Right up front I want you to know that this is not what I had planned to write about this week. By late Saturday evening I was already formulating what this column would look like, which clips I was going to include, and what gripes were important enough to focus on. How many words would I use to attack the refs for missing two, rather obvious, holding penalties on Samaj Morgan’s punt return? How long would I go on about the lack of a roughing the passer on a 3rd down incompletion where Deacon Hill was suplexed by a Michigan defender well after the ball had left his hand? How much (metaphorical) ink would I spill over the call that transformed an incomplete pass into a fumble and gifted it to Michigan? In fact, I had already written about 1k words worth of that column when I decided to scrap it and start over, because I don’t want to sit in that pit of despair anymore.
Iowa had to play a perfect game to win in Indy and they didn’t, case closed, over, done. Yes, the defense turned in an all-time great performance – and I’d argue that it is directly responsible for Phil Parker winning the Broyle’s award instead of Sherrone Moore – but they didn’t score any points, and the offense let them down, again. Same old story, same old song and dance...my friends.
So, instead of diving down the rabbit hole of grievance, I decided to bend my thoughts toward the broader state of the game, not just for Iowa, and what the end of this season (and today’s announcement of the NCAA’s new ideas around paying players) mean for this sport that we all love a little too much.
THE CFP vs. FSU
When the Playoff Committee decided to vault Alabama ahead of undefeated ACC Champion Florida State, it made one thing very clear. Everyone that had ever suspected that the CFP process wasn’t about who was most deserving of inclusion was right. Since 2014 we’ve lived under the assumed belief that the Committee was evaluating teams to determine who was the best and most deserving of inclusion, and outside of a couple of debatable choices, they’d mostly been proven correct.
In 2014-15 they made 12-1 B1G Champion Ohio State their #4 team, passing over both Baylor and TCU (both 11-1 but without the benefit of a B1g 12 Championship game to bolster their resume) and OSU went on to win the inaugural CFP Championship.
In 2017-8 a one loss Alabama was given the 4 seed in over Ohio State and USC because of their SoS and they went on to beat Georgia and win the championship.
Most other years, of the CFP no one expected anyone other than the SEC champion to win the championship, and aside from a couple of Clemson wins, they were mostly correct in those calls. The SEC has won 6 of the 9 championship games played in the CFP era, and no one will be surprised if Alabama wins it all this year. But honestly, I don’t think anything they’ve done has anything to do with SoS, or even the records of the teams discussed above, no, I think the Committee’s actions on Sunday showed the world what their real job is, and that is to get as many eyeballs on tv screens as possible 3 times a season, and 9 times starting next year.
The Committee’s decision sent the world of College Football punditry into a lather. How dare they leave out an undefeated Power 5 conference champion? How could they punish FSU for Georgia’s loss? How can they betray those kids just because the team lost their best player? How can they justify this? Here’s the truth, they don’t have to justify it, because the system was bullshit to begin with, this is just the first time it’s been laid bare for all to see.
THE GRANDADDY OF THEM ALL
This year’s edition of The Rose Bowl will feature #1 seed Michigan against #4 seed Alabama. How many viewers do you think that matchup will garner? How many casual football viewers will tune in to watch Saban v. Harbaugh? How many people want to see a game between the two teams that have the most wins, all-time, in the sport? The team with the most wins ever versus the teams with the most wins since 2015, or between the 3-time CFP champ and Michigan, looking to advance to its first ever CFP final?
Almost anyone would watch that game, and that is really the crux of the playoff, because if it’s Michigan versus Florida State sans their best player, there’s a whole lot less to talk about. Michigan v Alabama sells itself, the stories are built in. Alabama recovers from an early season loss to Texas (the #3 seed) to take its revenge on Georgia after three straight losses to the Bulldogs. Nick Saban’s finest coaching job since arriving in Tuscaloosa, a scrappy, hardnose team that didn’t give up even when it seemed like they had blown it right out of the gate. Pay no attention to the fact that they barely beat a 6-6 Auburn team two weeks ago, or that they could only muster 17 points against 6-6 South Florida in week 4, or that they barely outlasted both 7-5 Texas A&M and 4-8 Arkansas. They don’t ask how, they ask how many (at least, if you’re Alabama).
Nobody is complaining about a 1 loss Texas team getting in over Florida State, but only because they’re the team that handed Alabama its only loss, and if you include Alabama, you can’t leave out the team that beat them, that’d be way too on the nose. Nope, Alabama is in because the story writes itself, and only one thing matters to the Committee, and that’s advertising revenue. Honestly, they probably love all the controversy over the pick, think of how many more people might watch to see if Alabama can beat Michigan and win another Championship? How much free advertising have they generated for the Rose Bowl by giving the talking heads even more grist for the mill. Shifting the narrative away from Michigan’s scandal plagued season is just a bonus, nobody cares about Connor Stallions now, now do they?
GIMME SOME SUGAR
Texas and Washington are also great stories, but ask yourself, does Texas get in without Alabama? If Georgia wins the SEC championship game, is FSU in? The committee isn’t going to put a 2 loss Alabama team into the playoff, and it’s not exactly like the Big 12 was a strong conference this year (certainly no stronger than the ACC). So why does 12-1 Texas get in over 13-0 FSU? That’s easy, Texas is the better story, because how many times in the last decade have we heard the sentence “Texas is back!”?
Hell, the ACC had a better overall record than the Big 12, and went 10-9 against the rest of the Power 5. More than half of the teams in the Big 12 (8 of 14) finished with losing conference records while only 6 (of 14) ACC teams had a losing record in-conference, so which conference is better? Both conferences featured 2 teams that were well ahead of the rest of their in-conference competition, but Texas, unlike Florida State, lost to their main rival (and not in week 2). Oh, that’s right, Texas beat Alabama and Alabama is better than LSU (Florida State’s best win), so none of that matters. But yeah, we can’t leave Texas out because they’re, finally, back, so sorry FSU, here’s the shit end of the stick. Texas (and even Washington with their high-powered offense led by a Heisman candidate) is the better story, better luck next year (maybe don’t lose your star QB to injury next year).
THE UGLY TRUTH
This isn’t about Florida State and if Georgia had beaten Alabama, this would be irrelevant because 4 undefeated power 5 conference champions in the playoff has never happened before and writes its own story. This is about making sure that the CFP has as many eyeballs as possible, this year more than ever. The CFP Committee wants controversy, they want criticism, they want interest (even if it’s negative interest), because more people will tune in, and that’s the only goal they have ever had. College football is not a meritocracy, no matter how much we want to believe that it is, it’s a business, and that’s the ugly truth that no one wants to face.
Starting next year the CFB landscape will be almost wholly dominated by two conferences, the B1G and the SEC, but the real war is between ESPN/ABC (Disney), Fox, and, to a lesser extent, CBS. The game that we all love is no longer about student-athletes carrying their school’s banner to victory, it’s about TV revenue sharing that will allow the NCAA to create a whole new competitive division where schools pay their players directly, but, more importantly, can have 100% control over the marketing rights for those student-athletes. The 12-team playoff isn’t about finding a better system to determine a true National Champion, it’s about adding more games to the schedule and generating more money for TV Networks.
This is the landscape where style and story significantly outweigh substance, and ratings will always influence rankings. And that, my friends, is where this story turns back to our beloved Iowa Hawkeyes.
STYLE OVER EVERYTHING
For most of my life (58.14%), Iowa has played the same brand of football. Run first, staunch defense, good special teams. Winning ugly is still winning and winning is the most important thing, or at least it used to be. 10 years ago the pro-style offense was fairly common in college football (at least everywhere but the West Coast), and as long as you were winning games no one complained. I mean 2 different Alabama running backs have won the Heisman since 2009. But once the system for choosing a national champion was consolidated into the choice of 13 people (most of whom are unknown to the average College Football fan), everything changed. As soon as the CFP came into being, you no longer had to win over hundreds of sports writers, or hundreds of coaches, or even the algorithm used to calculate a team’s BCS ranking, you just had to win over 13 people (many of whom have personal relationships with the Conferences and the Coaches that they are judging). 13 people whose experience has been deemed worthy of selecting the 4 best teams with the goal of having one true champion. But I think we all know now that that story is a fairytale.
Join me on a hypothetical if you will. Let’s say that the refs hadn’t overturned Cooper DeJean’s punt return against Minnesota and they had pulled off a miraculous win against Michigan last weekend. Does the committee put 12-1 B1G Champion Iowa into the CFP over Florida State? What about 12-1 Alabama or 12-1 Texas? Of course they don’t, because the casual college football fan wants big explosive plays, not grinding defensive slugfests. They want 49-42, not 16-10. It’s not about records, it’s never been about records, it’s about advertising and getting people that spend their fall Saturdays doing anything but watching football to turn on the TV on December 30th, January 1st, and January 8th so that they can be exposed to ads from State Farm, DraftKings, BetMGM, Wendy’s, and everyone else lining up to drop $1M or more for a 30 second spot in the College Football Playoff. That’s how conferences like the B1G end up with tv deals worth more than a billion dollars over 10 years, and that’s what drives their selections, nothing else.
Sure they tell the fans that a 12-team playoff means the meritocracy is expanding, that more teams will get their shot, and while that is not a lie, it’s not the real goal. The goal is to triple the number of $1M ad buys. That, my dear readers, is the real challenge that a team like Iowa faces starting next year. It’s not facing 4 former PAC-12 schools (because they’ll only face those 4 teams only 9 total times through 2028) who rarely bother to play defense, it’s winning 11+ games in a conference with 8-10 other teams that could, legitimately, win 11 games in any given season. Sure, some of those teams are new, but most of them are not (and who knows what USC and UCLA will do any given year). More to the point, even if Iowa does win 11-12 games each year, will the committee put them in if they do it while scoring 23ppg and averaging 300 yards of offense? Will that get them in over a team with the same record, in the same conference, that averages 33ppg and 400 yards of offense? I think not.
We can sit around and bemoan the death of amateurism in college sports, or whinge on about the death of it’s so-called meritocracy, or we could even have a healthy debate about just how much college athletes should be paid, but it’s all moot. The CFP (and it’s selection committee) is always going to do what is best for the CFP, and the NCAA is going to do everything they can to help them.
When all is said and done, Kirk Ferentz has a choice to make, adapt or die, and that’s what we’ll be waiting on through Bowl Season, and what we’ll all be eagerly awaiting until sometime in early January (fingers-crossed). Kirk Ferentz’s decisions over the next 6 to 8 weeks will define Iowa football for the next 4 years (at a minimum) and could very well seal Iowa’s playoff fate through 2030, no matter how many wins he can rack up before he rides off into the sunset. Modernizing the offense, or simply letting a new OC have the same autonomy that he gives Phil Parker, could put this program on a path to the playoff. Intransigence could lead to a repeat of Hayden Fry’s final years, and I really don’t want to live through that again, do you?
As always, GO HAWKS!!!