Is college football a championship sport or a technocracy with cheerleaders? In the first year of a four-team playoff that alleges to give every deserving team a shot at a national championship, it still looks like the latter.
Ohio State, convincingly beaten early in the season at home by Virginia Tech, managed to shove its way into the playoffs by running up the score in its final game. What a great lesson for the youth of America!
At least Ohio State’s ascension silenced one of the perennial arguments in college football: “But Team A beat Team B head-to-head!” That was the argument ESPN’s Mike and Mike, among others, made in the last couple of weeks when it appeared TCU was ahead of Baylor despite losing in overtime at Baylor. Funny how they didn’t make the same argument for West Virginia, which beat Baylor by two touchdowns. Why not? Because you judge college football by the whole season.
Or maybe not. When you get down to it, college football voting is often little more than a beauty pageant based on rep. That’s how Georgia Tech (11-0-1) had to settle for splitting the 1990 national championship with Colorado, which lost once, tied once, won a game on the infamous “fifth down” play, and won its bowl game on a bogus clipping call that negated Rocket Ismail’s 92-yard game-winning punt return — one of the best returns ever.
The BCS (RIP, 1998-2013) at least got two somewhat worthy teams in a championship game most of the time. Now we have a four-team playoff.
And there’s still no room for the underdog. Consider Marshall. If you think “Marshall,” you may immediately think “Matthew McConaughey.” The chiseled dude played Jack Lengyel, the coach charged with rebuilding the program after a plane crash in 1970, in the film We Are Marshall . The Thundering Herd rebounded to win a couple of Division I-AA championships before moving up to the big leagues in Division I-A (now the Football Bowl Subdivision). The Herd went unbeaten in 1999. This year, they won their first 11 games. But even though college football has put a playoff system in place that supposedly includes all deserving teams, Marshall was never in the national title conversation.
You’d think the punditocracy, which can argue a fourth-down play call for weeks, would be taking up the argument for the Thundering Herd. Not really. At best, you’ll see a couple of calls for including Marshall in the top 25 (they finally made it to 24th in the college football committee’s rankings) or making sure they get the space reserved for “Group of Five” teams in the big New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day bowls. It’s not enough.
Sure, Marshall never looked like one of the top teams in the country. Their recruiting classes for the past five years haven’t been ranked in the top 50. In Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings, they struggled to crack the top 30, weighed down by one of the weakest schedules in the Football Bowl Subdivision. And when they finally lost a freakish 67-66 game to Western Kentucky (59-59 after regulation, 49-42 at halftime), their case died.
But there’s precedent for teams from outside the major conferences to come into a big-time postseason bowl and surprise the big guys. Boise State got a long-awaited shot at a BCS bowl in the 2006 season and beat Oklahoma in a Fiesta Bowl thriller. In 2008, Utah trounced Alabama, whose only previous loss had been in the SEC Championship. Even if the little guys had no history of big wins, why wouldn’t they deserve a shot? Nearly every other sport gives every participant a chance to win a championship.
“Some day, one of them will play for a national championship,” says Brent Musburger in the video above. OK. When?
The current FBS system is supposed to fix these things. In decades gone by, teams could go unbeaten through the season and then not play each other in a bowl. It left us with national championships split between undefeated teams in 1991 (Miami and Washington) and 1997 (Michigan and Nebraska). The next year, college football started using the BCS, which was supposed to let us get those unbeaten teams in the same game — unless you were TCU or Boise State. Now we have a four-team playoff, which should give every unbeaten team a chance at the championships.
In the BCS years, TV networks always trotted out former players with their former muscles sagging into their suits, all griping that a bunch of computer geeks were determining who made it to the one-game championship. Actually, human polls had a big role in the BCS ranking — they were simply tallied by computers. In any case, we now have a panel of human beings (by way of disclaimer, one is a former USA TODAY colleague of mine and a terrific guy) picking playoff teams like the whole regular season is just a beauty pageant.
College football fans often brag that the “regular season means something” in their sport. You can’t have a team go 19-10 in the regular season and win the tournament, as Villanova’s basketball team did in 1985. But don’t tell me college football rewards the regular season if an SEC matchup in October proves meaningless in the long run because the result was reversed in a rematch in January, all while another team waited for a turn that never came.
What do you expect from a sport that drove conference realignment that makes sense for no other sports (yay, we get to fly our volleyball team 1,000 miles for a conference game) and makes a mockery of basic math? The Big Ten conference has 14 teams. The Big 12 has 10.
When the dust settled for now on the insane whirlwind of realignment, we were left with five major conferences. And a five minor ones. And a four-team playoff. Oops.
We need at least eight teams in that playoff. Put in all five major conference champions — at least those will be determined objectively. Then two wild cards. And then the winner of a game between two minor-conference teams like Marshall and Boise State — a “Group of Five” championship game that also serves as a qualifier for the Big Hoedown.
Maybe Marshall would’ve lost a playoff game by 40 points. That’s OK. Super Bowls aren’t always close games, either. The Big Ten-ish championship game was a 59-0 decision, and no one complained that Wisconsin shouldn’t have been there.
And what happens next year if another small-conference team goes unbeaten? Suppose it’s a proven giant-killer like Boise State? Or maybe it’s East Carolina or Memphis? Could any of those teams get a shot?
Not until college football decides its winners should be teams who actually … you know … win.