Berry’s College Football Buffet: Playoff field shows the sport’s newfound parity

Berry’s College Football Buffet: Playoff field shows the sport’s newfound parity

Naysayers whine about the state of college football, saying the transfer portal, along with name, image, likeness, have ruined the game they love. That's nonsense.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 28, 2023, 12:00pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 28, 2023, 12:00pm CST

The College Football Playoff semifinals arrive Monday, with a quartet that reads like the sport’s exclusive country-club: Alabama, Michigan, Texas and Washington.

Three bluebloods, plus Washington, which is not exactly a little engine that could.

But that’s the wrong way to view the Rose Bowl (Michigan-Alabama) and the Sugar Bowl (Washington-Texas). These semifinals instead are a monument to parity.

The naysayers bemoan the state of college football, saying the transfer portal, coupled with name, image, likeness, have ruined all that is righteous and holy about the game they love.

That’s nonsense, of course. Disloyalty started with coaches, and NIL money is pocket change compared to what universities are paying coaches for mediocre results or even to not coach.

And besides, the last few years have brought profound parity to the sport. Little Cincinnati made the four-team playoff in 2021. Texas Christian made the championship game in 2022.

Programs that once hoarded the spots now are on the outside. Clemson made six straight playoffs but hasn’t been back since 2020. OU made four of five playoffs from 2015-19 but none since. Ohio State made four of the first seven playoffs but just one of the last three.

And the four teams in this playoff represent parity. Even with their blue blood.

Washington is the first Pac-12 school to make the playoff since 2016.

Michigan is in its third straight playoff, but the Wolverines have stopped Ohio State’s domination of the Big Ten.

Texas is in a major bowl for just the second time since 2009, when it last won the Big 12 title before beating OSU in the title game 3½ weeks ago.

Alabama, well, I’ll give you Alabama. Alabama is the enemy of parity. But the Crimson Tide barely made it to the playoff, and the exclusion of Florida State to the benefit of Bama has drawn Congressional scrutiny.

A few years ago, college football was the ultimate closed society. But this playoff is different.

Here’s more evidence.

The Las Vegas point spreads for these games are Texas 4½ over Washington, and Michigan 2 over Alabama. Frankly, I think the wrong teams might be favored, but that’s beside the point.

Those point spreads are wonderfully low. In other words, there will be no upsets in the semifinals.

In the first nine years of the playoff, only five of the 18 semifinal games had games with point spreads smaller than 4½: Clemson 2½ over Ohio State in 2019 (season), Georgia 2½ over OU and Alabama 3½ over Clemson in 2017, Ohio State 1 over Clemson (2016) and OU 4 over Clemson (2015).

And in the first eight years of the playoff, only three of the 16 semifinals were settled by single digits. The mean point differential was 21 points.

Then came the 2022 season. Georgia outlasted Ohio State 42-41 and TCU pulled that 51-45 upset of Michigan.

Tell me again how the portal and NIL are ruining college football? What exactly about the sport has changed for the worse?

College football free agency has done what all free agency always has done. Made things more competitive for the masses.

Texas-Washington doesn’t sound like a battle of the underdogs, but that’s exactly what Texas-Washington is.

In the previous 13 years, the Longhorns had five losing seasons and one double-digit win season. Between 2000 and 2023, Washington won exactly two Pac-12 football titles.

Celebrate this playoff. Don’t despair NIL and the portal. It absolutely has changed college football.

For the better.

Bowl predictions

Predicting and ranking the 13 bowls being played Friday through Monday, complete with Action Network information on roster losses due to the transfer portal, injury or skipping the game for NFL Draft reasons:

  1. Sugar Bowl: Texas vs. Washington, 7:45 p.m. Monday, ESPN. Huskies 31-28. The Longhorns lost backup QB Maalik Murphy to the transfer portal, but some injured UT stars figure to play, including flanker Xavier Worthy. UW’s roster seems intact.
  2. Rose Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan, 4 p.m. Monday, ESPN. Crimson Tide 18-14. Both teams are close to full strength.
  3. Peach Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Penn State, 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN. Rebels 21-18. Both teams will miss a few starters but nothing too substantial.
  4. Cotton Bowl: Missouri vs. Ohio State, 7 p.m. Friday, ESPN. Tigers 19-17. Mizzou is expected to miss only two starters, both due to injury. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are without quarterback Kyle McCord (transferring to Syracuse) and a variety of starters.
  5. Fiesta Bowl: Liberty vs. Oregon, noon Monday, ESPN. Ducks 35-20. Not surprisingly, the Flames will be missing few players. Surprisingly, neither will Oregon. Ducks QB Bo Nix is expected to play.
  6. Citrus Bowl: Iowa vs. Tennessee, noon Monday, ABC. Hawkeyes 13-9. Both teams have minimal roster damage for the bowl, although the Volunteers will be without 1,000-yard rusher Jaylen Wright.
  7. Gator Bowl: Clemson vs. Kentucky, 11 a.m. Friday, ESPN. Tigers 23-17. Clemson has more voids but had more talent to start with. 
  8. Orange Bowl: Georgia vs. Florida State, 3 p.m. Saturday, ESPN. Bulldogs 29-7. Georgia will be missing a bunch of players, but few of them starters. The Seminoles figure to be missing at least nine starters and will be quarterbacked by third-teamer Brock Glenn, who was quite ineffective in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
  9. Sun Bowl: Oregon State vs. Notre Dame, 1 p.m. Friday, CBS. Fighting Irish 27-13. A virtual junior varsity game. The Beavers are missing quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and eight other starters. Notre Dame is missing QB Sam Hartman and 10 other starters.
  10. Music City Bowl: Auburn vs. Maryland, 1 p.m. Saturday, ABC. Tigers 24-20. Auburn is expected to be without three defensive starters, but Maryland is without quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who is sitting out the game.
  11. Liberty Bowl: Iowa State at Memphis, 2:30 p.m. Friday, ESPN. Cyclones 23-21. Memphis is missing four starters, but the Cyclones potentially none. Good sign for Matt Campbell’s program.
  12. ReliaQuest Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Louisiana State, 11 a.m. Monday, ESPN2. Tigers 31-10. The Badgers could be missing seven starters. LSU’s losses aren’t that severe, though Heisman-winning quarterback Jayden Daniels is sitting out the game. 
  13. Arizona Bowl: Toledo vs. Wyoming, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, CW Network. Cowboys 27-20. Toledo figures to be without starting quarterback Dequan Finn, who has entered the transfer portal.

Upset special: Iowa over Tennessee

Iowa football has become like NASCAR. You watch to see the wrecks. The Hawkeyes offense is historically inept, for such a quality program.

Zero points against Penn State and Michigan. Ten points against Minnesota and Northwestern. Thirteen points against Nebraska. Fifteen points against Illinois and Wisconsin. 

But funny thing about the Hawkeyes. They win. Iowa went 10-2 in the regular season and won the Big Ten West. And sure, the Hawkeyes were drubbed by Michigan 26-0 in the conference title game, but at least Iowa was playing. Lots of teams were watching on that first Saturday in December.

Now Iowa plays Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, and the Volunteers are 6½-point favorites.

But Tennessee doesn’t win as often as does Iowa, and in 2023, that’s been largely because of offense. The 8-4 Vols lost to Florida 29-16, Alabama 34-20, Missouri 36-7 and Georgia 38-10. That’s three top-10 teams, but it’s not like Iowa’s conquerors are downtrodden squads.

Worse for Tennessee, Vols quarterback Joe Milton will skip the Citrus Bowl, leaving freshman Nico Iamaleava to start. Good luck against the Iowa defense, rookie.

Let’s go with Iowa in the upset.

Coach on the hot seat: Jim Harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh always seems to be in some kind of trouble. First he wasn’t winning enough at Michigan. Then he ran afoul of NCAA investigators and was suspended for the first three games of this season. Finally, he was suspended by the Big Ten for improper scouting.

But Harbaugh has Michigan ranked No. 1 and playing Alabama in the national semifinal Rose Bowl. 

Will Harbaugh return to the Wolverines next season? Will he bolt for the National Football League and stay ahead of the NCAA posse?

You never know with Harbaugh. But stay or go, it’s time Harbaugh won in the College Football Playoff. His Wolverines lost to Georgia 34-11 in the 2021 national semifinals. Then Texas Christian stunned Michigan 51-45 in the 2022 national semifinals.

It’s great that the Wolverines have replaced arch-foe Ohio State in becoming playoff  perennials. But now it’s time for Michigan to win in the playoff, especially with Harbaugh potentially hitting the road.

Share with your crowd
Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • Feb 25, 2024; Stillwater, Okla, USA; Oklahoma State coach John Smith, left, and associate head coach Coleman Scott, right, react on the sidelines at a wrestling match against Iowa in Gallagher Iba Arena . Mandatory Credit: Mitch Alcala-The Oklahoman

    Lessons from Iowa loss: What should OSU’s postseason expectations be?

  • Oklahoma catcher Kinzie Hansen (9) rounds first for a double during an NCAA softball game between Oklahoma (OU) and Liberty on opening day of Oklahoma softball stadium Love's Field in Norman, Okla., on Friday, March 1, 2024.

    Love’s Field, Oklahoma’s new, $47.1 million ‘palace’, got the opening day it deserves

  • Miami infielder Jenna Golembiewski (2) celebrates hitting a home run during an NCAA softball game between the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Miami University on opening day of Oklahoma softball stadium Love's Field in Norman, Okla., on Friday, March 1, 2024.

    Meet Miami (Ohio) slugger Karli Spaid, the answer to an OU trivia question

  • Nov 19, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy and Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables speak before a game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sarah Phipps-USA TODAY Sports

    How Brent Venables and Mike Gundy play the portal game | Mind Games with Guerin Emig

  • Jan 4, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) shoots a three point basket against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the Thunder is bringing back sharp-shooting center Mike Muscala

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • Feb 25, 2024; Stillwater, Okla, USA; Oklahoma State coach John Smith, left, and associate head coach Coleman Scott, right, react on the sidelines at a wrestling match against Iowa in Gallagher Iba Arena . Mandatory Credit: Mitch Alcala-The Oklahoman

    Lessons from Iowa loss: What should OSU’s postseason expectations be?

  • Oklahoma catcher Kinzie Hansen (9) rounds first for a double during an NCAA softball game between Oklahoma (OU) and Liberty on opening day of Oklahoma softball stadium Love's Field in Norman, Okla., on Friday, March 1, 2024.

    Love’s Field, Oklahoma’s new, $47.1 million ‘palace’, got the opening day it deserves

  • Miami infielder Jenna Golembiewski (2) celebrates hitting a home run during an NCAA softball game between the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Miami University on opening day of Oklahoma softball stadium Love's Field in Norman, Okla., on Friday, March 1, 2024.

    Meet Miami (Ohio) slugger Karli Spaid, the answer to an OU trivia question

  • Nov 19, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy and Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables speak before a game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sarah Phipps-USA TODAY Sports

    How Brent Venables and Mike Gundy play the portal game | Mind Games with Guerin Emig

  • Jan 4, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) shoots a three point basket against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the Thunder is bringing back sharp-shooting center Mike Muscala