OPINION: We May Have Multiple National Champions This Year, and That's a Good Thing
To love college football, you must love its quirks, and there's nothing quirkier about college football than how we determine a national champion. For 151 years, we've relied on polls, algorithms, and extensive research to figure out who's the best team in the country.
While recent years have seen the consolidation of systems leading to the College Football Playoff, it is not without flaw, and in an unprecedented season like 2020, it may not be enough. Depending on the outcome of the final College Football Playoff rankings, it may be time for a few teams to take title claims into their own hands.
Before I get into what's wrong with this year's playoff specifically, along with each fringe team's case for hanging a banner, I want to explain my problems with the College Football Playoff. In a vacuum, I think it's a great system. I don't think the winner of this year's playoff doesn't deserve the championship; they'll just have to share that title with one or more schools. A 4-team playoff is a much better system than a single National Championship Game, or determining a champion based solely on a poll or algorithm. However, these are the glaring issues I see with the current format:
Heavily favored towards the power five: In six years of the College Football Playoff, the only school not playing in the Power 5 was Notre Dame, who got in as an independent in 2018-2018, but now plays in the ACC. The Power Five is undoubtedly the cream of the crop in the FBS, but schools in those conferences are put at an inherent advantage when it comes to strength of schedule, which has been a major criticism of the Playoff selection format since it's inception. A program could field it's best single-season team ever, but due to a "weak" schedule planned months in advance.
Conference championships don't seem to matter: In a sport where one regular season loss could mean the end of a championship run, the CFP Committee is surprisingly lax when it comes to letting in Conference runners-up, which have made appearances twice, being Ohio State in 2016-17 and Alabama in 2017-18. In the case of the former, Penn State, who won the Big Ten Championship, finished fifth in the final CFP Ranking, forcing them to watch a team they beat play for a national title. If the rankings published last night stay the same after Sunday, we could see the THIRD matchup this season between Notre Dame and Clemson. If Notre Dame wins the ACC Championship game on Saturday, what would the playoff matchup determine about this current matchup that we wouldn't already know?
Is four enough?: Another question asked every year since the inception of this current format; did the teams ranked 1-4 really earn their spot that much more than teams ranked 5-8, 5-10, etc.? The committee seems to recognize how close these decisions can be when finalizing that last playoff spot by mentioning the "First Two Out," but to me that always seems like they're just rubbing it in. What makes the PAC-12 Champ less worthy of a spot than the the SEC Champ, or the Big 12 Champ more worthy than the Mountain West Champ? Aside from strength of schedule, which I already stated is an effective, yet not absolute indicator of quality, there really isn't much of an argument.
Ohio State, and the problem with this year's playoff: I want to be clear on one thing; although Ohio State staying as high as they are at 5-0 doesn't sit right with me, I can't really argue that they don't deserve a playoff spot. When looking at stats such as FPI and FPI Efficiency, Ohio State is irrefutably one of the best teams in the country. Playing a full schedule, they'd earn a CFP easily. Every game on their schedule that wasn't played wasn't done so out of concern for the health and safety of players and team personnel. There's nothing I can knock about that. This is an unprecedented season, and unprecedented results are going to come out of that.
What I can knock, however, is the CFP Committee's decision to not expand the playoff to accommodate skewed schedules due to the pandemic. There were talks about a temporary expansion in late November, but the Committee ultimately decided against it. To quote Douglas Adams, "this had made many people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."
Without further ado, let's get into two teams that I think have been scorned most by the CFP Committee this season, and their cases for why they could declare themselves Champs.
DISCLAIMER: These teams already have the odds stacked against them, so getting snubbed from the final rankings on Sunday will not be enough to hang a banner. Winning their conference championships on Saturday, followed by a bowl win are absolutely essential. A top ranking from a football algorithm would also be a big help, such as in UCF's 2017 Natty.
9 Cincinnati Bearcats (8-0)
Heading into the American Championship game with an undefeated record, the Cincinnati Bearcats somehow managed to go down one spot in the latest CFP Rankings despite rising all the way to 6 in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Poll. This marks a second consecutive drop in the rankings despite not losing a game, currently sitting under the shoe-throwing Florida Gators.
Throughout this season, Cincy has proven that they are the best team in the Group of 5 this season, with just one game this season decided by one score. Against the two then-ranked teams they've played this season, 23 Army and 16 SMU, the Bearcats average margin of victory was 21.5 , contributing to their season average victory margin of 27.1. Cincinnati has just been rolling through teams, and despite their two ranked opponents now out of the Top 25, the Bearcats have watched two-loss teams slowly pass them by in the rankings.
Aside from solid team play, Cincinnati ranks higher than current CFP teams in several categories. Bearcats Quarterback Desmond Rider has put on a career season, throwing just over 1821 yards and 16 touchdowns so far this season. In terms of total QBR, Rider Ranks 8th in the country at 86.0, higher than Trevor Lawrence's 85.1. In terms of defense, Cincy ranks higher than all CFP teams in points allowed per game, while trailing only Clemson in yards allowed per game.
Seasons like this come once in a blue moon for schools like Cincinnati, and to see it end in a win at something like the "Cheez-It Bowl" just doesn't feel right.
12 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (11-0)
Claiming a National Championship this year would not only cap off the best season in Coastal Carolina Football history, but it would be the perfect celebration of one of the most remarkable stories in the sport.
A program founded in 2003, the Chanticleers began play in the FCS, quickly becoming a powerhouse school of the subdivision. Under Coach David Bennett, who became famous for which animals he told his players to act like, the Chanticleers won 7 Big South Conference championships, as well as taking down FCS blue bloods such as James Madison, Wofford, and Furman. CCU went 51-15 in their last four years in the FCS under head coach David Moglia before joining the Sun Belt in 2017.
After three losing seasons, CCU is on an absolute tear at 11-0 going into the Sun Belt Championship game, with quality opponents in that win column, to boot. The Chanticleers took down Kansas in their season opener, the second time they've defeated the Power Five school. They followed up that win with a 30-27 win against 21 Louisiana and a 22-17 thriller against 13 BYU, the latter of which immediately becoming an instant classic of the 2020 season. Freshman Grayson McCall is tearing up opponents this season, ranking tenth in the nation in total QBR (83.3) behind 2,170 passing yards and 23 touchdowns following week 16. He's bolstered by an excellent receiving staff with Jaivon Heiligh and Isaiah Likely, along with a top-ranked pass rushing defense on the other side of the ball that's forced 33 sacks on the season.
Two more wins, and they can hang a banner. Make Coach Bennett proud. Be a dog.