COMMENTARY- Following the bowl games in the 1997 season, Nebraska leapfrogged Michigan in the coaches poll to claim a share of the national championship in college football, sparking a debate over who deserved the title that continues to this day. Fans of each team are forever destined to endure mocking jabs by opposing fans about their team’s “shared” 1997 national title.
This controversial outcome represented the crux of a much more significant debate about the need to settle these things on the field rather than by a poll. It would be the last time that two teams would share the national championship, as the BCS was instituted the following season.
Perhaps it could be said that the BCS was a necessary step in the process to finally implement a playoff system for the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in NCAA football. The bowl system was, after all, entrenched as the nostalgic yet obsolete status quo, and it was difficult to get the powers that were to accept any new system that marginalized the bowl games. Change was necessary, but the BCS option, in hindsight, was not much better than systems that preceded it.
While it at least allowed the top two teams to square off in a national championship game, the BCS still relied on the polls and computers to determine which two teams it would be. The top two teams in the polls were invited, leaving out several very good candidates that often had an argument for why they should be there. It was rigidly exclusive rather than inclusive, and it failed to utilize what is arguably the most exciting and compelling element in all of sport: a tournament.
Tournaments exist in all sports
One of the most unsubstantiated arguments in sports is the idea that college football does not need a playoff. While most fans support it, the fact that there are still some that don’t is perplexing. This is because there is no precedent for such an argument.
Virtually every other sport uses a tournament to decide a champion. Titles are earned, head to head, on the field, or court, or rink, or pitch, or course. Teams or individuals win championships in tournaments comprised of top competitors. In most cases these teams earn the right to play in the postseason by winning the division or league they play in. Why would we prefer to select only two to play for the national championship in college football when we could have a larger pool of teams earn the right to compete in a tournament like those employed in other sports?
Without delving into the complicated reasons why some believe the status quo is the way to go, we must acknowledge that tournaments that decide legitimate champions through competition with a poll or selection process playing only a marginal role are the rule rather than the exception in athletic competition.
Every major sports league uses a playoff. The NFL, NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball all have a system that rewards division winners and a few wild-card teams with the opportunity to compete for a title. Except for the top tier of college football, this is also the case in collegiate team sports. College basketball, baseball, and hockey all have tournaments to decide a champion. Even college football holds a 24 team tournament each year in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). There are tournaments in soccer, golf, the Olympics, and youth and adult recreational sports. Everywhere in sports, except college football, champions are crowned in this way.
This is why it is so baffling that anyone would try to argue against a playoff in college football. Imagine if the top two teams were awarded a spot in the World Series based on where they ended the season in the power rankings. Imagine doing the same for the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Finals, or the NBA Finals. All of those teams that won all of those divisions would not necessarily get a shot to play in these events. And all of those fans of good teams that weren’t selected would have little to cheer for down the stretch.
Imagine if the NCAA championship game matchups in other sports were established in the same way, by merely taking the top two teams in the polls at the end of the regular season. Most major sports have roughly the same number of teams competing, after all, as there are in football. If these scenarios were real, we would have no March Madness, no Frozen Four, and no College World Series. At the professional level, we would get a much less compelling and entertaining postseason.
In all of these cases subjective polls, not head to head competition, would be the biggest factor in determining a champion.
You can’t imagine it because it is unimaginable.
They’re just better
Tournaments make sports better. They are better for the players. They are better for the fans. They are even better for the people who earn the profits. Players like to prove themselves worthy on the field, as opposed to leaving their involvement in the hands of voters. Fans like to watch them do it. And people who make the money like to make more money. While the money may end up in different hands, as Dan Wetzel points out in this Yahoo Sports article, there is a lot of money to be made in the new playoff system and those that follow it.
The BCS was supposed to be better for college football when it was instituted in 1998, and in some ways it was. It made it much less likely that what happened to Nebraska and Michigan would happen again, and it eliminated the possibility of having a split national championship.
But there were too many problems.
It was too exclusive. In 2004 five teams finished unbeaten, but only two could play for the BCS National Championship. Oklahoma and USC finished in the top two spots and played in the game. Utah, Boise State, and Auburn were left out. Both Utah and Auburn won their bowl games and finished the season undefeated, yet didn’t have a chance to play for the title or to play each other. In a playoff, at least four of those teams would have been involved, and they would have played each other rather than less-meaningful bowl games to determine a champion.
The BCS was also built for controversy. There were only two teams, so no criteria for who would play could be fair for everyone. You could go unbeaten and not get in. You could win your league and not get in. You could even win your league and be nudged out by another team that didn’t. If you started the season unranked or with a low ranking, you were at a disadvantage. Where you finished in the polls, regardless of record or league standing, was most important. The system was too subjective.
It’s about time
It’s about time that college football has a playoff like nearly every other sport on Earth. The four-team College Football Playoff is a good start. It is better than any previous system for determining a champion. It is better because there are twice as many teams getting an opportunity to play for the title. It is better because fewer good teams get left out. It is better because proving it on the field, not in the polls, is how it should be done.
Some argue against a playoff with the irrelevant claim that no matter how many teams are involved, teams are always going to be left out. Yeah, and some are left out in college basketball, too. It happens in baseball, and hockey, and soccer, and in the professional sports leagues. How does the reality that not every team gets invited support the argument that only two should be? We don’t lose sleep over the “bubble” teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, nor do we lose any over the ninth place team in the NHL’s Western Conference.
While this four-team system is a positive step, it will likely expand sooner rather than later. As indicated in the Wetzel story referenced above, an eight-team playoff makes more sense. It would make the selection process even less subjective since it would involve league champions from the major conferences. This would take the polls out of it to a great extent and let participants truly be determined on the field.
This is why a playoff system is better for college football. Whether there are four teams, or eight, or more, it gives the teams and athletes an increased opportunity to participate and prove what they can do, on the field. The more we make the process less subjective and diminish the relevance of the polls, the better it is for the sport and its fans.
It’s about time.