Never at any point in the history of college football have things felt this existential.
The basic message from the past 14 months of conference realignment: If your program doesn’t draw television eyeballs like those at the top tier of the sport, or you weren’t lucky enough to win the geographic lottery and be linked to those that do, then you might not have a seat at the table in college football’s brave new world.
Then Friday’s news of an expanded 12-team playoff came down the pike, and suddenly, every team in major college football can now say it has a reasonable shot at reaching the College Football Playoff.
And that includes the three that call the Centennial State home.
College football — B-
Of course, it wasn’t guaranteed to end up this way.
Once Texas, Oklahoma, USC and UCLA left their traditional rivals behind to consolidate power within the SEC and Big Ten, one didn’t need to squint too hard to see a future with the sport’s second-tier programs left behind.
After all, the Big Ten and SEC could hold a championship by themselves and feel rightly justified that their best is better than anything in the rest of the FBS subdivision.
Now, with a 12-team playoff that includes the six highest ranked conference champions and six at large berths, every program from South Florida to Hawaii can make a (slightly) realistic pitch that they can provide a path to national title contention. And that’s something that hasn’t existed at any point in the history of college football.
Just look at CU and CSU.
At one point in time since the turn of the century, both programs have produced a season that would’ve garnered playoff consideration. The Buffs actually would’ve made a 12-team field in 2016, while the Rams would’ve had an outside shot all the way through the end of November in 2014.
More importantly, playoff expansion offers a lifeline to the two conferences those programs (and Air Force) belong to.
Infamously, the Pac-12 has been left out of the four-team playoff every year since 2016 — a fact that likely hastened the exits of USC and UCLA for the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Mountain West Conference hasn’t once produced a team included in the playoff conversation since the system was first implemented in 2014.
Now, with the six highest-ranked conference champions automatically included, the Mountain West has a fantastic shot at regularly producing playoff teams. Especially with the American Athletic Conference, its closest Group of 5 rival, about to be gutted by the Big 12 with the departures of Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston.
Granted, there are drawbacks.
The first, and most obvious, is the possibility that a quarterfinalist could play as many as 17 games in a season — if said team also plays in its conference championship and makes a run to the national title game. That’s as many as the pros, and those guys are actually getting paid.
The second, and just as obvious, is that many, if not all, of the at-large berths will be gobbled up by the same name-brand schools we all know and don’t love. Think: Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC and Georgia.
Those programs will still have a distinct advantage in terms of financial resources and prestige — advantages that will only be exacerbated by the merging of blue bloods within the SEC and Big Ten. There’s little doubt those will be the schools left standing in the Final Four each and every year.
It didn’t have to be that way, of course. There’s plenty of money to go around in college football. Even if the “student-athletes” are certain to get a real slice of the pie in the not-too-distant future.
Up until Friday, it’s been rare that the people who run college football actually do what’s best for everyone in the sport.
Finally, that’s changed. And it couldn’t have happened at a moment too soon.