College Football Playoff semifinals send off four-team era the right way

“They got it right.” 

That would seem indisputable after watching the final installment of the four-team College Football Playoff semifinals on Jan. 1. 

No. 1 Michigan beat No. 4 Alabama 27-20 at the Rose Bowl in an overtime classic in Pasadena, Calif. The coaching matchup between Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban provided great entertainment – arguably better than any NFL coaching matchup could provide in the present tense. 

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy led a game-tying drive, and running back Blake Corum scored in overtime. The Crimson Tide will forever lament a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line where Jalen Milroe was stuffed. 

No. 2 Washington beat No. 3 Texas 37-31 in a Sugar Bowl shootout in New Orleans. 

Michael Penix Jr., the Heisman Trophy runner up – passed for 430 yards and two TDs. The Longhorns nearly rallied from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit in the final seven minutes, but Quinn Ewers’ last-gasp pass in the end zone to A.D. Mitchell was broken up by Elijah Jackson. The Huskies and Wolverines have national championship droughts that extend back to 1991 and 1997, respectively. 

BENDER: Why Michigan will upend Washington in the College Football Playoff championship

The two best teams will play for the national championship in Houston on Monday – and that does not include the SEC. No. 4 Florida State was left out despite a 12-0 record, and No. 6 Georgia might still be the best team in the country. But, you know what? 

“They got it right.” 

Four-team playoff was great for college football

This was an eerily similar setup to the first set of CFP semifinals in 2014, when No. 2 Oregon beat defending national champion No. 3 Florida State 59-20 at the Rose Bowl and No. 4 Ohio State upset No. 1 Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl. The excitement generated from that did not quite catch on, however, out of an inherent desire for more football. 

That was the curse of the four-team College Football Playoff. It was a year-to-year need for confirmation that the four teams from five Power 5 conferences were perceived as “correct.” That’s why there was seemingly a push to expand the playoff before we even gave the four-team playoff a chance. 

Now, the four-team playoff is a dinosaur, and the coming 12-team College Football Playoff expansion is a reminder of Jeff Goldblum’s monologue as Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park.” 

In this case, college football was, “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” These aren’t scientists, though. This is a sport that does not have a commissioner. These are coaches, ADs, conference commissioners, CFP committee members, bowl and TV executives, and their respective goals are not even close to aligned. 

That could lead to a mess. 

MORE: Michigan vs. Washington odds: Opening point spread and totals for CFP national championship game

Will 12-team College Football Playoff be better? 

There are a lot of big-picture issues in college football. The transfer portal calendar needs to be fixed. Opt-outs have turned a large portion of bowl games outside of the College Football Playoff into glorified spring games. Yes, the product is entertaining and the ratings are fine, but how long did you stick out Georgia’s 63-3 blowout against Florida State? Long enough to hear a coach who is 42-2 the last three seasons apologize? 

“People need to see what happened tonight, and they need to fix this,” Kirby Smart said afterward. “It needs to be fixed.”

The 12-team CFP isn’t going to fix that. We’re already arguing about the constituency of the field. No. 8 Oregon beat No. 23 Liberty 45-6 in the Fiesta Bowl, which preemptively calls into question the Group of 5’s automatic spot in the new setup. Washington will be the last Pac-12 team to play in the CFP, because the Pac-12 is dead. The SEC and Big Ten are going to dominate the 12-team field, and they are going to want more out of it as a result. That could lead to a Super League. 

Did we skip a step? In five years we might be asking if we should have gone to eight teams instead of 12 – but the result will be an expansion to 16 teams. More, more, more … 

MORE: Here’s what a 12-team playoff bracket would have looked like in 2023

The beauty of the four-team College Football Playoff will never be fully appreciated because it was the ultimate compromise. It is the one that held teams to a higher standard in the regular season – no two-loss teams made the CFP. It also gave a few more teams a chance to win a national championship. It created a weekend that was as good the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Final Four but not quite as riveting as the NFL’s conference championship weekend. 

That first year in 2014-15 appeared to thread that needle. 

Two things ruined the four-team setup. 

The average margin of victory in the CFP semifinals from 2014-21 was 21 points per game, and nine of those 16 semifinals were decided by 20 points or more. That, combined with the dominance of a handful of schools – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia combined for 22 of 40 CFP appearances in the four-team era – left viewers wanting a more inclusive field in a sport that thrives on the controversy from exclusivity. Teams are still going to be left out in the new chapter, too. 

The last two years, however, bucked that trend. In 2022-23, No. 3 TCU beat No. 2 Michigan 51-45 in the ultimate Cinderella story. No. 1 Georgia beat No. 4 Ohio State 42-41 in a captivating heavyweight thriller. 

This year brought the same pre-packaged New Year’s Day movie. Michigan beat Alabama in the blue-blood battle, and Washington outscored Texas in the new-blood battle. The average margin of victory in the last two years is five points per game. 

Close games. New blood. The best teams. That was the four-team playoff set out to do, and there is no guarantee the 12-team CFP will be able to do the same given the unstable footing the rest of the sport sits on right now. 

So, enjoy Washington-Michigan in the CFP championship game and thank the four-team College Football Playoff on the way out. For all the pot-shots it’s taken – like the BCS – it was a necessary evolution for the sport that served a purpose for the last 10 years. There is only one logical conclusion, one that will age better than you think. 

“They got it right.” 

College Football Playoff semifinal results (2014-23)

YEAR WINNER SCORE LOSER SCORE MARGIN
2014 No. 2 Oregon 59 No. 3 Florida State 20 39
2014 No. 4 Ohio State 42 No. 1 Alabama 35 7
2015 No. 2 Alabama 38 No. 3 Michigan State 0 38
2015 No. 1 Clemson 37 No. 4 Oklahoma 17 20
2016 No. 2 Clemson 31 No. 3 Ohio State 0 31
2016 No. 1 Alabama 24 No. 4 Washington 7 17
2017 No. 4 Alabama 24 No. 1 Clemson 6 18
2017 No. 3 Georgia 54 No. 2 Oklahoma 48 6
2018 No. 2 Clemson 30 No. 3 Notre Dame 3 27
2018 No. 1 Alabama 45 No. 4 Oklahoma 34 11
2019 No. 1 LSU 63 No. 4 Oklahoma 28 35
2019 No. 3 Clemson 29 No. 2 Ohio State 23 6
2020 No. 3 Ohio State 49 No. 2 Clemson 28 21
2020 No. 1 Alabama 31 No. 4 Notre Dame 14 17
2021 No. 1 Alabama 27 No. 4 Cincinnati 6 21
2021 No. 3 Georgia 34 No. 2 Michigan 11 23
2022 No. 3 TCU 51 No. 2 Michigan 45 6
2022 No. 1 Georgia 42 No. 4 Ohio State 41 1
2023 No. 1 Michigan 27 No. 4 Alabama 20 7
2023 No. 2 Washington 37 No. 3 Texas 31 6

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