The American Way: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Championship

You have to win something, and that’s a concept that’s accepted by fans and, given the way college football is structured, fair.

– Larry Scott, Pac-12 commissioner

We are getting a playoff, or at least that is what the commissioners of college football announced this off-season.  Despite not having any knowledge of its structure related to how a playoff would work, or how teams would be selected, or how the money would be distributed; the word “playoff” alone marked enough progress to make most college football fans rejoice.  None of those questions have yet been answered, but the first topic is already up for debate – if there is a four-team playoff, how should those teams be selected?

At present, the Pac-12 and Big Ten support a model that would require the four teams to be conference champions.  The SEC and the Big 12 support a model where the four “best” teams, independent of accomplishment or conference, are selected, which thanks to the influence from the human polls, overwhelmingly favors the possibility of those conferences getting two teams into the tournament.  As mere coincidence, they are also the only two conferences to have had a non-champion from their league play in the championship game.

The four best teams have to be the four best teams. That’s the American way.”

-  Oliver Luck, West Virginia Athletic Director

As the athletic director of the Big 12’s newest member (West Virginia), it would be logical that Oliver Luck’s stance in the above quote would mirror that of his new conference.  An argument could be made that Luck’s bias might have something to do with the fact that his son’s teams would have been eligible for a playoff in back-to-back years had a playoff with a top-four team selection model been in place, despite not having won its conference in either season.

Yet, with all due respect to Mr. Luck’s patriotic interpretations of college football, his stance on how to handle a four-team playoff could not be more incorrect.  Selecting the four best teams, independent of their achievements, wouldn’t be “the American Way” in the classic definition, but rather a continuation of the already omnipresent plutocracy that currently exists throughout college football.  Instead, there is a system that gets as close as any system can within the confines of a four-team playoff: the “conference champions” model.

As FBS football conferences are currently structured, all eleven conferences currently play either a round-robin schedule, or a conference championship game.  In order to play in a conference championship game, they have to have the best record in their division (or have the best team in the division be on probation, see: UCLA 2011) or to put it even more simply, the division winner is the team that beats more teams amongst their shared opponents than anyone else.

Let’s not forget the direct cause of all this playoff talk in the first place.  Last December, the BCS decided that Alabama, a team who had failed to win its own conference, let alone its own division, was more deserving of a chance in the title game than a conference champion in Oklahoma State.

It was determined that Oklahoma State’s loss was worse, ignoring any consideration that it was a late-season road game on a shortened week that was played less than twelve hours after one of the worst tragedies in school history, the exact kind of circumstance the consideration of human polls were intended for originally, and Alabama was given a chance to play LSU again in the title game.

Fans responded to the rematch accordingly, likely under the assumption they knew how it would end having already seen an LSU-Alabama game a mere two months earlier, resulting in the lowest ratings ever for a BCS title game.  The previous record for worst ratings for a title game had been Miami-Nebraska in 2002, which was also the last time a team that failed to win its conference ended up playing in the championship game.

This obviously shows the greatest flaw of a system that doesn’t reward conference champions: fans don’t want to watch a team have a chance to be declared the best in the nation, when they already know they weren’t even the best in their own conference.  The BCS will say that Alabama winning the National Championship Game is a vindication of the selection; that they were the best team all along.  While Alabama may formally be declared the champions, they are at best co-champions.  Their season series with LSU is tied 1-1, and there never will be a rubber match.  That tie goes against the origins of this playoff in the first place, which was to create a clear-cut champion, not to use the structure to create a bigger mess.

Additionally, had the “four best teams” model been in place this season, Stanford, not Oregon, which was the team that beat them by 23 on their home turf, would have competed in a playoff.  This is a problem not lost on Larry Scott, either:

Our conference would not have been comfortable, had there been a playoff system last year, accepting that Stanford is in the playoff and not Oregon.  Stanford was ranked fourth and Oregon was ranked fifth. Oregon beat Stanford, had to play an extra game, was conference champion and subsequently Oregon went on to win the Rose Bowl.  That’s crystal clear to us. If Oregon wins our championship, they deserve to be in a playoff ahead of one of our other teams.”

Let’s assume the “four best teams” model was in place this season.  Now imagine if Oregon were to defeat USC on November 3rd, only to lose the Pac-12 Championship on November 30th, but finish the season ranked in the top four.  Would it be proper to complain that Oregon was being left out of a playoff while a lower-ranked conference champion made it in?  Of course not!  Oregon would have had a chance to earn its spot in the playoff, and would have failed to do so. 

Maybe it is years of drinking what Chip Kelly is pouring, but the mentality for many Oregon fans regarding this is intertwined with the “Win The Day” philosophy, worry about what you can control, not about outside influences.

The conference champion system isn’t perfect.  In 2009, there were five undefeated teams (Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, Boise State, and TCU), and in a four-team playoff, one of those teams would have been left out.  But it is a system far more conducive to earning a championship than one where the “top four teams” are selected solely based on assumption and conjecture rather than merit.  People can make excuses for why the “top four teams” belong, but the fact remains that in the history of the BCS, every single top-four at-large team that failed to win its conference did so because it lost to the eventual conference champion.  They failed to prove it on the field.

For years, the argument made by those who opposed a playoff was that it would minimize the value of the regular season; that college football was unique because every game mattered.  To have a model where the best four teams are selected independent of achievement renders the games irrelevant.  It doesn’t matter if a team proves they are one of the best teams in the country; it only matters if those who choose the playoff teams think they are.  The way to a championship has to be earned, not given.  That is the American Way.

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