Congrats to Ohio State and Florida for getting to the “big game” this year. There has been a lot of talk this year (again) about why we need a playoff for college football. “We need to know who the best team is!”, it is said. “We need to eliminate, or at least lessen, the role that opinion plays in deciding champions!” And, then–my favorite–“College football is the only major collegiate sport without a playoff!” To all these deft arguments I say, “Baloney, hogwash, hooey, horsefeathers, piffle, poppycock, rubbish, tomfoolery!” (I know, strong language for college football.) But here’s why I say so:
To work backwards, who cares if college football is the only collegiate sport without a tournament? It’s also the most popular collegiate sport–by far. And it’s not just the post-season that draws crowds, viewers and plenty for everyone to comment about (the present controversies included), but the regular season is do or die every week–also unlike every other college sport. Why, exactly, is Ohio State unquestionably deserving to play in the title game? Because they didn’t drop a single nail-biting game in the regular season. As USC just demonstrated, that ain’t easy–even the weaker teams can and do beat anybody. All the teams know that blanking the loss column is the best possible way to get a shot at the title (and Auburn has most recently proven that even going undefeated is no guarantee–more on that later). What does that must-win-every-game reality do to the regular season? It absolutely electrifies it. Both national and conference titles routinely swing on a single loss. The stakes are high every week. The college football season can be described in three words: drama, drama, drama. Now, if we go to a tournament at the end of the year, does each regular season game matter in the way it does now? I don’t see how it could. Sure, people will still go; teams will play hard. Will a tournament, though, be the same, or better for the regular season? As other sports will attest–it’s all about the playoffs. ‘So long’ to the only regular season that has post-season flair.
Now, what about reducing the level of opinion currently in play in determining who plays in the big game? Guess what? First, a tournament will reduce it, not eliminate it (Who gets invited to the tournament and why? Who gets seeded where?) But secondly, WHY BOTHER DOING THAT? Seriously, why do the arguments about SEC vs. Big Ten (and everyone else) rage on year after year? Because every season, like any good drama, leaves so many unanswered questions with a vague, tantalizing hope of solving it next year, or the year after that. But each year just generates new questions as it answers others. Would Michigan have beaten Florida head to head? What about Boise State? Would LSU have won it all if they had gotten to play a tournament? What if Auburn had been chosen to play for the title a few years back when they went undefeated instead of Oklahoma who got embarrassed in the title game? (And Auburn absolutely should have played for the title.) What if, what if, WHAT IF!? Is this kind of ‘injustice’ and lack of total resolution bad for college fans or the game? Isn’t it more like the painful tension for any good ongoing story? Isn’t this the exact ambiguity, this unique ambiguity, that mixes with school spirit to make college football so much fun compared to every other sport–even other collegiate sports? (On a side note, the sports media that is currently so bent on complaining about the bowl system are only doing their job. It’s literally their job to fan each controversy into flame. Believe me, they will all be harmonizing in lament if the bowl season becomes just another tournament–because that will be the ‘controversy’ then.)
Which brings me to the final point: “We need to know who the best is!” Really? I know college football is big business now, but college football is still also college football. Those are (by some definition) students on the field. If ‘knowing the best’ was a goal worth pursuing at all costs, then we should have each team that’s matched up in a tournament play several games (or at least for the championship)–like in the NBA–since everyone knows that blowing one game to an inferior team happens routinely. If you want to know the best, that’s the path. Do we really think that the best teams never lose a single elimination tournament? But instead of going down that road, let’s look at what the afor mentioned “unique” bowl system currently does (aside from usually giving us a settled champion): How many other sports have multiple good teams that end their season with a win in post-season play? Probably as many as have a bowl system. Again, if it was pro ball, who cares about post-season-ending wins for ‘losers’? But for college programs, I think this is a major plus. Is the bowl system antiquated? Absolutely. And, like all antiques, that’s part of it’s charm and a lot of it’s value. College football isn’t (yet) 100% about beating everyone to be the undisputed champion of all. It’s also about (sometimes silly) traditions, songs, ugly mascots, parades, weird ways of clapping, fight songs, conference lore, rivalry games, odd trophies, school pride, nostalgia and formational times in people’s lives. Why make college football into the pro game, when we already have the pro game?
So congrats again to Florida and Ohio State for making it to the final game in my favorite big-time sports event–college football–and for adding to the story along the way. And congrats to LSU, Boise State, and Texas Tech for adding to the lore with great and storied farewells. May the stew of college football be as spicy, rich, surprising and messy next year; and, of course, GO GATORS!!!