The last four college football seasons have ended one of two ways: confetti falling on Alabama or Clemson.
In three of those games, the other school was on the losing end. Alabama has qualified for the College Football Playoff in all five of its seasons. Clemson has been one of the four teams the last four years. Their respective quarterbacks, Tua Tagovaioloa and Trevor Lawrence, are heavy Heisman Trophy favorites and projected No. 1 overall pick in the next two NFL drafts. The two superpowers, separated by 320 miles and ranked first (Clemson) and second (Alabama) by the Associated Press entering the season, have become such familiar postseason foes a rivalry has sprouted, and another matchup is likely, if not a given.
“On paper in August, if you don’t have Clemson and Alabama, you’re probably just being a contrarian, trying to be that guy who picks something different,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said in a phone interview. “If you had to bet the ranch, it’s very hard not to imagine that being the game.”
There’s no doubting the greatness of the two programs, led by Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, but is it healthy for college football? Paul Finebaum, the SEC Network analyst and ESPN Radio talk show host, felt like the sport took a backseat to the NBA’s preseason last fall and first few months of its regular season. Last year’s title game, won decidedly by Clemson, drew the lowest television rating for a final in the playoff’s history. When the two met in 2015, the rating was 15.0. It fell to 14.2 the next year and 13.8 last year. The price of tickets was also down significantly on the secondary market for the game in Santa Clara, Calif., though it was technically a sellout.
“I think it is a problem for the sport,” Finebaum said. “I don’t see college football growing at the present [time].”
The South has owned college football’s big stage for several years now, and that’s unlikely to change this season. Clemson and Alabama are overwhelming favorites to reach the title game. Georgia, which nearly upset Alabama in the title game two years ago, is considered the one team that can spoil the party.
The last time the championship game featured a program from a different part of the country was the inaugural playoff in 2014-15, when Ohio State took down Oregon. Clemson is 11/5 favorites to win it all according to the William Hill sports book, and Alabama right behind the Tigers at 5/2. Georgia is a distant third, at 11/2, followed by Oklahoma at 12/1 and Ohio State at 15/1.
In the College Football Playoff era, spanning the last five seasons, Alabama is 67-6 and Clemson is 65-7, the only schools with winning percentages over 90 percent. Saban and Swinney are the sport’s only coaches with national championships at their current schools.
“You can’t do anything about who gets to the finals, but if you’re in a different part of the country, in Los Angeles or New York, or the middle of the country, you’re kind of shaking your head, [saying] ‘Haven’t we seen this before?’ ” Finebaum said. “Everywhere I go, people are just saying Alabama-Clemson, right? It’s a fait accompli. Those are the two teams that will [likely] be there, even though we haven’t started the season yet.”
One potential solution is including more teams in the playoff, but that means expansion. Though College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told The Post the Board of Managers — comprised of university presidents and chancellors representing the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame — have discussed different formats and will continue to do so, adding to the current four-team system is not imminent. Hancock doesn’t see the current dominance by the big two as a problem — or any different than other eras — and not a reason to make a change to the current contract that runs through 2025.
“College football has always gone in cycles and that will continue,” Hancock said. “You can go back  years to a time when Oklahoma won 47 straight [games]. People would’ve been sick of seeing Oklahoma in the CFP if there was a CFP. Look at the dynasties we had at Florida State, Southern Cal, Miami, and this is the nature of our game. [This] cycle happens to coincide with the creation of the College Football Playoff.”
It’s also a cycle that may not have reached its final turn. Lawrence has another year left. Tagovailoa will likely leave for the draft, but he’s followed by two high-caliber recruits: Mac Jones and Taulia Tagovaiola, Tua’s younger brother. Clemson and Alabama are still recruiting at an extremely high level, currently ranked first and second, respectively, in 247Sports.com’s 2020 team rankings. Alabama was No. 1 in 2019 and Clemson was 10th after they were both in the top seven the previous year. Even at the age of 67, Saban has seldom talked about retiring, while Swinney, 49, seems to just be hitting his stride. They aren’t slowing down.
“I think it would be great to have different teams every year, to give everybody hope that their team has a chance,” Herbstreit said. “But I don’t think it’s Alabama’s fault or Clemson’s fault. It’s up to everybody else to try to catch up to what they’re doing. They don’t have to apologize for being great.”
Alabama and Clemson can’t run college football forever. Eventually, their dominance will fade, and here are five programs that could take a leap in the coming years:
Florida: Give the Gators an offense, and they’re a title contender in recent seasons. Well, now they have a coach, Dan Mullen, who develops quarterbacks — Dak Prescott is one example — and has the chops to get the program back to where it was when he was the offensive coordinator and Urban Meyer was leading the Gators to national titles in 2006 and 2008.
Georgia: Under Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs have already reached a national championship game and won the SEC East two out of his first three seasons. And the program is teeming with young talent, with top-three recruiting classes each of the last three years.
Nebraska: Who better than a former Huskers legend like Scott Frost to bring Nebraska back? There is plenty of room for improvement for a program that hasn’t finished in the top 10 of the national rankings since 2001. Frost has already done more with less, having led Central Florida to a perfect season in 2017.
Texas: Tom Herman built Houston into a Group of Five power and has unlimited resources at Texas to bring the Longhorns back to national prominence. His 2019 recruiting class, ranked third, shows he’s on the right track just two years in.
Texas A&M: Jimbo Fisher has done it before, leading Florida State to a national championship in 2013 and guiding the Seminoles to four ACC Atlantic crowns in the span of five years. He’s in the talent-rich state of Texas and should have no problem selling his accomplished body of work.