In the beginning, there were polls, and they were good, not great, at determining college football’s national champion. Then came the BCS, which was good, not great, at determining college football’s two top teams before bowl season. Now we have the four-team playoff, which is good, not great, at determining the top quartet. There’s little doubt an eight-team playoff will take its place and — you guessed it — be good, not great, at determining a just bracket.
Expansion of the sport’s postseason was inevitable but not an innovation born of necessity, rather the premise that more football is always better and the almighty dollar is king. The result is more entertainment and more arguments. What it has not done is make it easier for the best college football team to win the national title, so much so that it’s hard to imagine that was the true goal all along.
In the week leading up to conference championship games, there will be fierce debate over three spots in the final four. Much ink and fury will be used to make a case for Team A over Team B and Conference C’s superiority over Conference D. Reasonable minds can have drastically different viewpoints on the merits of Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, Washington, Wisconsin, Penn State and Colorado.
Reasonable minds cannot argue the fact that Alabama is the best team in the country, passing all 12 of its tests with flying colors by virtually every metric. They are the only unbeaten Power 5 team and are perhaps better than last year’s crown-winning squad. The gulf between the Crimson Tide and whichever team one wants to put at No. 2 is staggering.
At its base, of course, football is entertainment, not a search for truth. If it were the latter, the answer to which team is most deserving would be settled. It’s the one that’s not yielded a touchdown since Oct. 22. It’s the one that destroyed USC by 46 points and decimated all mighty SEC comers.
But settling is not human nature. Tinkering and tweaking are constant. One can’t help but wonder, though, if active, not idle, hands were the devil’s workshop that turned college football into an overly complicated and bulky behemoth.
It was naive to think the sport could have retained its unique nature. The desire to change without vetting the consequences is an impulse to be acted upon now and reflected upon later. The rush to take college football, which was different, and to make it the same as all the other sports with playoffs, was palpable.
Different is not always better. Just because the title is ostensibly settled on the field doesn’t mean it’s a better system than the polls, just like expanding the field doesn’t mean it will be better. It seems ironic that the original impetus to take a unicorn and make it like all the other horses has morphed into adding more horns to the head, to add more bells and whistles (teams).
Most look back on the era of writers and coaches naming a winner as an unenlightened time, an antiquated tradition steamrolled by the wheels of progress and more scientific thinking.
Perhaps we are overthinking. Perhaps the conference championship games aren’t really critical, but rather a made-for-television cash grab as a response to the man-made disaster of conference expansion. Perhaps no one noticed there was already a system in place where the national title was determined on the field, even if it was over the course of 13, not 15, games.
Imagine a simpler time where Alabama would already be SEC champion without having to beat a three-loss Florida team. Imagine a simpler time where they’d be pitted against, say, Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Would that not be an appropriate final exam to pass for a national title?
Where would the injustice lie? Which teams would have a legitimate gripe against a 13-0 Crimson Tide? Zero.
The College Football Playoff debate and the debate over its expansion are multi-faceted. So much time and energy are being exerted trying to subjectively ascertain which fringe teams are deserving that it buries the most important fact under an avalanche of controversy.
This is a great hustle, but we are hustling backward as the ultimate question has an obvious answer. To its credit, the playoff has more or less “worked” in the first two years, when the difference between the top teams hasn’t been as vast. What’s happening in the third year, though, is an example of the system’s faults.
Alabama should not have to jump through extra hoops. They should be rewarded more richly than a two-loss team. The focus is skewed toward giving the fourth- or fifth-most deserving schools a fair shake, and this comes at the expense of the most deserving.
The momentum to push forward, to tinker and innovate, is being accelerated. The mere suggestion of reverting back to an older procedure may seem jarring like the musings of a Luddite stuck in the past.
But maybe, just maybe, in the future we’ll look back on the four- and eight-team eras with the same derision reserved for AP voters and the BCS. Maybe we’ll wonder how we lost the forest for the trees in the quest for improvement.
If you believe the singular goal of a college football season is to award the most worthy champion, it’s worth considering what we’re doing to the most worthy team at the end of the regular season.
There is no perfect system. It’s worth asking if the one currently in place is great or just a newer, more complicated version of good.