Last year, the NCAA finally stepped away from an archaic system in which college football championships were determined by people in the press box rather than players on the field. The more you think about how titles once were decided, the more ridiculous it sounds before the change was made.
It always troubled me that the Associated Press had media members ranking the Top 25 teams when most weren’t qualified. After all, voters didn’t see all the games and nowhere near all the teams. It was especially true in the pre-Internet, pre-ESPN days in which highlights were scarce and an accurate evaluation was nearly impossible.
For starters, most writers saw about two dozen teams during the regular season. They watched the teams they covered and their opponents. With so many games being played at the same time, you had writers ranking teams they never watched. Meanwhile, coaches sold programs to recruits based on their national standings.
Make sense? Of course not.
Let’s not give the coaches’ poll a pass, either. They knew more about football than the media did, but coaches weren’t paying attention any more than the media was. They were concerned about their own teams and the upcoming opponent. In some cases, they were accused of allowing personal biases to influence the voting.
The polls made for interesting conversation, but neither should have decided national champions. For generations, both practices were generally accepted.
Last January, nearly 80 years after the AP began its poll, the NCAA finally had a system in place to determine a true national champion. The four-team playoff figured to stop endless debates over which team was No. 1, but really it opened doors to other arguments among teams just outside the top four.
Stanford believed it deserved a shot at a national title, and maybe it did. The sixth-ranked Cardinal blew out fifth-ranked Iowa, 45-16, in the Rose Bowl. The previous day, top-ranked Clemson rolled over Oklahoma, 37-17, while second-ranked Alabama pounded Michigan State in the national semifinals.
It made you wonder if Stanford would have been a tougher opponent for Clemson or Alabama. Stanford might have beaten either team. We’ll never know because they lost to Northwestern in the season opener and suffered a two-point loss to Oregon, pushing the Cardinal down in the polls and out of title contention.
The system isn’t perfect, but most would agree the current setup is considerably better than the previous one. The College Football Playoff would be better if it were expanded to eight teams. Sure, the ninth- and 10th-ranked teams would moan, but overall it would be another upgrade.
Clemson and Alabama deserve to play for the national championship Monday night in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Clemson is undefeated this season.
Alabama suffered its only loss when Chad Kelly torched the Crimson Tide for 343 yards and three touchdowns to lead Ole Miss to a 43-37 win.
’Bama’s defeat dropped them from second in the polls to 13th before they climbed back into the Top 10 and began inching their way toward playoff contention. The same Clemson team now atop the polls was ranked 12th a month into the season. It ascended thanks largely to losses by higher-ranked teams.
And now Alabama (12-1) is a touchdown favorite over Clemson (13-0), which is ranked higher. How does that happen? It comes back to subjectivity, whether it’s the writers, coaches or oddsmakers in Las Vegas. Clemson kept winning, obviously, but some were slow to embrace the Tigers as the best team in the country.
Clemson beat one Top 10 team during the regular season, a two-point win over Notre Dame when the Irish’s two-point conversion failed. The Tigers beat 10th-ranked North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game. Alabama hammered eighth-ranked Georgia and second-ranked LSU while climbing the rankings.
Are they the top two teams?
The pollsters believed so. Convincing victories in the national semifinals supported the argument, which led them to the showdown.
According to the system, the right two teams will meet for the national championship game. But debate will persist on some level for the foreseeable future.
What’s the right number of playoff teams? Four doesn’t seem to be enough given Stanford’s argument. Sixteen teams seems too many unless the conference championship games, which mean little, are eliminated. You can’t keep adding games to an already busy schedule. Sometimes, you forget that players are students.
It could come down to money, as it often does.
ESPN is in the second year of a 12-year contract worth between $6 billion and $7 billion. The deal supposedly cannot be revisited, meaning the current format shouldn’t change for another decade, but we’ll see. ESPN had a 36 percent dip in ratings and reportedly owes $20 million to advertisers who expected a bigger audience.
How to make a good buck? Add more games at high stakes. Expansion appears inevitable. As it always did, it could come down to who does the voting, whether it’s the product on the field or the games being played by power hitters in college football.
Some things never change.