For the first seven years of its existence, the biggest problem with the College Football Playoff was not the number of teams, the selection committee or even playing semifinal games on New Year’s Eve.
Instead, the fundamental flaw of a potentially great system was that it launched at the beginning of an era when a small handful of programs separated from the pack, making a fundamentally exciting sport look repetitive, predictable and even boring.
But as the Playoff heads into Year 8 — with discussions about expansion potentially moving ahead as early as next week — there’s an unfamiliar feeling around college football.
We don’t know what’s going to happen next.
In the closing seconds of Michigan’s 42-27 win over Ohio State, as fans and students began to stream onto the field and Jim Harbaugh smiled for the first time in what felt like forever, college football’s true soul was restored.
Not because Michigan won, but because the outcome wasn’t inevitable. It felt like a competition. And it was the best example yet of a sport finding its balance again after so many years where it seemed like the gap between the superpowers and the mere mortals had grown far too big.
When the Playoff field is announced next Sunday, there’s a real chance that it will include Georgia, Michigan, Cincinnati and Oklahoma State. If it doesn’t, it’s only because there were even more upsets that we didn’t see coming.
After a steady diet of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma and Notre Dame in some combination — all of them dominating their respective conferences in recent years — it’s not only a refreshing change, it’s what sports are supposed to be.
In every other popular American sport, the balance of power continually shifts. Great teams emerge, fade and rebuild again and again. You watch because you want to see what happens next.
It’s nobody’s fault, but college football hasn’t felt that way in a long time. Obviously, the unique nature of recruiting means that the blueblood programs will always have certain advantages. But when the same group of programs keep winning over and over and over again, it no longer looks like a competition. And if that happens, what’s the point for the rest of the 125 teams that play this sport and their fan bases to keep investing in it?
As good of a program as Ohio State has built, smacking your biggest rival 15 out of 16 years and mostly crushing the rest of the Big Ten into oblivion isn’t normal. But this? This is what an actual sport is supposed to look like, and it came not a moment too soon.
The sport needs a historic program like Michigan to be part of an actual rivalry with Ohio State and feel like it has a real chance to compete for national titles. It needs an interloper like Cincinnati every now and then to push the big boys and force us to debate whether they can actually do it. It needs a program we didn’t see coming to have a magical season and for the Alabamas of the world to look like they have real vulnerabilities every now and then.
Most of all, we need the games to feel like they’re being decided as they happen, and not simply in the recruiting rankings three years earlier.
As much as dynasties should be appreciated, what’s the fun in watching a sport where you can pretty much peg what’s going to happen a month before the season starts?
That’s what made Michigan’s performance Saturday so awesome. For what we thought would happen in this game back in August. Even as fans watched the Wolverines win 10 of their first 11 this season and play a very good brand of football, how many people actually believed they were going to beat the Buckeyes this time?
Because of their brand, their skill and the history of this series, it’s a good bet that most of the 107,000-plus fans who went to the stadium expected to see the same thing they have seen for the last decade.
But that’s what sports at their best look like: Their team rising to the occasion physically, executing a game plan and playing with such purpose and determination that we get something unexpected.
Michigan didn’t fluke its way to a win Saturday. The big headline will be how the Wolverines completely dominated the line of scrimmage, rushing for 297 yards and exploiting every defensive weakness the Buckeyes had managed to cover up for the last several weeks. But Michigan also did a lot of little things throughout the game that made it plain difficult for the Buckeyes to get comfortable.
On the day that mattered, Michigan was the far superior team. And just like that, Ohio State is out of the Playoff race just a week after being elevated to No. 2 because of how dominant it had looked recently.
Having that kind of unpredictability back in college football is healthy. It will draw interest and eyeballs to Playoff games that had become too stale and repetitive. There’s only so many times the average fan wants to watch Alabama blow out Notre Dame.
That doesn’t guarantee the randomness of this season will carry over to the national championship. Until proven otherwise, Georgia is a strong No. 1 that may well be on another level from the rest of the sport. But even then, the Bulldogs haven’t won a national title since 1980.
Before anyone hands the crown to Georgia, though, this season should have already taught us that nobody is inevitable or invincible. And the mere idea that we could see something surprising will help the sport far more than simply a bigger playoff bracket.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Michigan shows game unpredictable — and fun — again