Can Oregon Break Up the Playoff Status Quo?

David Marsh Editorials

College football is getting less competitive. The playoff’s goal was to expand the number of teams that could compete for the national championship every year by widening the field from two to four. Not much of a playoff, and it seems even less so with a cast of four usual suspects: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma. These four teams have combined for 17 of the 24 total playoff berths. That’s 71%!

In any given year, there seem to be only three teams who are real contenders to win the national championship, with a fourth team invited to fill out the playoff bracket. Oklahoma has benefited greatly from the playoff format, as they often seem to sneak into the playoff over a two-loss team, only to get demolished in the semi-final game.

However, just making the playoff comes with great rewards. Not only is there a monetary payout, but arguably the biggest benefit is a recruitment boost. Many high-ranking recruits love the idea of playing for a national championship, and they have to get into the playoff to have a shot at it. This in turn leads to the playoff teams bringing in some of the best recruiting classes, and thus the cycle continues.

Florida State was woefully outmatched by Oregon in the inaugural Semi-Final game.

In the College Football Playoff era two teams have really dominated: Alabama and Clemson. Both of these schools have only missed one playoff of the six played so far: Clemson in 2014 and Alabama in 2019. These schools have also consistently been atop the recruitment rankings, and neither seem to be slowing down.

How is this cycle going to end? What is going to break the status quo of only the same few teams being invited to the playoff?

Getting the Pac-12 Involved

Out of the Power Five Conferences, the Pac-12 has been considered the weakest. The Pac-12 hasn’t produced a playoff team since Washington in the 2016-17 season, and hasn’t reached the National Championship Game since Oregon did it in 2014-15. Oklahoma has been the greatest benefactor of this, as they have managed to sneak into the last three playoffs after the Pac-12 teams cannibalized one another. In the latest occurrence of this in 2019, Oregon was eliminated by losing to ASU and then Oregon eliminated Utah in the Pac-12 Championship game. Well done Pac-12!

Oregon and USC are two Pac-12 that could be playoff contenders. Oregon’s recruiting is reached heights it has never seen before, and as long as Mario Cristobal is at Oregon it is reasonable to believe the great recruiting classes will continue. If Oregon can gain a stranglehold on the conference and, more importantly, make it through the season with no more than one loss the Ducks will contend for a playoff berth.

Is USC even a playoff contender?

USC has tradition on its side, and their 2021 recruiting class is looking strong. However, USC has only won the conference once in the past decade and was demolished last year in its game against Oregon. USC continues to be a team on the verge of a return to greatness, though it is unlikely that it will be the next Pac-12 team to break into the College Football Playoff.

For the Pac-12 to reach the playoff, Oregon must become the Clemson of the Pac-12. The ACC is actually a weaker football conference than the Pac-12 except for Clemson, the team at the top. If Oregon can reach the playoff for consecutive years the other Power Five conferences will feel it, especially the Big 12.

The reason why the Pac-12 has been left out has been due to Larry Scott’s failed leadership. Scott has weakened the Pac-12, and the other Power Five conferences don’t see the benefit of rushing to expand the playoff when their teams are currently making it in. Oregon can change that by “stealing” a playoff berth from another Power Five conference, in particular the Big 12 as they would be the most likely conference left out. At that point there would be increased pressure to expand the playoff to eight teams.

Oregon needs to make a return to the National Championship game.

An eight-team playoff would be the most effective way of breaking  the current status quo. If each Power Five champion had a guaranteed playoff berth it would increase the number of potential contenders. This could in turn lead to the recruiting status quo beginning to crack, as top-tier talent would have more viable options in their pursuit of playing for a national championship.

The College Football Playoff will expand to eight teams at some point, there is simply too much money in it to ignore. The Pac-12 could wait passively for the system to change, or a team could step up and break the system. Cristobal and Oregon don’t seem to have any intention of waiting around for things to change. Can the Pac-12 really afford to wait for change, or will Oregon have to crash the party?

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By: Craig Strobeck 

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