Keith Strudler: The College Football Playoff Dilemma
Before this past weekend, things seemed pretty okay. It was all falling into place, more or less. I’m talking about college football, not America. Before Thanksgiving, we had four logical teams to take the four top spots in the college football playoffs, which were created to end our endless bickering about the BCS – a computer driven model of picking the two top teams for a winner take all finale. But then a funny thing happened. Michigan lost to Ohio State, which meant that the logical Big Ten representative could be on the outside looking in. And Ohio State, now the only Big Ten team with only a single loss, is not playing in the Big Ten Championship game this weekend, which pairs Penn State against Wisconsin, both two loss teams that will finish behind Ohio State in the playoff standings, even though one won the conference and Ohio State didn’t. And all of them will point a finger at Washington of the Pac-12, who with only one loss likely sits in the fourth and final spot, despite the perception that they just aren’t that good, at least not relatively speaking.
Now, if Washington or ACC leader Clemson lose this weekend in either of their respective title games, all bets are off. Maybe two loss Oklahoma of the Big 12 gets in, despite a 21 point loss to Ohio State earlier this year. Or perhaps even Colorado of the Pac 12, even though Michigan destroyed them earlier in the season. I could go on with hypotheticals, but it’s pointless. Perhaps the only two certainties are that undefeated and seemingly undefeatable Alabama is in, and that Western Michigan, the only other undefeated team in the country, is not – the latter of which seems unfair.
So, with one loss last weekend – which may have hinged on one bad call against Michigan – and the choice of teams in the all-important playoff is as clear as motor oil. For college football programs – and coaches and players and fans and donors and university presidents – these selections are not insignificant. Winning a national title can yield impressive returns, even if only psychologically. Beyond that, a successful program can boost enrollment, donations, and give your alumni something to brag about at work for the following 364 days.
Now I’m not going to spend time discussing how we could make the College Football Playoff better, especially since that’s easy. Power Five conference champions and three at large teams, at least one from a small conference. Done. I’m also not going to address the insanity of building an even more majestic revenue generating playoff on the backs of unpaid labor, conveniently known as student athletes. Big time college football has long entered the theater of the absurd. So debating the injustice of one additional game is like a chain smoker worrying about the calories in a rice cake. The ship has long sailed away.
What is worth discussing is whether this – a college football playoff – is the best way to conclude and validate a season’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears. Much of the beauty of college football is the inherent passion instilled in each individual game. Every Saturday, or sometimes Thursday or Wednesday or whenever, two teams engage in something somewhere between a perfect dance and an epic battle. Big time college football games, like say most Saturday afternoons in the South and Midwest, serve as an apostle of sorts, a choreographed day of ritual that sweeps everyone in its path like a tornado. There’s dancing, and eating, and music, and cheering – and somewhere in there is a football game. It is, for better or worse, the tugboat of cities and towns across the nation. In case you’re wondering, it’s what you’re flying over on your way to the West Coast.
That spectacle is perhaps its own reward. College football is great, despite all the reasons it’s not, because of the excitement of each and every moment. And now that we’ve added a playoff system, which was supposed to make everything better, perhaps it’s taken that down just a notch. The games are still exciting, and of course they matter, as much as anything matters, but eyes are always looking ahead to something more important. Namely, a chance to be one of the final four that plays for an official college football championship. And that happens by a process that now seems more haphazard than our elections, if that’s possible.
Now, will I still watch, even if the wrong four teams make it in? Absolutely, although I’d rather they not play the semi-finals on New Year’s Eve, something that will change beginning next year. But no matter how good the playoffs are, I’m not convinced they’re making college football better.
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
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