College Football Playoffs Can Get Better, Even After Incredible Semifinals
ATLANTA — Kickoff in the Peach Bowl was 15 minutes away, and I still refused to sit in the press row at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. To my right, left, and behind me, other sportswriters joined me near the televisions in the back of the press box as we watched the end of the first college football playoff semifinals toward a conclusion on the wire on the other side of the campaign.
No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Ohio State could wait.
I was not going to miss the arrival of the most thrilling semi-final in five years. A few hours later, a more thrilling arrival than the previous one.
CFP’s nine-year history was filled with more blowouts than suspense, but as it went, No. 3 TCU’s anger at No. 2 Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl served as the first course in this New Year’s Eve burning the heart of a football the banquet. Then comes the gluttony of talent served up by Georgia and OSU in a showcase that surely had NFL scouts salivating.
As Ohio State and Georgia traded scores and the Buckeyes’ CJ Stroud fought back with Georgia’s Stetson Bennett IV, college football fans surely resisted any urge to switch channels to watch the ball drop.
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It was the quality product that CFP was supposed to deliver but failed to deliver for so many years. Before Saturday, the average margin of victory in a CFP semi-final was 21.1 points. For most of the playoffs existence, the Sun Bowl had a better chance of delivering a blank finish than a CFP semi.
Then came Saturday, and in Georgia’s 42-41 win over the Buckeyes, I wondered if we were leaving this playoff format too soon.
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Ohio State (11-2) squandered a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. Bennett shrugged off a tough three quarters to rally the Bulldogs (14-0) to another national championship appearance. Stroud kept the Georgia fan crowd in suspense after driving the Buckeyes within range for a game-winning field goal try. Noah Ruggles hooked his left from 50 yards as midnight struck.
The defending national champion survived. Somehow.
How does it get any better than that?
The four-team playoffs will give way to a four-round, 12-team format in 2024. I applauded the change, and as good as Saturday’s semi-finals were, I still welcome the evolution.
I relish the 12-team format’s annual opportunity for a Group Five qualifier to upset a big fish in a playoff game.
And sign me up for first-round playoff games at campus venues. Remember when Tennessee fans tore down the goal posts and baptized them in the Tennessee River after Alabama’s upset in October? Now imagine if the Vols won a playoff game at Neyland Stadium. Big Orange fans could walk the goal posts all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Bryce Young gave us a magical final act in Alabama’s Sugar Bowl triumph, but can’t you imagine Young jousting with Caleb Williams in a playoff match featuring the last two Heisman Trophy winners? Alabama and Southern Cal would have been a first-round playoff in a 12-team playoff.
So, yeah, run the expanded playoffs and don’t let Saturday cloud its benefits.
Those semi-final matches were like a day of friendly laughter between partners nearing the end of a relationship that has run its course. And you wonder, maybe this could work? But no, as good as today was, something better awaits.
And yet, if we had had more semi-final doubles like Saturday, I wonder if we would have ever thought we needed this development. The playoffs have always been about expanding because more playoff games mean more revenue, and college sports is a business. But we probably wouldn’t have arrived so quickly in a sport where change often comes at glacial speed.
If we had had more Stroud and Bennett trade shots as the Heisman Trophy finalists, would we have felt the need to add seats to the playoff table for Tulane, Kansas State and Utah?
Stroud melted Georgia’s heralded defense as quickly as a snowfall in the South, and his 348 passing yards and four touchdowns got me thinking more than the future of CFP. I also redesigned the Heisman Trophy ballot I cast in December.
Stroud was among the handful of quarterbacks I considered on my three-name ballot, but not among those I voted for.
For most of Saturday, Stroud was the best quarterback in a stadium that included an opposing passer who improved to 28-3 as a starter. Bennett made costly mistakes and missed a few reads before resuming his role as the bold winner. He’s completed 6 of 7 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns in Georgia’s last two drives.
Meanwhile, Stroud has played as well as any quarterback I’ve covered in the flesh this season, and that list includes Tennessee’s Young and Hendon Hooker. Ohio State didn’t get much out of its running game, putting the onus squarely on Stroud.
OSU standout receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. turned Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo into ground meat, but a key moment came late in the third quarter when Harrison absorbed a hit that knocked him out.
With Harrison sidelined and the stakes rising, the Bulldogs were back to championship form in no time.
For the first time ever, both games in the semi-finals were decided by a single possession.
So here comes the glory day of the four-team playoffs. Now let there be more drama like this in the extended format.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.