College Football Playoffs and Our STFU Culture

College Football Playoffs Are a Complete Failure at Showing Who’s Best. What Does Our Acceptance of That Failure Mean?

Yes, everyone loved the games, and yes, only TCU fans are left complaining about the winner, but the playoffs didn’t defeat championship illegitimacy. They defeated debate.

First, to define my point of view, I am a fan of college football, and the old bowl system. I believe the best college football post season rewards teams that had good seasons (winning at least half their games) with a bowl game, usually somewhere nice to visit, against an evenly matched opponent. The game is a reward for a good season, and a better reward the better you do. I’m also a Michigan Wolverines fan that broke protocol to root for Ohio State this year.

I understand the desire to name a team “best in the country.” I participated in that debate, and cared who was named best by the polls and fans. I don’t think a playoff is the best way to answer that question, but many did, and it became inevitable that we would one day have that playoff.

Now, in its first year, the playoff systems crowned the #4 ranked team, Ohio State, and left the #6 team TCU with a legitimate gripe. If this had been the result of a bowl system season, playoff fans would have screamed until blood-tears streamed from their eyes. As it is, everyone seems perfectly satisfied. What happened?

The argument that playoffs don’t really determine superiority wasn’t ever seriously considered. Despite several examples from the NFL, MLB and even the NCAA’s basketball tournament (which ended last year with two teams that had been unranked for weeks), the virtue of a playoff was considered untouchable. Not only would a playoff be more fun, it would end the debates once and for all.

And that’s the rub. The failure of the playoff to crown a legitimately indisputable champion is not the point. It was a monumental success in ending debates. Ohio State fans may have been the least likely to complain about another team being declared champion, but as the winner of two playoff games, the team quelled championship claims from Oregon, Florida State and Alabama, three of the four schools (poor TCU) that would have shouted loudest without a playoff.

But can’t we argue that any of those four teams were best? Do their fans really have to accept their fate as also-rans? Is college football the place to put teams in a single-winner post season format?

I find it problematic, though perhaps self-inflicted, that this debate is no longer a vibrant part of the college football season. First the problematic part. We are taking a short cut to comfort.

College and amateur sports is an excellent place for debate to thrive. What is the harm in having even several teams think they were the best in any given year? Are we really so allergic to debate that we need to silence all but one with a poor device to determine superiority? All it offers is finality, and that is not a beneficial result here. Finality is desirable in situations like corporate board meetings and family budget decisions. There is no harm in letting a debate linger over two undefeated teams feeling undefeatable.

It also cheapens the accomplishments of teams that are truly undebatable champions. There is no earning the respect of every other team, there is only winning the game, which history has proven to be inexact despite the finality. The desire to have finality without un-debatability in matters of opinion seems natural, but also feels like a flaw we have embraced.

That brings me to the self-inflicted part. Why would we chose messy finality and cheapened bragging rights over a more honest debate? It is because we let it go too far. We couldn’t let the argument be. Penn State joined the Big Ten (making that name antiquated, which should have been a sign) so it would have a better chance of winning a championship, only to have that conference’s tie to the Rose Bowl keep it from an undisputed championship. Nothing was good enough but absolute claim to a title never awarded by the NCAA. Wanting to be among the great undisputed champions without actually earning it led us to this perversion.

For this we ended traditions that, while imperfect, had merit. Yes, the bowl system was political and some teams were regularly given less. But at the same time, half of the teams that ended the season at at least .500 won their last game of the year. It put the focus on the regular season and conference rivalries, where opportunities for finality and bragging rights came with nearly weekly frequency. It gave us post-season rivalries that lasted decades. The slight mention that Ohio State and Oregon would have made up this year’s Rose Bowl under the old system is evidence of how that rivalry was cheapened by caving to the BCS. The only thing that matters is ending the bigger debate. As we march to larger and larger playoffs (the calls for 6 or 8 teams started before this year’s season), the further we get from a system that had one flaw: it rewarded hubris. Apparently that flaw overcame the many benefits of a full season followed rewards for doing well.

The playoffs make college football just like every other sports league in America, and that’s too bad. Instead of valuing what was unique about it, we let that hubris and the short cuts win. It worries me that college football traditions, including a vigorous, honest, legitimate debate have lost out to an easy, cheaper, quieter path.

When you’ve forgotten about this season, which will likely come quickly, you might consider the value of ending a system that rewarded programs in relation to their success every year for the sake of one that is designed to do nothing more than shut most of them up.

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