College Football’s NBA-Like Rigidity At The Top

College football and the NBA don’t have a lot in common when it comes to structure and atmospherics. One is driven by a focused intensity in front of screaming crowds for 14 weeks in the fall, with one loss being a significant hit to anyone’s goals. The other is marked by a marathon regular season, mostly laid-back crowds and a postseason that feels like another marathon. But these two sports, different in so many ways, have one important similarity—they’re both remarkably rigid at the top.

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It’s rare for any NBA season to have more than three teams that can legitimately hope to win the championship and even that many is often generous. For example, last year let’s say the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers had legitimate hopes of winning it all. But did anyone really doubt that it was going to be the Golden State Warriors winning it all? Everyone else was playing for smaller goals—a team like the Boston Celtics might get to the NBA Finals, but they weren’t going to win it.

Does that landscape sound like college football? I count no more than five teams that can legitimately hope to win the national championship this year, and this season doesn’t feel much different than any in the recent past. Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have the talent level and pedigree to at least give themselves hope. But does anyone really doubt that it’s going to be Alabama again? Everyone else is playing for smaller goals. A team like Penn State is a good example of one who can hope to make the College Football Playoff, but they aren’t going to win it.

Fortunately, TheSportsNotebook finds the pursuit of those smaller goals to be a compelling story, particularly the pursuit of the bids to the six marquee bowl games, “The New Year’s Six” that includes the two Playoff semi-finals.

The NBA-like rigidity at the top means that I’m not going to move Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State out of the top four until they lose a game (even then, I still think they’ll recover and make it, but a loss will make it interesting). I’m not moving Oklahoma off the fifth line, even if they have a shaky performance like the one on Saturday night where they nearly lost to Army at home—and frankly should have.

But there’s real excitement in watching teams position themselves for a shot at the other seven bids in the New Year’s Six. Six of those spots will go to the highest-ranked teams, meaning they are almost certainly going to be from power conferences. The 12th bid will go to the highest-ranked team from the “Little Five” conferences, led by the American and Mountain West. Here’s how I’ve got the major bowl landscape lined up after the events of Week 4…

THE FOUR: Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State

RESUME TEAMS: LSU, Stanford: I’m not confident that either one will be there at the end, but each have multiple good wins under their belt. At this stage in the game, that’s enough to not overthink it and just include them in the projections.

THREE STEADY CONTENDERS: Washington, Auburn, Penn State—These three teams seem sure to be locked in anywhere from 5th to 11th in the final regular season rankings. The Lions, with Ohio State still ahead of them, are the one team in this group that can control their Playoff fate, even if that seems a tad unrealistic.

A FLUID SITUATION: West Virginia: The Mountaineers have nice wins over Tennessee and Kansas State and a Heisman-contending quarterback in Will Grier. WVA has looked good so far and is in the 11th spot in my current projections. But this spot is close enough that any number of teams, most notably Notre Dame, can move in with an impressive showing.

THE 12th: Central Florida: I’ve been fluctuating on this projection and have decided to stick with UCF for now, simply because they’re ranked higher. But this is a race we’ll eventually dig deeper into. South Florida and Cincinnati are legit challengers to Central Florida in the American Conference. Boise State and San Diego State have losses to power conference teams but will be heard from out of the Mountain West. Buffalo and North Texas are out to 4-0 starts and can still dream the dream.

Cotton (CFB Playoff): Alabama-Ohio State
Orange (CFB Playoff): Georgia-Clemson
Rose: Penn State-Washington
Sugar: Oklahoma-LSU
Fiesta: Auburn-Stanford
Peach: West Virginia-Central Florida