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College Football Playoff expansion could help Pac-12 and others, but lopsided results make that a tough sell

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett reacts to winning the College Football Playoff title game Monday against Alabama in Indianapolis. (Associated Press)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – A question I asked some people before the College Playoff began: If you were Alabama and Georgia, would you rather have the other two teams in the CFP be Michigan and Cincinnati, or would you rather it be the next two best teams from the SEC?

The idea being that the third- and fourth-best teams in Alabama’s and Georgia’s conference might give them more trouble than the Wolverines and Bearcats would.

Then, in not-so-surprising fashion, Alabama and Georgia destroyed Michigan and Cincinnati in the semifinals – each by 23 points – to set up Monday night’s national title game, which Georgia won 33-18. The title game was a highly entertaining contest, but it made me wonder: Does the playoff really need to expand?

I ask the question because most of the semifinal games are complete blowouts – the kind of wallopings you tend to see from a No. 2 seed vs. a No. 15 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Here is a list of teams winning by at least 17 points in the semis since the NCAA went to a four-team playoff eight years ago.

2014-15: Oregon 59, Florida State 20.

2015-16: Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17; Alabama 38, Michigan State 0.

2016-17: Alabama 24, Washington 7; Clemson 31 Ohio State 0.

2017-18: Alabama 24, Clemson 6.

2018-19: Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3.

2019-20: LSU 63, Oklahoma 28.

2020-21: Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14; Ohio State 49, Clemson 28.

2021-22: Alabama 27, Cincinnati 6; Georgia 34, Michigan 11.

Just four of the 16 semifinal games were decided by fewer than 17 – an 11-point Alabama win, a seven-point Ohio State win, a six-point Clemson win, and an overtime Georgia win. Other than that – boat-race city.

So what does this mean? Essentially that there is a consolidation of power in the college football realm, where the top SEC schools and Clemson own this playoff. Sure, Ohio State won the whole thing in the CFP’s inaugural year, and Oklahoma took Georgia to OT four years ago, but generally speaking, the results are predictable.

So what exactly is the argument to expand this thing to eight teams or 12? If the usual suspects so regularly clobber the also-rans, why invite more teams in? What’s a team from the Pac-12, which hasn’t sent a team to the playoff since 2016 and lost all its bowl games this postseason, going to do vs. one of the perennial powerhouses?

I suppose there is always the “any given Saturday” factor. Sometimes there are just bad matchups. Sometimes great teams have off days. When Clemson won the national championship for the 2016-17 season, it had lost to an 8-5 Pittsburgh squad earlier in the season. This season Alabama fell to Texas A&M, which finished 4-4 in the SEC (although, as I mentioned earlier, the SEC is on another plane).

A big special-teams play or a costly turnover can change the complexion in any football game. And though most of the semifinal contests in the CFP semifinals have been lopsided, the 16 games are still a relatively small sample size.

Another reason for expansion is that it might make recruiting more competitive. “Might” is the key word, but hear me out. If you’re a college basketball coach, what’s one of your key pitches to a potential recruit? That you have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps if top high school prospects thought there were 40 or 50 teams that could make the CFP, rather than the same teams we see every year, it would lead to more parity.

And of course there is the sheer entertainment value of it all. Maybe an expanded CFP wouldn’t lead to heavier competition, but America loves football. Folks are going to watch meaningful games in the postseason regardless of the point spread. And the student-athletes are going to want to play in these games rather than a traditional bowl – most of which have lost their prestige.

It would likely intensify the regular season, too. Particularly on the West Coast. Right now, Pac-12 teams and their fans know that if they lose two games, they’re out of the playoff hunt. Heck, given the conference’s performance rate of late, one loss might knock them out.

Expansion provides fans with one of sports’ greatest (although sometimes cruelest) companions: hope.

None of that gets in the way of the truth, though: The opening rounds of the CFP have been disappointing – and unless Clemson gets in the way, the champs invariably come from the same league. Until the rest of the country steps up, adding more teams becomes a harder sell.