College football 2011: The year the regular season died, taking with it the last remotely defendable aspect of the current system for selecting a national champion.
The patient had been sick for quite a while, but not everyone noticed at first. It began exhibiting symptoms 20 years ago when a conference in the South decided to hold a championship game. The prognosis worsened with the creation of the Bowl Alliance and then the BCS, nods to the growing belief the regular season no longer was adequate for selecting a proper champion. By the time the last two holdovers took the plunge into the BCS then joined the CCG movement, the time for reading of the last rites became imminent. Pollsters signed the death warrant in December with the choice of a rematch between Alabama and LSU, and the Crimson Tide finished the job Monday night.
Someone voted LSU No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll, and I applaud that person. I would have done the same thing despite the Tigers’ lifeless loss to Alabama in the New Orleans. The dominating fashion in which the Crimson Tide won the game would give me some pause, but the overall body of work favors LSU.
Why does that matter? Because the only argument BCS defenders have against a playoff that had not been completely debunked is the suggestions it would reduce the meaning of the regular season.
Though I disagreed with that premise to begin with, I was willing to respect it and give it a little bit of credence until this year. No more. In 2011, we saw the entire season’s hype boil down to one game in early November. Then the result of that game was thrown out the window, so tell me why we should buy into the buildup of the next game of the century?
LSU has a better resume by far, having beaten seven teams that were ranked at the time they played, including two on the road and another at a neutral site. Alabama beat four, including two on the road. That is not counting the two games they played against each other since they were a wash, but I’m hard-pressed to say Alabama’s win was better than LSU’s considering one took place on the other team’s home field and the other did not. Yet such splitting of hairs is exactly what the BCS demands, thus leaving us no choice to conclude that the current system that claims to protect the integrity of the regular season actually gives more weight to a postseason game, and that turns everything the BCS defenders say inside out.
We’re told we have this sacred three-month period from the end of August to the first month of December that means more than anything else in sports, but when all is said and done what happens at that time is taken less into consideration than what happens when two teams play in the second week of January after a month off to heal and reconfigure themselves. And, for that matter, what happens at the end of the season often carries more weight than the beginning, another fact that complicates everything.
BCS defenders use much the same thing as a critique of tournaments while ignoring that somehow everyone came to the agreement some time ago that a playoff is the preferable way to determine a champion in every other sport at every other level of competition within the NCAA and just about everywhere else, yet now their system has undone everything that happened in the most recent regular season.
Does a postseason tournament guarantee the best team becomes the champion? No. Neither does what we have at the highest level of college football. That’s an impossible standard to set, but it remains a straw man of playoff opponents.
The bottom line is college football already has a postseason. The regular season already is devalued from the pre-BCS era because it created a half-assed championship chase that seems more tangible than the old one even though it’s really not much different at all. That has given fans something else to focus on as opposed to their traditional conference races and rivalry games.
If we’re going to have any type of postseason, it needs to come closer to including every team that has a legitimate claim to being No. 1. That does not mean it needs to reward nearly everyone who had a good season, as the NCAA basketball tournament does, but rather the champions of the top leagues and perhaps a wildcard from a lesser conference or the runner-up from another power league. We already did the latter this season, so it’s not as if that would set a precedent.
I like an eight- or 16-team playoff, but a plus-one with four teams would be considerable progress. Going undefeated in the regular season would still be the top way to guarantee a spot in the field, and even one loss would still create considerable jeopardy for anyone else, whether that means being left out altogether or having to go on the road in an early round or rounds.
Regular season games are already selectively significant, and the fact is most of the ones that end up costing teams are upsets that no one appreciated before they happened anyway. This would not really change if we expanded the postseason modestly, and such a move would also do little to hurt the bowls that already mean nothing anyway. The onus to have the bowls – for municipalities and TV networks to make money off of schools – would remain and likely provide motivation to keep the playoff small because so many people would still have somewhere to go even after losing more than one game in the regular season.
The time has come to get this done because the fantasy is over.
The regular season is dead.