Alabama vs. Ohio State finally gives playoff national caliber matchup with two juggernauts
For all the flaws of the Bowl Championship Series, the erstwhile postseason format succeeded more often than not in creating matchups for the national championship that piqued the interest of an audience well beyond the sport’s traditional fan base.
There was Texas and Southern California in 2005, which still holds the highest television rating and largest viewership of any postseason game since the advent of the BCS in 1998. There was Florida and Ohio State in 2006. Alabama and Texas in 2009.
If not always competitive — seven of the final nine BCS games were decided by double digits — the matchups accurately portrayed college football as a national sport, even as the Southeastern Conference began a run of seven consecutive championships in 2006.
As expected, the College Football Playoff has dramatically altered how the Football Bowl Subdivision approaches the regular season, turning every Saturday into a referendum on teams and conferences. Behind the layers and layers of hype and microscopic coverage of weekly rankings, the playoff has dominated the national conversation and represented a significant step forward in determining the best team in the FBS.
Even amid clamors for an expansion to an eight-team bracket, the novelty of the playoff has also overshadowed the format’s missing piece: the failure to provide a matchup for the championship between two national brands.
That will change next week. This season’s championship game between the Crimson Tide and Ohio State is the dream matchup of the playoff era, featuring two juggernauts in a pairing that will speak to a far broader audience than the regional showcases that have defined the playoff’s existence.
The last championship to include two teams with such broad reach came at the end of the 2012 season, when Alabama steamrolled Notre Dame to win the program’s second consecutive title and third in four years.
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The game next Monday includes the intrigue of combining two of the biggest names in the sport with the added subplots of revisiting Ohio State’s win in the second national semifinal of the playoff era and answering the question of which conference owns the FBS, the Big Ten or the SEC.
In addition, Ohio State enters next week looking to build off a resounding Sugar Bowl win against Clemson and shine a spotlight on the tenure of second-year coach Ryan Day, who with surprisingly little fanfare has won 23 of his first 24 games. From Alabama’s perspective, another blowout paced by an explosive offense would give this year’s team a credible case for being ranked among the best in program history.
While how the game plays out is always difficult to predict — half of the six title games have been decided by less than a touchdown and the other three by at least 17 points — the matchup will undoubtedly create a bump in the playoff’s television ratings by drawing in viewers tired of seeing the same teams from the same geographic area meet for the championship.
For the first time since 2014, when the Buckeyes won the first playoff title against Oregon, the game will feature a team from outside the Southeast. The 2015, 2016 and 2018 seasons ended with Alabama against Clemson. The Crimson Tide beat SEC rival Georgia in 2017. Last season ended with LSU beating Clemson to complete an unbeaten season.
That game against Oregon drew in a playoff-record 34.6 million viewers across all ESPN networks, in part due to the newness of the bracket. But no other title game has drawn in more than 28.4 million viewers while the last two games have featured the smallest audiences of the playoff era, perhaps indicating general fatigue caused by predictability and repetitiveness.
The possibility of the fourth iteration of Alabama and Clemson — and the fifth if you count Alabama’s win in the Sugar Bowl during the 2017 national semifinals — carried deep historical impact and meaning, as the continuation of a cross-conference rivalry with no analog in the annals of the sport.
The fact the Tigers have crafted a dynasty to last, with two national championships amid an FBS-record 10 consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins, doesn’t overcome the fact that Clemson is not a national brand anywhere near Ohio State’s scope.
Unlike Clemson and perhaps even more so than Alabama, Ohio State touts a national following with roots dating back generations, the result of decades spent as one of the most consistently productive programs in the FBS.
The Buckeyes have claimed eight national championships, won 40 conference championships, including the last four, and made four playoff appearances. With the exception of this shortened season, Ohio State has won at least 10 games in every year since 2012, when former coach Urban Meyer ushered in an era of success matched in program history only by the Buckeyes’ two-decade heyday under Woody Hayes.
Most important, the Buckeyes have been the defining figure in the Big Ten, the only true rival to the SEC. In essence, while Clemson has recently challenged Alabama’s place atop college football, Ohio State has long been Alabama’s mirror image — the Crimson Tide dominated the Southeast while the Buckeyes owned the Midwest.
According to the official records compiled by the NCAA, Ohio State ranks first in career winning percentage (73.1%) and Alabama second (72.9%) among programs with at least 25 years of FBS experience. The Buckeyes rank second (929) and the Crimson Tide third (928) in career victories, while the two programs have combined to claim 25 national championships, some of dubious distinction.
Through no real fault of its own, this is the championship-game matchup the selection committee has been hoping for since the playoff’s debut – two powerhouse programs with deep roots in the fabric of the sport and coast-to-coast appeal.
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg