I really cannot recommend Brian Fremeau’s take on the 2018 regular season enough. I agree it’s been a weird year for exactly this reason:
We have four undefeated teams heading into bowl season, including three power programs. No power programs made it to bowl season without a loss last year, and only three total had accomplished that feat in the three years prior. There were five undefeated teams heading into bowl season way back in 2009, but three of those five hailed from non-power conferences. Going undefeated through the regular season is rare. This year, with Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Central Florida all accomplishing the feat, is especially rare.
The 2018 season has been largely devoid of drama. Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Washington all finished the pre-bowl season ranked among the top eight teams in the FEI ratings. They’re also seven of the top nine teams in the College Football Playoff committee rankings. All seven of those teams were projected as top-eight FEI teams at the beginning of the year. I can’t even boast about that prediction — I didn’t really go out on a limb with any of the picks. Six of those teams appeared among the top seven teams in the preseason AP Top 25 poll as well. If it felt like there weren’t many surprises this year, you’re absolutely right, there weren’t.
It hasn’t been a chaotic year; it’s been the opposite, a very stratified one. The best teams have separated themselves from the pack by significant margins and that gap is exacerbated because the teams in the next tier haven’t been that great.
… Good teams — the teams that fill out the second half of top-25 polls — haven’t been performing like good teams usually do. Instead, they performed more like the next tier down in quality. That feeds right into the first point – part of the reason why the top teams had staying power this year is that they weren’t challenged by the next tier down.
That’s something I noticed beginning mid-season as I worked up my weekly SEC Power Poll. The middle part of the conference was a jumble because so many SEC teams after, say, the top two or three were flawed, in some cases significantly, yet, still, I had to pick some program as the fourth best.
Brian picks up on one thing I hadn’t noticed that may have contributed to the overall look, weaker than usual non-conference scheduling.
I compared the 2018 season with each of the last four years, the College Football Playoff era. Through this past weekend, a total of 733 games between FBS opponents have been played. Only five of those games pitted one top-10 team (according to end-of-year FEI ratings) against another. There were eight such games played prior to bowl season last year, and an average of 7.5 such top-10 matchups from 2014 to 2017. There have been fewer games between top-20 teams played this season than any other playoff year as well. Same goes for games played between top-30 opponents. What is the story here?
The drop-off in games played between top opponents is chiefly tied to non-conference scheduling. The Notre Dame versus Michigan game played all the way back in Week 1 remains the only non-conference game played this year between FEI top-20 opponents. There were seven such games played prior to bowl season last year. There have been only seven non-conference games played between FEI top-30 opponents to date, half as many as last season.
To be fair, while to some extent that might be the result of deliberate action, in many cases it was simply a case of teams not turning out to be as good as preseason expectations led us to believe.
While the year may not have been that interesting overall, what is of interest to me is how folks are grabbing on to what for now looks like an anomaly to justify major change to the sport, as Andy Staples does here:
… An eight-team playoff with automatic bids for Power Five conference champions would only increase the value of Power Five conference title games, which currently go for about $30 million to $40 million a pop. Imagine if Oklahoma or Texas could have made the playoff by winning the most recent Big 12 title game. Or if the winner of the Ohio State-Northwestern Big Ten title game was guaranteed a berth. So if everyone is chasing the biggest positive incentives, no one would want to ditch their conference title games…
If the wind keeps blowing in the direction that the discussion of 11-2 Georgia as a legitimate final four possibility seems to have taken it, White may eventually get his wish. The incentives have begun to align for an awful lot of people. “There are a lot of things we can point to that maybe help people recognize that four was a lot better than two and two was a lot better than nothing, but we’re still not there,” White said. “I think an eight-team playoff would be great for the game.”
You’d think better in-season scheduling would accomplish much the same in terms of determining quality, but we all know what the movers and shakers mean when they talk about incentives. In the end, this is all about excuse making for growing the size of the pie and little else.