Keith Strudler: You don't want Alabama
One of the most fool hearted chants in all of sports is “We want insert name of unbeatable team.” It’s typically in college sports, where Goliaths dominate Davids and rarely play them in any game of consequence. Perhaps the most prevalent of those over the past decade has been the College Gameday sign of “We want Alabama,” the most dominant team in college football that’s on the precipice of yet another championship when they play SEC foe Georgia Monday night in the title game – a rematch of December’s SEC championship game. So whenever any non-Power 5 conference team gets really good and thinks they deserve a shot at the title, usually in the midst of an undefeated season, you’ll hear their fans and sometimes even the players and even coaches ask for their shot at the Crimson Tide.
Well, here’s a news flash for all those little guys who want their shot at the champ. You do not. Cincinnati found that out on New Year’s Eve, when the fourth ranked, undefeated Bearcats lost 27-6 to Alabama in the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs. This was the first time that a team outside of the traditional Power 5 conferences made the four-team playoff, something schools like Cincinnati and UCF and Boise State have been demanding forever. In fact, UCF declared themselves the 2017 National Champions after going 13-0 and beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl. They got rings, put up banners, held a parade at Disney and everything. Even though Alabama actually won the College Football Playoffs that year when they beat – wait for it – Georgia in the title game. UCF didn’t make the four-team field, but didn’t let that get in the way of their celebration. To be clear, if UCF had played the Crimson Tide in the playoffs that year, they would have suffered the exact same fate as Cincinnati. That was the painful but predictable lesson of this year’s matchup.
To be fair, it’s not a Cincinnati problem. If you look at the other playoff game, Georgia beat traditional Big 10 power Michigan by as much as they wanted to. And they likely would have done so to pretty much every team in the country not from Tuscaloosa. There is a competitive balance issue in college football that extends beyond the Power 5 conferences. That’s something that’s likely to grow in the new world order of Name, Image, and Likeness and the expanded transfer portal, two seismic changes that give players more agency but also likely allow the rich to grow even richer. In other words, Cincinnati was a good football team – a really good football team. But giant killers they are not.
This fascination with playing the biggest, baddest, team on the block is seemingly inherent in schools that operate with a chip on their shoulder. You’ll see it at the end of a lot of conference basketball tournaments, when the fans start yelling “we want Kentucky.” That goes until the first round of the NCAA tournament when that same team loses by like 40 – although don’t tell that to Virginia, the only 1 seed to ever lose in the first round. In general, fans, and often players like to believe the only thing standing in the way of greatness is opportunity. And they’re often unwilling to accept the pedigree of top conferences as an indicator of quality. It’s somewhere between admirable and stupid, depending on your perspective. I suppose it could also, more cynically, be grouped into our nation’s general discounting of expertise and education, even if people choosing Facebook science over the CDC is far more concerning than thinking that Houston could go undefeated in the SEC.
What’s interesting here is that college football is at the precipice of big change in the playoff system, expanding to up to 12 teams instead of four to make it fairer, since the history of the playoffs have largely been Bama, Clemson, Ohio State, and one other rotating team. Twelve teams would assure the UCFs of the world got their shot, and they’d be able to add a real national championship banner to the fake one they put up. But I’m guessing, and call me crazy, that even with 12 teams, we’re going to end up with the same thing. Alabama or Clemson winning the whole thing. Such is the quandary of demanding something. Eventually, you might actually get it.
As for Cincinnati, well, they’re going be leaving the American Athletic Conference for the Big 12, a Power 5 conference. We’ll see if they still go undefeated playing more consistent competition. At the very least, they probably won’t ask for Alabama anytime soon.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. 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.