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Jay Paterno: Already Faced with Toughest Path to a Championship, College Football Needs a Playoff

by on June 14, 2012 6:00 AM

With the NHL having just crowned the Stanley Cup champions and the NBA Finals underway, we are wrapping up the 2011-12 American team sports cycle.

The biggest loss this year? The Miami Heat defeating the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Why the big loss? The NBA lost an unparalleled marketing possibility. The movie “Ted” is coming out at the end of the month. I’m no movie critic, but I’ll bet “Ted” may be the summer’s funniest movie.

Set in Boston, “Ted” stars Mark Wahlberg. His character’s best friend is a Teddy Bear that can talk. Because both are afraid of thunder during storms, they sing the “thunder song” (not suitable to print).

If Boston played the Oklahoma City Thunder, thousands of Celtics fans would’ve sung the “thunder song,” led by Boston native/Celtics fan Mark Wahlberg.

Although Boston is out, I’ll bet somewhere in Miami a guy is in his garage printing unlicensed Teddy Bear T-shirts with the tag-line from the “thunder song” on it. He’ll be selling them in the parking lot before Games 3, 4 and 5.

Watching the playoffs got me thinking about how we decide our champions in the six major team sports in the United States (MLB, the NFL, the NHL, the NBA, major college football and NCAA basketball).

I wondered which sport is the toughest team championship to win. In my mind, without question, major college football is the toughest title to win in major American sports.

Winning any title is a long brutal process, but there are irrefutable facts about college football that make it the most difficult to win a title.

In no other sport can one bad quarter in week one of the season cost you a shot at the title. In no other sport can you win every game you play and still not get to play for the championship, as has happened to teams such as Penn State, Auburn and Utah.

As it stands now, and I know it may change, only two teams qualify to compete for the championship and it is a popularity contest.

You get voted in. No matter how they tweak the BCS, the human polls still dominate the process to determine the teams who will compete for the title. (I am in no way advocating the current system). Among the changes being contemplated is a four-team format — still a small number from a pool of well over 100 teams.

In the NHL and NBA, over half the teams qualify to compete for the championship. In the NFL, 12 of 32 teams compete for the championship. In Major League Baseball, 10 of 30 teams will qualify and in NCAA basketball, 68 teams get in.

College football requires that you are ready to go every time you compete. College football crowns a champion that is the best across the entire year. The other sports crown champions that are the best at the end of the year.

While I maintain that college football is the toughest to qualify and win, of all the postseasons it has the easiest path. Once you qualify to compete for the championship you have several weeks to prepare and get your players healthy. You play one game.

In every other sport you have to win multiple games, often on the road. Not so in college football.

That is where my argument diverges. College football is the toughest to win overall, but the toughest postseason is in another sport.

The toughest championship postseason is fittingly for the most famous trophy in American team sports — the Stanley Cup. Four rounds of best-of-seven series in a physical and grueling sport makes the NHL postseason the toughest of all. After 82 games of skating and hitting, a team is rewarded with potentially playing 28 more games to get to hoist the cup.

The NBA also has a long postseason, but it is not as physical as the NHL. Hockey is physical enough, but don’t forget there is a fair amount of fighting and shots that add to the physical toll. The NFL plays three or four extra games to win a title and Major League Baseball has just three rounds.

While the bar is higher in college football, it emphasizes the regular season. Every game counts. The other sports partly de-emphasize the regular season to build more entertaining postseasons. Butler played in the NCAA basketball finals twice. The second time it played, it lost to UConn, a team that was a surprise winner in both The Big East tourney and the NCAA tourney.

The Giants and Steelers won Super Bowls in recent years playing all their games on the road. Even the Red Sox won two MLB titles as a wild card team.

The NHL’s LA Kings, the last seed in the West, just won the Stanley Cup. Talking to NBC’s Pierre McGuire, Kings’ team captain Dustin Brown said after the game, “You get to the dance you never know what’s gonna happen. That’s why we play.”

That’s what makes a playoff so much fun. Maybe someday college football fans will get to catch that playoff fever. We can only hope.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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