Opinion: The College Football Playoff is suffering from blowout fatigue. Fixing it won't be easy.

·5 min read

The semifinals of the College Football Playoff brought a familiar problem back into the discourse for fans who have grown weary of the blowouts and mismatches that seem to be endemic to the sport’s postseason.

It can’t be considered a coincidence at this point: Of the 16 semifinal games in CFP history, just three have been close. After Alabama and Georgia advanced Friday in games that were comfortably in hand by the fourth quarter, the average scoring differential in semifinals stands at exactly 21 points.

You could make the argument this is exactly what the playoff was designed to do. As much as fans and administrators in other conferences might roll their eyes at an all-SEC matchup, further regionalizing a sport that has become heavily tilted toward the Southeast over the last decade, this year’s playoff unquestionably identified the two best teams. If you can strip away all regional bias, it’s the only matchup that would give us the possibility of a memorable championship game on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

But the trend of uncompetitive semifinals isn’t great news for the sport or its television partner on what is hyped up all season to be the showcase day. Not only is it a drag on television ratings, which have not produced blockbuster numbers, but it creates apathy when fans do not see college football as a competitive enterprise except for a very small handful of teams.

Every other American sport gets more exciting and attractive to casual viewers in the postseason. College football, which arguably has the best regular season of any sport, somehow gets worse.

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) throws oranges as teammate Derion Kendrick (11) is interviewed by ESPN after defeating Michigan.
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) throws oranges as teammate Derion Kendrick (11) is interviewed by ESPN after defeating Michigan.

This conversation is happening at a time when the sport’s leaders are still haggling over the details of playoff expansion, which will end up likely being 12 teams.

The push to include more teams in the playoff was an obvious outcome as soon as it went to four, as the math told us that at least one power conference was going to be left out every year. The SEC’s dominance, Notre Dame making the playoff twice and Cincinnati getting in from the American Athletic Conference this year has only increased the angst of leagues like the Pac-12 (two appearances in eight years) and the Big 12 (four appearances, all by Oklahoma).

For their own relevance and financial security as future television negotiations loom, it’s absolutely crucial for those leagues to have a playoff that regularly includes them.

There’s no real debate anymore about expansion. It’s going to happen. What isn’t discussed is the possibility that a bigger playoff will suck some of the drama from the regular season while failing to actually solve the problem we saw Friday night.

Putting more teams in the playoff is easy. Creating more competitive equity across college football, though, is a more difficult conversation.

Alabama players hoist the Cotton Bowl trophy after defeating Cincinnati.
Alabama players hoist the Cotton Bowl trophy after defeating Cincinnati.

Some will argue that the landscape looks much different if the current Alabama run had petered out the way most college football dynasties do rather than extend to a possible seventh title in 13 years. At some point, probably this decade, the 70-year old Saban will walk away and even things out a little bit more among the superpowers.

But for most of its history, college football has been a sport ruled by a small group of elite programs that rise and fall every few years. What we don’t have anymore are the outliers from the poll era like BYU in 1984 clinching a national title by beating 6-6 Michigan in the Holiday Bowl or 1990 when the top-ranked teams were all obligated to different bowl games, leaving Georgia Tech and Colorado to share the championship.

In transitioning from that era to this one, college football has made a trade-off. We know now, every year, who the best team actually is because it’s settled on the field. The downside is that it’s actually decreased the number of schools that are capable of winning it all.

Very few programs are capable of beating two other elite teams back-to-back. This isn’t the NCAA basketball tournament where a team can get hot for a couple weeks or ride a superstar player to the championship. To beat the likes of Ohio State, Georgia, Alabama and Clemson consecutively in a semifinal and final, you have to be on their level. But hardly any programs are.

In a sense, college football is what any sport would look like if there were no regulations designed to make it more competitive like the salary cap or draft. Its ethos is far more similar to European soccer, where the richest and most popular teams win pretty much all the time, than the NFL.

You can expand the playoff to as many teams as you want, but under the current structure of college football, we know exactly what’s going to happen. There will be a few entertaining first round and quarterfinal games, but the business end of the tournament will be just as predictable as it is now with the truly elite teams separating from the rest by large margins on the scoreboard.

That won't change unless college football actually engineers more competitive balance into the sport. Some of those measures could be as small as reducing the amount of time between the conference championship games and the playoff so that the favored teams don’t have as long to heal up nagging injuries from the season and practice their way into peak form. Or the model could be changed more drastically whether that’s spending limits for programs, cutting the scholarship limit to spread out some of the depth teams like Alabama can accumulate or just straight up collectively bargaining with and paying players like the professionals we know they already are.

Until those things happens, college football is destined to be a sport that sparkles with intrigue week-in and week-out but tilts heavily toward the aristocrats when the spotlight shines brightest.

Maybe this generation of college football leaders doesn’t really want to solve that problem. But without some type of intervention, we’ve seen enough of the playoff now to know that semifinal blowouts are more than likely going to be the status quo.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football Playoff: Blowout fatigue has no easy fix