February 3, 2023

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The College Football Playoff Semifinals Finally Delivered on the Promise of Epic Games

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The clock struck midnight on Ohio State’s season at exactly midnight on New Year’s Eve, ending the greatest day in the history of the College Football Playoff. Georgia rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter of the Peach Bowl, and Ohio State’s field goal attempt to reclaim the lead in the final seconds went wide left at about 11:59:59—the ball dropped at the same time the ball dropped.

The first eight years of the College Football Playoff provided few competitive semifinals. It seemed like this year would be no different: Georgia and Michigan were both undefeated, and both favored by about a touchdown. But for the first time in the existence of the playoff, both games went down to the wire. Ohio State nearly handed the defending champs their first loss since last year’s SEC title game, and TCU beat Michigan in a 51-45 thriller featuring 69 second-half points.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen eight more consistently entertaining hours of football. From kickoff of the Fiesta Bowl to midnight, we saw 22 touchdowns and even more momentum shifts; there were moments when it felt like each of the four teams were destined to win the national championship. Some people went to parties on New Year’s Eve. They should’ve stayed in and had some fun.

TCU’s win changed the narrative around its playoff appearance from aww, it’s cute that the Horned Frogs made it to oh crap, can they win this thing? The Horned Frogs beat Michigan, not just with offense, but with two defensive touchdowns and three goal-line stands. (Yes, there was defense in a game with damn near 100 points scored.) And Michigan crushed Ohio State in Columbus in November, and Ohio State hung with the defending national champs until 2022 ended.

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No team like this TCU team has ever won a championship; the Horned Frogs were picked to finish seventh in a 10-team conference after going 5-7 last year and had 200-1 odds to win the title. And no program like TCU has won in a long time—it used to be somewhat possible for secondary programs like BYU or Colorado or Pitt to sneak in a national championship here and there back in the day, when polls decided the champion. But now you actually have to beat the other best teams in the sport, which eventually brings everything back to the same few five-star-powered mega-programs.

When the College Football Playoff began in 2014, it promised great matchups between the best teams in the sport and an expanded pathway to winning a national championship. It delivered neither. Of the first 16 semifinal matchups, only four were decided by fewer than 17 points. Only Ohio State’s seven-point win over Alabama in January 2015, a Georgia-Oklahoma classic in the Rose Bowl after the 2017 season, and the Justin Fields–Trevor Lawrence matchup in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl were competitive. We’ve gotten some fun national championship games, but year after year, the semis were blowouts, with the top two teams in the sport quickly establishing themselves as significantly better than their opponents.

The playoff led to the wheat separating itself from the chaff—and, quite frankly, wheat is boring when all you get is wheat every year. Basically only the blue bloods of college football made the playoff—and on the rare occasions somebody like a Michigan State or Cincinnati snuck in, they were quickly eliminated in some of those blowouts we just talked about. In a best-on-best playoff system, the teams loaded with five-star megatalents usually win. Of the first 16 spots in the College Football Playoff National Championship game, Alabama got six, Clemson got four, Georgia and Ohio State got two apiece, and LSU and Oregon each got one. The biggest upset in a semifinal was 2014 Ohio State, which beat Alabama as 10-point underdogs with third-string QB Cardale Jones forced to play due to injury. When Ohio State is your biggest underdog, you don’t really have any underdogs.

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It’s fitting that TCU has become the first real underdog. In 2010, the Andy Dalton–led Horned Frogs went 12-0, dominating the Mountain West Conference, winning most of their conference games by 20 or 30 points. It was good enough to finish third in the BCS system—but of course, there were only two spots in the BCS National Championship Game. The Horned Frogs beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, finished the season undefeated, and that was it. Sure, they might have lost to Cam Newton’s Auburn team—but they never even got a shot. They were the poster children for the small-but-radical decision to expand the playoff from two teams to four.

Now, college football is preparing to triple down on that decision, expanding the playoff from four teams to 12. The first eight years of the College Football Playoff gave little reason to believe that this would be a smart decision. There seemed little need for more blowouts, and little evidence teams 5-through-12 could seriously alter the championship picture. It was a financial decision disguised as a football one.

But this year’s playoff has shown us that an outsider can make it to the final game; that games featuring the biggest and best programs in the sport don’t have to end in crushing, lopsided defeats. As the clock strikes midnight on this era of college football, there’s hope.

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