Gene Frenette: College Football Playoff could use a dose of March Madness
College football, you should be so lucky when your playoff expands to 12 teams in 2024.
But we all know upsets, chaos and bracket busters that permeate March Madness every year are not likely to happen once the football postseason triples its field from the current four-team playoff.
College football is one of the most predictable sports in the entire athletic landscape. Sure, there are some upsets and Appalachian State will throw in a once-a-decade shocker, but it’s mostly the usual suspects when it gets to the postseason.
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In nine years of the four-team CFP, 25 of the 36 spots have been filled by just five schools — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia. Six of the last eight national titles, including the last four in a row, have been won by the Southeastern Conference.
The reality is there’s a staleness about college football. That’s because parity, no matter how much coaches scream otherwise, is almost non-existent.
March Madness is different. There’s always room for a Cinderella, a double-digit seed making a name for itself, an unknown nobody anticipated stealing the national spotlight.
College basketball, partly due to the sheer volume of 363 Division I teams, is almost as likely to feature new blood as bluebloods on the big stage.
This year, it happened to be Florida Atlantic’s turn to crash the Sweet 16 party, winning its first NCAA game against Memphis. The Owls then had to survive a most unlikely second-round participant, 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson, which won a First Four game before taking down No. 1 seed Purdue, only the second time that’s happened in tournament history.
Princeton, a No. 15 seed, is also Sweet 16-bound for the first time since 1965. The Tigers went on a 9-0 run in the last 4:45 to upset second-seeded Arizona, then led nearly the entire game in a 78-63 dismantling of Missouri.
College football no place for Cinderella
This kind of stuff simply doesn’t happen in college football. Programs don’t come out of nowhere and threaten to make or reach the CFP, albeit Northwestern remarkably put together three 10-win seasons under Pat Fitzgerald in the past decade.
When you look at the dozen CFP participants anytime this decade, it’s unlikely the names of Power 5 programs Vanderbilt, Cal, Boston College, Virginia, Iowa State, Rutgers or Indiana will be there. Another dozen or more can probably be put on that list before any season kicks off.
But in March Madness, teams with little or no history of making noise in the NCAA Tournament pop up all the time.
A George Mason, a VCU and the ultimate giant-killer, Butler, all danced their way into the Final Four within a five-year period. Butler went to the NCAA title game two straight years, coming a missed three-pointer at the buzzer from winning it all against Duke in 2010.
Last year, St. Peter’s stole the show by making a run to the Elite Eight. In 2018, the top story line was Loyola-Chicago and centenarian supporter, Sister Delores Jean, being embraced by hoops fans all the way to the Final Four.
Such is the beauty of college basketball’s greatest showcase. It’s one of the more inclusive sporting events, giving legitimate hope to the little guys that there’s always room for a David or two among the Goliaths.
With the exception of Duke under the legendary Mike Krzyzewski, you don’t see the same program over and over at the Final Four. It’s getting so with the CFP, you can pencil in at least two of the four participants every year before the season even starts.
Dreamers can succeed in March Madness
In the NCAA Tournament, there are booby traps lurking everywhere. Kansas just became the sixth consecutive defending champion to not make the Sweet 16 the following year. Seven of the remaining teams — Creighton, San Diego State, Xavier, Princeton, FAU, Miami and Alabama — have never gotten to the Final Four.
Kentucky’s John Calipari and Virginia’s Tony Bennett have both won national championships, but you’d never know it by the way their teams have been quickly escorted to the tournament exit in their past two appearances.
Virginia was dismissed in the first round by a pair of 13 seeds, Furman and Ohio, while Kentucky got dispatched by No. 15 seed St. Peter’s last year and fell short against Kansas State in a second-round matchup. Plus, Calipari and Bennett missed the Big Dance a combined three times before that.
So what are the chances of college football’s preeminent coaches, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban, experiencing that kind of prodigious drop with their football programs? Probably about the same as Jimbo Fisher being the guest of honor at a Tuscaloosa banquet.
College football doesn’t have enough real depth to create that kind of upheaval. Once a school becomes an established power, it tends to hang around a while. An occasional TCU, Cincinnati or Michigan State might slip in, but will usually revert back to a forgettable bowl appearance the following year.
Once the 12-team playoff begins in two years, anyone care to bet against Georgia or ‘Bama not making it? If either gets a top-4 seed, it’s also highly unlikely you’ll see them eliminated the following week by a 10, 11 or 12 seed, providing a double-digit seed even won a game to get that far.
What makes the college basketball postseason infinitely more entertaining than college football is it’s not the exclusive domain of elite Power 5 programs. There are 11 different conferences represented in this year’s Sweet 16.
The proud ACC needed Miami routing Indiana to avoid being shut out of the Sweet 16. Ditto for the Big 10, where Michigan State and eight-time Final Four coach Tom Izzo saved that league from a similar fate by knocking off Marquette.
Honestly, nobody expects Princeton (Ivy) or FAU (Conference USA) to be cutting down the nets, but the possibility cannot be totally dismissed. If St. Peter's can advance to the Elite Eight, who's to say Dusty May's Owls can't get there Thursday by taking out Tennessee in Madison Square Garden? Would anybody be shocked to see Princeton punch their Elite Eight ticket by eliminating Creighton?
As Butler showed us when it came within an eyelash of scaling the mountaintop, nothing is out of the question when it comes to the underdog and the whacky NCAA tournament. Like who was Gonzaga before its 1999 run to the Elite Eight, back when current head coach Mark Few was an assistant under Dan Monson.
March Madness remains the greatest showcase in college sports because the little guy can dream and achieve.
College football would never allow that to happen.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: March Madness has it all over College Football Playoff for entertainment