A few years ago, Clemson became the first team in Football Bowl Subdivision to go 15-0.
Clemson, in keeping with Dabo Swinney’s modus operandi — I have $10 via the medium of choice for whomever asks Dabo what that phrase means, by the way — made a huge deal of this that only sort of caught on, only for LSU to go 15-0 one year later, putting all of 2018 Clemson’s previous accomplishments in a different light.
(It’s sort of like how Florida men’s basketball went 18-0 in SEC play in 2014 only to have Kentucky do so a year later, except that Florida did so without an NBA player in its starting five, while Kentucky had 10 rostered and kept the best one on its bench. But I digress.)
The barrier to entry for a new contender to be considered “the best team ever” in college football seems as if it is currently set at a 15-0 romp through its schedule.
Which, okay, that’s tough.
But there are going to be teams with a chance to go 16-0 before long.
Right now, I believe that FBS teams can play a maximum of 16 games, but that would require scheduling a game with Hawai’i, playing in a conference championship game, and making it to the College Football Playoff National Championship, all of which is a little far-fetched. But with the impending advent of an eight- or 12-team playoff, it gets easier to imagine 16 games on the back of one of those schedule tees: A team could play 12 regular-season games, a conference championship game, and then three more Playoff games.
That would likely be true even for No. 1 seeds in an eight-team Playoff — which is unlikely to include a bye, and would so be a three-round tournament — and for any team from No. 5 downward in a 12-team Playoff that gave byes to the top four seeds, as those lower-ranked teams would play three games en route to a hypothetical title.
This, to be clear, would be an astounding achievement. A college football team winning 13, 14, or 15 straight games in one season is practically unthinkable, and 16 would be the equivalent of an entire NFL regular season — well, prior to the NFL’s own avaricious expansion and/or test of just how much football people will consume.
It’s also the latest and greatest example of just how exploited college football players are. The minimum NFL salary in 2021 is $660,000 — and those players have actual offseasons, while college players are expected to maintain at least the veneer of being “student-athletes” in the spring. Five years of tuition at Harvard — which we’ll use as a hypothetical best value for a football scholarship even though Harvard students even remotely akin to most FBS football players would be getting their tuition significantly reduced even without having to contribute the labor of being a football player in turn — will run right around $250,000, less than half that.
That’s a lot of value, to be sure — but it isn’t money, doesn’t spend like money, can’t be invested like money, and yet still requires most of the same labors that professional athletes perform to get their money from their astonishingly prosperous industry.
Yet college football players do not seem as though they will rise up in protest against the creeping expansion of their sport for the purpose of creating TV inventory that has increasingly turned their seasons into the equivalent of an NFL slate.
For now, 16-0 is an impossible quest for an FBS team. But I think FBS players have it within their power to make sure it’s forever beyond the realm of reason — and should.