Baseball writers in the 1990s adopted a saying during incessant labor stoppages and steroid crises:
“The game is so good, even these idiots can’t kill it.”
College football today is like baseball in its messiest era, a sport so compelling and cinematic that the wrongheadedness of those who run it and the interminable nature of the games themselves can’t dent its popularity.
After decades of denying the intelligence of a playoff, college football finally adopted one a few years ago. It worked so well they expanded it from two to four teams. In this case, more is better, and even more would be much better.
When college football loyalists defend the current system, remember that they defended each of the previous two systems.
And when ESPN runs a midday special to discuss this year’s final four, making myriad arguments on behalf of myriad teams, recognize that the debates are necessary primarily because the current system excludes worthy teams.
No talking head, current head coach, former player or media member has any idea how to compare Washington and Clemson. The teams that can be logically compared — the top programs in the Big Ten, the best conference in the land — provided inconclusive results.
The chosen four of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington excludes Penn State, which beat Ohio State and won the conference in which they play.
Penn State was barely better than Wisconsin. Ohio State was barely better than Michigan, winning in double overtime at home, and Michigan beat Penn State 49-10.
Washington was rewarded for playing a weak nonconference schedule. Washington and Clemson were rewarded for not having to play a brutal Big Ten schedule. And we are all left with a committee deciding on the supposed four best teams in the country on the basis of whatever criteria happens to be laying around by the pastries in the meeting room.
Every attempted assessment of teams that don’t play each other is a guess. Every attempted assessment of teams that play each other and produce conflicting results is a guess.
Why would any billion-dollar industry allow guesswork to set the terms of competition?
If the eye test is not the correct way to judge a national champion, or set a two-team playoff or a four-team playoff, then logic dictates that the playoff be expanded to a large enough field that any resulting debate will not be whether the first excluded team could have won the title.
There are spirited debates every March about the relative merits of the nation’s 68th and 69th best team. These debates exist because sports fans like to argue, not because the 68th or 69th team has a chance to win it all.
The supposed fifth-best team in college football might have as much chance of winning it all as the second, third or fourth. We have no basis by which to compare Penn State and Clemson.
Expanding the playoffs to eight teams would eliminate the consternation facing the committee this year. An eight-team playoff would allow the committee to recognize that the Big Ten contains four teams good enough to contend for a title in any open format — Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The Big Ten is the nation’s best conference right now. A full season of play has revealed little separation between its top teams. We could guess that Alabama is unbeatable, but if we were going to rely on supposition we could have handed Alabama the trophy in August. An eight-team playoff would solve the problems that arose this year. A 16-team playoff would solve any problems that might arise in the future, and allow college football to include surprising teams such as, this year, undefeated Western Michigan.
Every other sport tweaks its rules to maximize meaningful games. College football offers a silly season of mismatches in September and a month of byes when the games are most important.
An expanded playoff would cure all ills. And if you worry about the Alabama linebacker who might miss a few classes while playing extra games, ask the kids from St. Thomas who play football and take advanced physics how they handle it every winter.