Joe Burrow Did Something Pretty Cool in the College Football Playoff
Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons - USA TODAY Sports

Joe Burrow Did Something Pretty Cool in the College Football Playoff

December 30, 2019

Joe Burrow was legitimately not on draft boards a year ago. He was an average quarterback who had gone from perennial backup to a starter completing 58% of his passes. Nothing special. Fast forward 12 months and he’s a Heisman Trophy winner, he has piloted the top-ranked team in the country to the national championship game after a public evisceration of the Oklahoma defense in the first semifinal of the 2019 College Football Playoff, and he’s probably getting taken No. 1 overall by Zac Taylor in a few months.

And on top of all of that, he couldn’t be an easier guy to root for if he tried.

The discussion Saturday—as Burrow threw more touchdown passes in the first half against the Sooners (seven) than Northwestern threw as a team in 12 games this season—wasn’t wholly about Burrow. It was a raging online debate about how OU didn’t belong in the playoff, how the BCS was a better format, how eight teams is a better format, yada yada yada.

Six years in and this playoff format is the only one in sports where the first-round results are an indictment on the system.

Oklahoma losing four straight playoff semis, with three of them being complete dumpster fires of performances, isn’t some grand commentary on the quality of the system. That Oklahoma has won five straight Big 12 titles but faced CFP deficits of 56-14, 37-17, and 28-0 over that stretch says more about the gap between the Big 12 and the SEC than it does anything about the CFP as an entity.

All three games were 1-4 matchups for Oklahoma. Over the last five years, the No. 1 seeds in the NFL Playoffs have won divisional rounds nine times out of 10 by an average of 11.1 points. The higher-seeded team in the divisional round over the last five years is 16-4 with an average margin of 8.9 points.

The higher-seeded team in the NBA playoffs has a 144-71 record in the first round over the last five years, wins a seven-game series on average four games to one, and wins by a margin of 12.3 points a game.

The divisional rounds of the MLB playoffs over the last five years have been decided by an average of three runs a game.

We, as an audience, are not owed competitive games just because the stakes are larger.

Who’s trying to change the conference title game structure because Clemson beat Virginia 62-17 or Oregon beat Utah 37-15?

I personally felt Oregon would have been a better No. 4 not because I thought Oklahoma wasn’t deserving but because I thought Oregon was better. An eight-team field would have given the Ducks that shot, but so did a four-team field. Both OU and UO were Power 5 conference champs; one had one less loss than the other. Instead of saying “Oregon shouldn’t have scheduled Auburn,” why not say “Oregon shouldn’t have lost to Auburn” or “Oregon shouldn’t have lost to Arizona State”?

The individual regular-season games have to matter at some point or the only purpose the Power 5/Group of 5 distinction serves is to discredit the 12-1 Appalachian State and 13-0 UCF and 13-0 Western Michigan teams.

I’m a proponent of an eight-team playoff because I want more football. Because if we were just to assume an unbeaten G5 team couldn’t take down a P5 giant, we’d never get to see it actually happen. No, football is not basketball and one cold day at the office can’t swing a 16-seed-over-a-1-seed kind of an upset, but would people really not watch? We watched the 2017 Peach Bowl. Maybe the upity scribes in the profession don’t want to see a game with blowout potential but the rest of us mere mortals would still be getting another football game featuring legitimate stakes.

Yes, an eight-team structure this season would have given us a first-round game featuring LSU and one of Memphis/Boise State/App State, and no, that probably wouldn’t have gone any better for Memphis than it did Oklahoma. Still better than the alternative, though.

The playoff alternative, if you want to do away with these lopsided first-round games, is going back to a BCS system that would have eliminated the second semifinal game Saturday night from ever happening. Clemson and Ohio State wouldn’t have played for a trip to the national title game and we wouldn’t have been treated to perhaps the best game of the season.

A one-versus-two national title with nothing in the interim would have left Clemson out to play someone far beneath it in a meaningless Orange Bowl. Imagine the mood that would have put Dabo Swinney in.

If and when the field gets expanded to eight teams, there will inevitably be years where two or three of the first-round matchups produce duds. College football is a top-heavy aristocracy, and that ain’t changing anytime soon. But an argument for or against expansion shouldn’t be built on the results of one game every December. Neither should an argument for reverting back to a BCS-style system.

The ones who spent Saturday’s Peach Bowl trying to construct one anyway missed a truly special player do something pretty fun to watch.

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