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The College Football Playoff Is Not the Answer

by on December 05, 2017 5:00 AM

How do they sleep at night?

We’ll get back to that in a bit.

It was late in the evening of Saturday, January 1, 1983. I was standing at my seat – Section 122, Row 21, Seat 4 – for which I had paid the princely sum of $20. Tax included. The final seconds of the 49th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic were ticking off the clock and a wonderful reality was setting in for myself and the thousands who were around me, including my future wife.

This realization was that we were all fans of Penn State football, many of whom were a thousand miles away from home, inside the architectural marvel called (at the time) the Louisiana Superdome, cheering on a football team that was about to win its first-ever universally recognized national championship (no disrespect to the 1911 and 1912 Penn State football teams).

They were about to win that championship even after a loss earlier in the season to Alabama that included the Penn State punter kicking the ball into the back of his own teammate. And after a narrow last-minute comeback victory over Nebraska in the first game with lights in Beaver Stadium. It had been an exciting season culminating in what the media assured us was THE game for the national championship. Whoever won would be crowned No. 1.

And as the giant scoreboard clock inside the Superdome reached zero we did what fans of college football teams have done for generations when the team they support wins a huge game – we yelled and screamed and jumped up-and-down and chanted and watched as the team carried their coach off to victory. It was an adrenaline rush of epic proportions.

After an extended celebration and a joyous New Year’s evening in the stands, we walked outside and continued celebrating on Bourbon Street well into the morning of January 2. Takee Outee food in the Big Easy at 4 a.m. was a wonderful thing.

However, 500 miles to the northwest of New Orleans, The Proclaimers were not falling down at the door to Southern Methodist University, but some SMU fans certainly were. The SMU Mustangs, under first-year head coach Bobby Collins, had earlier that day completed an 11-0-1 season with a victory over Pitt in the Cotton Bowl – a de facto home game for the Southwest Conference champions.

But because SMU had tied Arkansas in their final regular season game, the AP Poll dropped SMU from No. 2 to No. 4, and elevated Penn State to No. 2. This set up the classic Sugar Bowl between No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Penn State that would crown a consensus champion, even though the Nittany Lions, at 11-1, had a loss

After the bowls Penn State finished No. 1 and SMU finished at No. 2 in both of the polls – AP and Coaches – that were prominent at that time.

Did SMU fans have a case for their team to be crowned national champions in football at the end of that year? Absolutely. Had Penn State had a case for it to be crowned national champions in 1968, 1969 and 1973 after undefeated and untied seasons? Darn right. In the century-plus that collegiate football has been played in this country, have dozens of teams who were not crowned national champions had logical and intelligent arguments about why they should have been the national champ? You bet.

A year ago in this space I took an opportunity to suggest the College Football Playoff could do itself a big favor by learning something from NCAA hockey – which I am convinced has the best method of determining a national collegiate team champion. The catch, as I noted back then, is the current College Football Playoff runs through the 2025-2026 season. That’s a bunch of years down the road.

So as I gazed this week at the media circus which culminated on Sunday in several hours of television drama announcing the bowl game matchups, I realized the quest for one true national champion in major college football has devolved into a College Football Playoff with some fairly interesting rationalizations. Rationalizations they are only too happy to put into print. Because if you read it, it must be true, right?

Rationalizations such as “The College Football Playoff preserves the excitement and significance of college football’s unique regular season where every game counts.” Well, of course every game counts, but some count more than others. Because if every game counted equally you would have the no-loss teams at the top of the ranking, followed by the one-loss teams, then the two-loss teams, and so on. And that clearly isn’t happening.

Or this doozy, “Every FBS team has equal access to the College Football Playoff based on its performance. No team automatically qualifies.” OK, so what do you tell poor UCF? They beat every team they played. What other performance could they have given to have enjoyed this “equal access”?

Or this one: the selection committee is made up of “A talented group of high-integrity individuals…” In my experience labeling people as “high-integrity” means you are trying to sell me something.

And lastly, the one that is neither rationalization nor untrue, “The format increases revenue for all conferences and independent institutions.” Which as we all know is the crux of the matter. Money. At the end of the day, as long as everyone makes more money – well, we’re good, right?

Which is why I would like to see them just go back to the traditional bowl game setup with the Big Ten and the Pac 12 champions in the Rose Bowl. Then the Big 12 champion in the Cotton Bowl, the SEC champion in the Sugar Bowl, and the ACC champion in the Orange Bowl. Fill in opponents for those and all the rest of the bowls by whatever arrangements the bowls care to make, and we can all cheer on our respective teams in their one, single bowl game.

Yes, when it is all over we will have a mess. Multiple polls will tout champions. My favorite team will have national champion T-shirts, yours will have national champion hats. We’ll argue and defend our belief that our team is undoubtedly the best. But that’s the beauty of college football – with more than a hundred FBS teams you can’t begin to play everyone every year. So let’s embrace the joy of the debate, the fun of the unknown, and the prognostications of the masses (which we all know say Penn State is No. 1).

What we won’t have when it’s over are 13 guys – the ultimate good ol’ boys – playing omniscient and omnipotent lords over millions of fans, teams, players and colleges. Thirteen men in a room being the deciders. Deciding who will stay and who will go.

How do they sleep at night?


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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