About 40 bowl games later, we’ve reached that moment in the college football year when sports people take a moment for a cherished tradition. That is, complaining about how a national champion is determined.
It’s apt to call this ritual longstanding. Its first incarnation ran from 1869 through the 1997 season, when somebody, somewhere, at the end of every year wrote a column or griped in front of a radio microphone that there wasn’t a designated national championship game. How can we have a champ without picking the team, definitively, on the field? How can we possibly live with a national No. 1 based on opinion, on nuance?
The Bowl Championship Series was launched for the 1998 season, amid complaints that it still didn’t work very well to get the best teams together. Only a playoff would do.
After some tinkering, in 2014, the four-team College Football Playoff was installed. Now, the groaning has started again that this machine don’t run, either. We need eight teams, the thinking goes, because it’s not right to leave out champions from the five major conferences, the top runners up (Roll Tide!), or an undefeated school from outside the elites.
Central Florida, unbeaten champion of the non-elite American Athletic Conference, is this year’s poster child for the flawed system and a particularly compelling one. The Knights were left out of the top four but then knocked off SEC powerhouse Auburn in the Peach Bowl to go 13-0. Not two months ago, Auburn decisively defeated Alabama, which plays Georgia in the title game on Monday night.
After the Knights’ bowl win, Central Florida changed its Twitter account to “2017 National Champions.”
If college football stays just as it is now, four teams is enough. Because the sport is maxed out, even overreaching, on the number of games it should have.
However, if the only equitable way to figure out which college football team is the best in the land is an eight-team playoff, then the powers that be — which is to say, university presidents of the schools that play major college football — should cut a game from the regular season.
Such a step would, at least in the short term, likely result in a dip in revenue. Side note: Per USA Today Sports, major college football coaches from public schools had earned $9.4 million in bonuses tied to on-field performance headed into Monday’s title game. It could be argued a modest revenue decline wouldn’t be such a great tragedy.
Nonetheless, less money even in the short run makes it somewhere between unlikely and extremely unlikely that a game will be dumped. But the move does make common sense, both from the perspective of answering the “Whose No. 1?” question, in terms of giving the unpaid players a break from a tough game and — oh yes — a chance to catch up on their schoolwork.
Think about it. Georgia will be playing its 15th game on Monday. Just 20 years ago, Michigan earned the top ranking in the final Associated Press poll after playing a mere 12 games.
In the concussion awareness age, when the reality-based media has chided and investigated organized football for its links to brain trauma, doesn’t it seem just a tad hypocritical for any pundit to argue for more football, for simply adding one more round to the playoff?
The 12th regular season game is pretty much a money-making stadium filler, and only that, for top-tier teams, anyway. It’s typically played against a cupcake, often from the lower division of college football known as the FCS. Under the rules of major college football, it takes six wins to be eligible to claim one of the 78 bowl spots — and even a victory over an FCS team can count.
Yet it’s hard to see how Alabama’s and Georgia’s blowout wins this season over Mercer and Samford, respectively, both of the lower-level Southern Conference, really told us much about their prowess.
Get rid of the FCS game and, sure, home attendance receipts will drop, but think about the revenue brought back into the system by the quarterfinals, a whole new broadcast deal, and the great eight teams that wind up playing about the same number of ball games as they do now, anyway.
It’s not hard that hard to see.
As I was writing this piece, Tommy Stevens, the backup quarterback for Penn State, won lots of virtual back pats when he tweeted out: “Take out one or two of the non-conference games on the regular season schedule and expand the @CFBPlayoff.”
If an undergraduate can figure out the answer to college football’s age-old champion problem, maybe America’s university presidents can, too.
John Affleck is Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State and the director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.