Here's why the College Football Playoff is finally primed for a surprise

·7 min read

In Year 8 of the College Football Playoff, the entire enterprise suffers from ennui.

Many of its problems were predictable when it was being invented a decade ago. The angst of the conferences getting left out was utterly predictable. It was obvious that the hyper-focus on a four-team playoff would diminish the value of the other bowl games. And, of course, everyone knew that the lure of more television dollars would eventually force the playoff to expand, which the conference commissioners will do as soon as they can get their act together and agree on a plan.

But what nobody saw coming was how predictable, and often how uncompetitive, the Playoff games were going to be. Except for the first year, when No. 4 seed Ohio State stunned Alabama in the semifinals and went on to win the national title, this format hasn’t produced a ton of mystery or surprise.

Could this year be the outlier? Here’s the easy case for why it’s possible: We’ve been wrong about all four of the semifinal teams for most of the season. Or, perhaps more accurately, the teams have shown us enough different sides of themselves that it’s fair to wonder which one we’re going to get in Friday’s semifinals.

Cincinnati, led by coach Luke Fickell, left, and quarterback Desmond Ridder, may have what it takes to shake-up the College Football Playoff.
Cincinnati, led by coach Luke Fickell, left, and quarterback Desmond Ridder, may have what it takes to shake-up the College Football Playoff.

The Alabama that struggled to put away several mediocre teams or the juggernaut we saw in the SEC championship game?

The listless Cincinnati we saw for much of October and November that wouldn't have stood a chance, or the team that went to South Bend and handled Notre Dame?

The Georgia that looked unbeatable for most of the season, or a one-trick pony that might be playing the wrong quarterback?

The Michigan that looked like a nice little overachiever for the first 11 games, or the physical menace it became late in the season when the chips were down?

Here’s how wild, wacky and mixed up things are with this Playoff. Will Anderson, Alabama’s star linebacker and arguably best overall player for the No. 1 team, had this to say Monday: “All year we have been disrespected. I'm pretty sure we're still probably getting disrespected out there.”

And he’s not even wrong! In fact, if Georgia and Alabama end up playing for the national title, the game will basically be a pick 'em — even though we saw them play less than a month ago with Alabama winning comfortably.

It’s been that kind of year in college football. And if the trends hold from the regular season into the postseason, we should brace for the possibility of something wildly unexpected even apart from the general omicron uncertainty swirling around.

“We’ve said it all year long, that the best team doesn't always win the game,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “It’s just a reality. The teams that play the best win the football game.”

And it’s probably never more of a reality than this year with four teams that — it’s OK to admit — we haven’t have a great feel for.

Usually by now we know the four playoff teams pretty well and have a good idea what to expect from them. After a few weeks of getting healthy and preparing for a specific opponent, the truly elite teams tend to be the best version of themselves. It’s why, over the long haul, this format has tilted heavily toward the teams with the most talent.

If you apply that to this playoff, the conventional wisdom is pretty simple. Alabama has more talent than Cincinnati, and Georgia not only has more talent than Michigan but matches up well in its strengths and weaknesses. On paper, it looks a little bit like the 2016 semifinals when Alabama absolutely crushed an under-talented but hard-working Michigan State team while Clemson shut down an Oklahoma team that had been red hot to end the season.

If this goes the way Las Vegas expects it to go — Alabama is just shy of a two-touchdown favorite, while Georgia has held steady as a 7½-point favorite — the CFP will be reduced to New Year’s Eve party background noise once again.

At the same time, the regular season should have taught us that we don’t know these teams as well as we think we do.

Despite being 12-1, Alabama played no fewer than five games that would’ve made anyone think they’re pretty ordinary by Alabama standards and not a real threat to win the national title. And then … BAM! One week after being unable to move the football at all for 59 minutes against 6-6 Auburn, Alabama scores almost at will on Georgia in the SEC championship game.

Georgia, meanwhile, seemed an inevitable champion awaiting a coronation when it arrived in Atlanta. It left with a defense that looked like it can be exposed if its front isn’t generating pressure on the quarterback and coach Kirby Smart being asked by reporters if he would consider replacing Stetson Bennett, the former walk-on quarterback who held the fort for most of the season, with the flashier J.T. Daniels.

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“The fact that we had a hiccup doesn't affect what we want to do going forward,” said Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, who, by the way, has had one foot out the door this month trying to put his new coaching staff together at Oregon.

Michigan is unique in that it started the season outside the top-25, seemed to blow its opportunity against Michigan State and didn’t have a signature win until the last game of the regular season. Player for player, the depth chart seems light on skill. But the formula of dominating physically on both lines of scrimmage has been enough to put together two of the most impressive performances of the season against Ohio State and Iowa in the Big Ten championship. It would not feel like a shock if that was the right formula to win a national title in a year with other flawed teams.

And what of Cincinnati? The Bearcats didn't just win the game they needed to launch themselves into Playoff consideration, they looked great beating Notre Dame 24-13 on Oct. 2. They’ve got at least a handful of future NFL Draft picks, including quarterback Desmond Ridder, and they matched up physically well enough against Georgia in last year's Peach Bowl to have a 21-10 lead going into the fourth quarter (before a 24-21 loss). But the sample size of Cincinnati against quality opponents is terribly small, and this team often looked bored playing in the American Athletic Conference. When the bright lights are on, what if Cincinnati is actually good enough to send a thunderbolt through the system that was designed to keep them out?

“We had to go through a period of time where we had to figure out who we were and what we really wanted to be and quit trying to be something else that somebody else wanted us to be,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “I think we kind of got into that groove and really had a chance to kind of enjoy the last few weeks of the season playing better football and winning a championship.”

This entire college football season has been strange enough that you can make a case for any of the four teams winning a national title. Even putting COVID-19 concerns aside — we probably won’t know who’s in or out for any of the four teams until right before kickoff — this edition of the Playoff has a more uncertain feeling. We know all four are capable of at their best, but none of them have produced it with enough regularity to be sure we’ll see it on Friday.

That won’t solve the fundamental listlessness of the current, soon-to-be-extinct Playoff format, but any sport is at its best when we don’t know what’s about to happen.

It’s been far too long since college football’s postseason had that feeling.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football Playoff primed for surprise with Cincinnati, others