in the playoff from time to time.

This past Saturday's most compelling game featured Oregon going to Columbus to play Ohio State. The Ducks — without star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux — stunned the Buckeyes thanks to an outstanding game from running back C.J. Verdell and a defense that stood tall on the biggest third and fourth downs, despite giving up 600 yards of offense.

The magnitude of the win for Oregon was such that it didn't feel like hyperbole at the end of the game when Fox's Joel Klatt described the win as the Pac-12's biggest since the 2015 Rose Bowl when Oregon blasted previously undefeated Florida State in the very first CFP game.

The other massive matchup of the day was an annual in-state rivalry between Iowa and Iowa State that took a year off last year due to the pandemic. Iowa's stalwart defense made Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy look awful in Ames and denied the Big 12 title hopeful Cyclones a signature non-conference win.

Oregon fans can now be reasonably confident that a Pac-12 conference championship season with one loss will be enough for the CFP. If Iowa can pull together enough offense to win the Big Ten and beat one or both of Penn State and Wisconsin — the Hawkeyes can be confident of the same.

Now, would either of those big road victories meant as much in a 12-team playoff? Absolutely not.

Oregon and Ohio State playing would more or less be equivalent to Gonzaga playing Virginia in November in basketball — a game between two strong teams who are almost certainly going to be in the tournament at the end of the season. Iowa and Iowa State comes with intangible small-state bragging rights, but Iowa State would be comforted by the fact that conference season and the chance to grab an auto-bid awaits. As it stands now in the four-team era, Iowa State might well have to beat Oklahoma twice in three weeks for a playoff shot.

Despite the prohibitive barriers to playoff entry today, a team still has to have an outstanding season to qualify. There's a reason no two-loss team has been selected in eight seasons of this era. In a 12-team playoff, a natural side effect is that some games just aren't going to feel as big when both teams can afford a loss.

In the new SEC with Texas and Oklahoma that could well debut the same year as the expanded playoff, it's inevitable that we're going to see some yearly rivalries take forced breaks and playoff teams qualify with three losses. Will that minimize the prize of a conference championship? I feel like coaches and players are going to say no, but playing in the national title tournament will naturally mean as much for fans, boosters, and TV.

Of course, the current cycle of realignment is far from over. Just on Friday, the Big 12 unanimously voted to increase its membership back to ... 12 to make up for the loss of Texas and Oklahoma by inviting UCF, Houston, BYU, and Cincinnati.

All four of those schools have had some fantastic seasons over the past decade, and all four have deserved more playoff consideration than they've been given. But with the exception of former Southwest Conference member, it's the type of geographical hodge-podge that has come to define college sports realignment after 2010.

The cycle will continue down the line, and more rivalries will get broken up, despite the nominal promise of more competitive major college football. I'm not sure that's an overall net positive for the sport.

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