Today we begin a new series evaluating the state of our favorite sports in 2017. How are they faring when compared to the past? Are the best days ahead for sports in America, or are some sports struggling to remain relevant? Each week, we'll tackle a new sport, presenting its current trajectory with the classic Tattered Pennant spin.
by Keith Aksel
The last game of the 2016 Football Bowl Subdivision season was an all-time classic. The Clemson Tigers overcame a ten point third quarter deficit to win their second national championship over the Alabama Crimson Tide, football’s immoveable object over the past eight years. The players involved in the game’s decisive moment represented the best of college football. The last-second go-ahead touchdown was scored by former walk-on receiver Hunter Renfro, on a pass thrown by Deshaun Watson, likely the most charismatic college quarterback so far in the playoff era. Everything was there: the rematch storyline, clutch individual performances, and a smidgen of little-guy triumph over the old guard. For these reasons, the Clemson victory was, in my evaluation, a win for the sport as a whole.
But to really analyze college football’s current state of affairs in this State of the Sport essay, we need to go beyond this single moment of Clemson victory, and look at the bigger picture of the past few years. Is college football on the way up, on the way down, or something else altogether?
This entire essay is based on one assumption; college football is at its worst when the old powers dominate their conferences and the national championship chase. In recent memory, the years 2011-2013 represented one such run. In that span, the Heisman Trophy went more than once to controversial figures (Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston), while the national championship went to Alabama and Florida State, teams long regarded as football’s old guard.
On this basis, college football was likely at its best and most interesting in the early 1990s, when relative newcomers Georgia Tech, Colorado, Washington, and Florida State all took their turn at the top of the heap, elbowing out the likes of Nebraska, USC, and Michigan in the process. Developments within conferences made waves across the sport as well. The SEC stoked new interest in the potential postseason football could hold by featuring the first ever dedicated conference championship game in 1992, and setting what would become the standard among major college leagues. This came on the heels of a batch of new conference expansion, with Florida State joining the ACC, Penn State signing on with the Big Ten, Miami, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia joining the Big East, and Arkansas and South Carolina joining the SEC. On a grand scale, the model of the powerful college conference that we know as the norm today was shaped in the formative early 1990s.
How close is the sport today to reaching the level of intrigue produced in the early 1990s? In my evaluation, the current era is on an upward swing, but not quite hitting the heights of the early 1990s. This era is distinct, to be sure, simply because of the College Football Playoff (CFP), a development that I argue is the most important structural change in the sport’s history. The CFP has presented some of the most-watched cable television events in history, and the annual selection show brings a level of intrigue similar to that of the NCAA basketball tournament’s Selection Sunday. The storylines in recent memory have been decent: Ohio State’s left-for-dead story in 2014 was thrilling even for many non-Buckeye fans, and the 2015 and 2016 matchups between Alabama and Clemson are likely going to stand up as two of the greatest back to back championships games in history.
In some ways, however, the CFP has not yet lived up to its potential to bring new levels of interest to the sport. In theory, the CFP made it possible for those teams who would normally be ignored in the title race to have a shot at all the marbles. A team from a mid-major conference shut out from the title game under normal conditions, such as the 2010 TCU squad that went undefeated as a member of the Mountain West, would have been allowed a chance to win it all in the CFP.
So far, this potentiality has not borne itself out. Three programs have taken up seven of the twelve total spots in the CFP’s three-year history. The only even remotely “new” programs that have qualified for the CFP have been 2016 Washington, 2015 Michigan State, and 2014 Oregon, none of which actually won the title in their respective years. As it stands, we have yet to see a mid-major break through to deliver a true David and Goliath story to viewers, which is the type of storyline that would really push our current era of football over the top in terms of all-out suspense and parity. As long as a mid-major program can schedule (and beat) a couple of major teams while not stumbling over themselves in conference play, I feel that a mid-major will slip into the CFP top four one of these days.
Given the evidence, it seems that although college football has not looked as vibrant and unpredictable as it did in the early 1990s, it certainly looks better than it did in the dark ages of 2011, when the decadent Bowl Championship Series format failed the most by pitting LSU and Alabama in a forced rematch for the national title. If the CFP can produce a new champion, preferably a team from outside elite ranks, then the best of college football is yet to come.