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Kirk Herbstreit’s ‘conspiracy theory’ theory shows he’s oddly unaware of CFP preference for biggest brands



Kirk Herbstreit is a fantastic college football broadcaster whose only apparent weakness through more than three decades as a fixture on ESPN’s “College GameDay,” and more recently as the analyst for its most important telecasts, is an addiction to the redundancy “true freshman.”

He didn’t invent that bastardization of the language, but no one has done more to spread its use.

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We have learned to live with that, but his proclamation Tuesday regarding the propriety of the College Football Playoff reached a surprising degree of impudence.

“After SEVEN years of bitching and complaining from a vocal minority that the CFP system is rigged and the “small guy” will NEVER GET A CHANCE — haven’t heard much from ya last couple days,” Herbstreit tweeted. “Everything okay? What’s the next conspiracy theory?? Can’t wait! Cause that one is history.”

It seemed to be entirely lost on Herbstreit that seven years is a terribly long time in athletics. Tom Herman, the offensive coordinator as Ohio State won the first championship game in 2014, has held two head coaching jobs and now is working with the Chicago Bears in the NFL. Oregon is on its fourth head coach since playing and losing in the first title game. Troy Hill, the Ducks cornerback now with the Cleveland Browns, is 30 years old.

In the lifespan of the CFP, Western Michigan (2016), UCF (2017 and 2018) and Cincinnati (2020) completed undefeated regular seasons and were dismissed as irrelevant. Memphis (2019) and Houston (2015) finished their regular seasons at 12-1 to no regard whatsoever.

It did not require a conspiracy theory to see that these teams were being dismissed by the committee charged with not only selecting the four entrants for the CFP but also presenting a more-or-less official ranking of the sport’s top 25 teams.

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From 2014 through 2020, only two teams from outside the Power 5 conferences were ranked in the final CFP top 10, and the average ranking for the foremost team from the “Group of 5” conferences was 14th.

It did not require a conspiracy theory to see that, even as recently as the day before the 2021 CFP field was announced, top “GameDay” analyst Lee Corso was lobbying furiously for Cincinnati’s exclusion. In addition to several members of the panel pushing Oklahoma State’s candidacy before they lost the Big 12 title game and removed any chance to have a one-loss Cowboys team supplant an undefeated bunch of Bearcats, Corso declared, “I don’t think Cincinnati should be in, win or lose. It’s not because it’s Cincinnati; it’s because it’s Group of Five.”

Corso previously had said, on the Nov. 20 edition of the show, “Cincinnati does not belong ranked in the top group. I don’t care if they win out or not.” He explained that the Bearcats were unworthy because they’d only played two Power 5 opponents.

Before the end of this past weekend’s show, Corso also said he believed Notre Dame should be invited ahead of Cincinnati. And when reminded that the Bearcats had won at Notre Dame — decisively, in fact — Corso dismissed that fact as if it were inconsequential.

It’s not a theory if the evidence is obvious, and it’s not a conspiracy if the evidence is broadcast on national television.

I mean, geez, Herbstreit was sitting right there.

As the presenter of the playoff, as the most popular sports media entity in the U.S., ESPN maintains a significant degree of influence in the discourse surrounding college football. No one here is suggesting that there are network executives butting into the committee’s deliberations, but those amplified voices can make a difference.

Just as the work of such media figures as Tim Brando of Fox Sports and Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic helped elevate the advocacy of fairness in the CFP process. This also is true of the voters in The Associated Press poll, who elevated Cincinnati’s Bearcats to No. 5 after the Notre Dame win, to No. 3 (ahead of recent powerhouse Oklahoma) a week later and to No. 2 when they got through their sixth game without a defeat.

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It’s doubtful the Bearcats would have gotten the consideration they did without that sort of public pressure.

And still it required the most fortuitous circumstances for Cincinnati finally to break through to the playoff field:

— The opportunity to play at Notre Dame, which won every other game on its schedule.

— Multiple defeats for Ohio State, Oregon and Oklahoma.

— A surprisingly poor season for perennial playoff entrant Clemson.

— Baylor’s victory over Oklahoma State by the margin of six inches in the Big 12 title game.

— And, of course, maintaining a perfect record when some opponents abandoned all football conventions — throwing trick plays, onside kicks and other odd tactics into their gameplans — in order to be the one that knocked Cincinnati off its course.

The Bearcats had to be both lucky and good — no, they needed lottery-level good fortune and genuine greatness in their performance — to be included as the fourth team in the playoff field even though their record is superior to the other three teams involved.

This doesn’t make the CFP system any more just or egalitarian than it was in its first seven years of existence. It’s just that the Bearcats got dealt better cards than the committee and its congregation, and played them perfectly.



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