The Meritocracy of College Football
I apologize in advance, but I’m about to get really wonky about college football. Namely the college football playoffs, which puts the top four teams at the end of the season in a three game playoff to choose the best team in the country. These four teams are selected by a committee of experts, and they just released their first poll ranking the top 25 teams, the vast majority that have absolutely zero chance of making it. This process will continue for the next several weeks until the final poll is released on December 5th, and we’ll have our four finalists. Which means that what we’re looking at right now has the importance of an election poll three weeks out.
That said, you can learn a lot about the selection committee’s group think from even the first ranking, both for those on the inside and out. Right now, the top four ranked teams are Georgia, Alabama, Michigan State, and Oregon. All but Alabama are undefeated, and the top two come from the SEC – college football’s version of the NFL. Playoff regulars Ohio State and Oklahoma are fifth and eighth, respectively, but both have a clear pathway to play themselves in by winning the rest of their games. What’s more interesting, and what we’ve all been waiting for, is the 6th rated team, the undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats from the American Athletic Conference, a group of teams that sit just outside the Power 5 conferences. They are less respected by pollsters, have less TV money, and are less popular and considered less, well, good at football by the sports establishment. It’s a circular process that will generally ensure that no one outside of the blue bloods will ever crash the playoff party, one that was supposed to bring fairness to a process that felt clubby for all these years. There is likely absolutely nothing that Cincinnati can do – including winning all of their games – to get a shot at the national championship. Based on this initial poll, that isn’t likely to change this year, especially since the best remaining game on the Bearcats’ schedule is against SMU, a team that peaked around 1985. This is the same story year after year, whether its Cincy, Houston, Boise State, UCF, or whoever. Wash, rinse, repeat.
There will be a whole lot of screaming and yelling from southern Ohio about this – although less from the rest of the state that coalesces around the Buckeyes. They’ll say the system is rigged, it’s unfair, and the same teams get all the opportunities year after year. They’re right, even if they’re likely incorrect in thinking Cincinnati is as good as, say, Georgia. I’d gather the Bearcats would lose two to three games in the SEC, which is typically the explanation given by the committee.
To be clear, most of this is going to get worked out on its own, outrage or not. The playoffs are going to grow to 12 teams, ensuring at least one small conference team makes the cut. And Cincinnati is moving to the Big 12 Conference, which means they’ll have a much better chance of making the playoffs if they win all their games. At which point they will be the ones arguing that an undefeated, I don’t know, Coastal Carolina, doesn’t deserve to get in. Like anything, all politics are local, and all opinions are qualified.
It is not at all challenging to analogize the plight of Cincinnati to arguments in society at large. Ideas of power and privilege, personal agency, social mobility, wealth, and on and on. If you believe that sports are something of either a microcosm or reflection of the world, then this is an easy through line.
I’d prefer a more optimistic and perhaps less divisive perspective. Namely, as Cincinnati succeeds, which they have this year, they’ve found a new conference with new revenue and a chance to play for bigger prizes – as will Houston, UCF, and BYU, three other teams with a chip on their shoulder. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a meritocracy, and college football will still bow to the alter of the SEC, but let’s not pretend there isn’t progress – even if Cincinnati fans don’t feel it this season. Which, to be honest, I’m fine with, since I really think Oklahoma beats them 8 out of 10 times.
Then again, who knows who’s really going to be in the top four on December 5th. As we learned last night, a few weeks can make a lot of difference.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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