Rigged System Ensures College Football Never Lets Cinderella Attend The Ball

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It’s the last days before Christmas, a special time of the hardest year, and this is the moment reserved for a feelgood story about the little guy. This time of year, I used to write about a small college football team outside of Chicago, Wheaton College, where the players weren’t on athletic scholarships and the coach would snow plow half the field while the team practiced on the other half in the dark during a blizzard. Then, they’d switch sides.

So here’s the little guy story in college football this year:

Sorry, I don’t have one. There isn’t one when you’re picking among Alabama vs. Notre Dame and Clemson vs. Ohio State. That’s the College Football Playoff.


We’re charmed every year in the NCAA Tournament by a Cinderella story in college basketball. Gonzaga was one at one point. Loyola-Chicago. George Mason. Butler. They overcome circumstances and the realities of life being stacked against them. You fall in love with them.

But now, college football has systematically shut out Cinderella: Go home and keep mopping the floors, Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette. Clean out the fireplace. 

Even Indiana is the little guy in the really big, big time of college football. The Big Ten changed its rules to get powerhouse Ohio State into its conference championship game, which pushed Indiana out. And without the chance to win the Big Ten championship in its Cinderella year, Indiana was then pushed out of the major bowls.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten is working to adjust more rules for Ohio State so players sitting out with COVID can get back in time for the Playoff.

At this point, college football needs to expand the Playoff or just stop pretending and tell the little guys that they’re never going to go to the ball, no matter what they do. The evil stepsisters run college football.

The outcry over the Playoff was that another SEC team, Texas A&M, was left out, despite already having had a chance at being champs. It lost by four touchdowns to Alabama. Cincinnati was 9-0 with wins over Army, Tulsa and SMU. How about giving them a chance?

It isn’t a national championship tournament if everyone doesn’t even have a chance to win it. No, this is an invitational for the bluebloods of the sport, meaning the four who are there. You can add Oklahoma to that. Texas would be welcome, too.

The College Football Playoff is a rerun every year. They should play it live on Netflix. It’s a dinner plate filled with steak, pork chop and hamburger. All red meat. No variety.

Even Iowa State, despite getting to play with the big boys in the Big 12, isn’t really invited. The Cyclones were put in the college football world for the purpose of losing to Oklahoma.

You can see how this works in tiers. This year, the Cyclones were almost Cinderella. They are ranked No. 10. That’s Power Five privilege, but not good enough to really be considered. Along the way, they lost three games. One of them was to Louisiana Lafayette by 17 points.

Louisiana has a better record than Iowa State and the win over the Cyclones. Coastal Carolina has a better record than Louisiana, at 11-0. And Coastal beat Louisiana Lafayette.

So among those three teams, guess which one is ranked highest. Right, it’s Iowa State No. 10, Coastal 12 and Louisiana 19.

When the Playoff was created, the Power Five conferences were trying to swat away at the next tier down, the Group of Five. They threw tier two 15% of the Playoff money just to keep them quiet. I was there at the meetings and remember the Group of Five athletic directors privately being thrilled just for that.

But come on, this is just not right. These schools should at least be able to dream.

Those underdog stories really are the best stories in sports. They humanize sports. I get it that they don’t always draw the biggest TV ratings, but they do broaden the audience. For sure, 2020 should have taught us the dangers of playing only to your base.

So now the season will end the same way every season does. And my annual story about Wheaton? Well, this year their results are these: postponed, postponed, postponed . . .

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.


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  1. As long as 4 teams is the field, you can’t compare it to the 68 field NCAA tournament. They have auto-bids – hell, Holy Cross [I think it was] a few years ago got in with like a 10-19 record or something simply because they got hot in their conference tournament and won it. Is that any better of a system?

  2. It is what it is…only about 8 teams every year have a legit shot at getting in. Everybody else is playing for the scraps. At the very least 2020 basically showed what it is.

    I mean all the bending backwards for Ohio State proves they are one of the 8. Alabama, Clemson, ND, Oklahoma, LSU, whoever wins the SEC East, and USC when they are good.

  3. Frankly, I liked it better back in the bowl era – let the polls argue it out. We were told a playoff would eliminate any debate and crown a “real” champion. Well, there’s still debate.

    And besides that, who CARES if there’s dueling “National Champs”??? It’s football, for goodness sake. The whole sports exists to give us something meaningless to argue about …

    But if you really want a change, look to Congress: All that TV money pales by comparison to the spigots the feds can turn off: Guaranteed student loans. G.I. Bill tuition. Pell Grants. Agricultural Department research grants. Defense Department research grants. Energy Department research grants. Centers for Disease Control research grants. It dwarfs the mere single-digit billions the schools get from their TV contracts.

    If Congress passed a law that no university would be eligible for any federal funds – either tuition assistance or research contracts – had to abide by a “fair competition” clause, not a single one could afford to say no.

  4. A nice feel good narrative but nonsensical in terms of what the CFP’s goals are; pick the 4 Best teams and generate the most $. Group of 5 teams achieve neither. Nearly all agree that if a Group of 5 team played a typical power 5 schedule, they would almost certainly have more attrition and more losses. The slipper then would be back in the bag. Even expanding to 8 should not guarantee a spot for Go5.
    They should have their own playoff. Maybe TV and others will come up with the $. I’d certainly watch Cincy vs CC, which would be far more compelling than Cincy vs Alabama or Clemson. Get real.

  5. The power 5 tout playing a strong non power 5 when it helps them. But then Works to keep them out. It’s a stupid system but why allow competition. This season shows a coaches real worth. No cupcake wins except again Vanderbilt. Coaches and power 5 teams don’t want more competition. Saban flopped in the nfl when he couldn’t choose his players. He’s a great minor league coach though.

  6. It’s not a rigged system really. The system was designed with the power 5 conferences in mind – not the smaller conferences. Four spots are probably the best number to figure out the national championship. If you had six, people would argue for the seventh and eighth teams that got snubbed. If you had eight then people would clamor for the ninth and tenth and so on. The COVID game cancellations for many power five teams skewed the polls and artificially elevated Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati. If 2020 was a normal year, those programs would be just nice stories and not part of the national championship discussion.

  7. I posted this on another article by Greg… The history of College football is unique, in that it was the ONLY sport that did not have a crowned champion at the end of the season. The AP, UPI, Coaches polls all picked their winners every year. Well, that can’t be right, not in America (which is changing its face today)! We have to have a winner, a champion crowned on the field and not the polls!
    Well, this Chinese virus year gave college football exactly what they wanted, Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and the flavor of the year, Clemson. I have stated over and over again, every year I just wish Alabama and Ohio State would play the first game, winner is the National Champion… Then maybe we can enjoy the season without having to hear about the “playoffs” and every pungent pundit telling us why they believe who should be in/win ad noseeum…

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