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Keith Strudler: NCAA Football Playoffs

If you previously believed that God in fact cared about college football, last Sunday perhaps gave you pause. That’s because of the six schools in serious contention for the four college football playoff spots, the two left off the list were Baylor and Texas Christian – two religious institutions amidst a sea of state universities. Even though TCU seemed poised to make the final four, ranked third going into the final regular season weekend, it and Baylor were overlooked as Ohio State joined the presumptive list of Florida State, Oregon, and the consensus number one Alabama.

The selection by the 12 person playoff committee spurred ongoing debate, which is kind of the point. Half the fun of the playoff is its inherent ambiguity. I’m guessing folks from Waco and Ft. Worth don’t share than opinion.

There are countless conspiracy theories as to why Ohio State overtook these two comparatively small private universities. Most obvious is that Ohio State would ensure a sold-out stadium and impressive TV ratings, an imperative given how much ESPN paid for the broadcast rights. Also hypothesized is that no one on the committee hails from Texas, and thus didn’t impress the quality of play down that way. It’s impossible to know if either of these is even remotely true, although it’s a fair note that the committee did have a distinctly northern orientation.

More likely working against Baylor and TCU is the fact that their conference, the Big 12, only has 10 teams. Which means it can’t have a conference title game and thus lacks the obvious boost that comes from that platform. And both Baylor and TCU were critiqued for their non-conference schedules, where teams can prove their relative worth outside of their traditional conference play. Regardless of what you believe, it’s clear that making the college football playoff depends quite liberally on things that teams can’t control on the field of play, an oddly counterintuitive idea in a world where supposedly it’s always decided on their field.

In the wake of this perceived injustice, a word that’s almost exclusively used out of context in the world of sports, sports fans and media alike have started a rallying cry to expand the playoff system from four teams to eight – or whatever arbitrary number they feel would include all worthy parties. While that sounds like a good idea, it’s both unlikely and unrealistic. For a point of reference, it took over a hundred years to develop a playoff in college football. By those methods, I find it implausible that they’d double it only six months later. The only things universities do fast around athletics are fire coaches and spend money. Rapid evolution is not entirely their wheelhouse.

The prevailing sentiment around this inaugural playoff process is to simply wait and see. In other words, despite its inherent imperfection, cooler heads – at least cooler than that of Baylor head coach Art Briles – will evaluate its pros and cons after a good five or 10 years. Look, everyone hated the data driven BCS, and that lasted 15 years. So the idea that college sports can now turn on a dime ignores a long history.

But perhaps at the core of our drive to create a better mousetrap isn’t simply a thirst for more football, although that’s a lovely benefit. For most sports fans, it’s about fairness. About building a college football playoff that rewards all deserving parties with a chance to play for the national title. This notion of fairness and justice is as inherent to the ethos of sports as tailgates and foam fingers. It’s the same reason we abhor steroids and stealing signs. If we can’t believe that sports are fair, and that people get what they deserve, than what can we believe in? And right now, the prevailing sentiment is that what happened to Baylor and TCU just isn’t fair.

But the reality is this. Sports, like life, isn’t fair. That’s not the lesson you tell your kids at their first CYO basketball game, where supposedly hard work earns them a spot on the floor. It’s not what you tell them at the state swim meet, where everyone swims the same 25 yard length. But it’s the simple reality of competition. While egalitarian in spirit, sport will never be truly fair. Which means that the truly deserving might not get their fair shake. That’ll be true with four playoff teams just like it would eight or 16. It’s why next year, there will be another Baylor and TCU with the same argument. And it’s just another reminder that God doesn’t really care much about college football.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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