Earlier this month, you fell in love with UMBC after it’s stunning upset of No. 1 overall seed Virginia in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. You probably became a big fan of Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago after consecutive nail-biters over Miami and Tennessee to crash the Sweet 16. You were probably thrilled to see the South Region open up, and Kentucky coach John Calipari eat his words after criticizing how supposedly tough his team’s path was prior to the start of March Madness.
Those emotions need to stay within basketball, and as far away from college football as possible.
This year’s upset-heavy edition of March Madness isn’t a referendum on the College Football Playoff format. In fact, it’s further proof that the current four-team College Football Playoff is fine just the way it is.
March Madness is built on providing access in a landscape that’s flooded with possibilities. The College Football Playoff is built on rewarding excellence.
Let’s just say UMBC stayed hot after upsetting the Cavaliers, won five more games and cut the nets down in San Antonio at the Final Four. What would that mean? It would mean that the Retrievers suddenly got hot after finishing the regular season 21-10 and getting blown out 83-39 by Albany in late-January.
It would negate the importance of the regular season which, in the college football world, would be devastating.
No. 16 seed Texas Southern got into the big dance after winning three straight games to take the SWAC title and improve its record to 15-19, at the time.
Why on Earth would a sub-.500 team deserve a shot at the national title? Automatic bids for conference champions. While that works fine in hoops because of a landscape that includes 32 conferences, 351 teams and a sport that allows for many more games to be played, football isn’t the same.
It’s a sport that, thanks to 129 teams and only 12 regular season games, has been and always will be viewed more subjectively. The eye test matters more. Strength of schedule just matters more. The absence of a long season combined with a massive landscape necessitates a different set of rules. Sorry UCF, just because you run the table, does not mean you can claim or are worthy of being called national champions, or even national championship-worthy. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t work that way.
Furthermore, the definition of “excellence” in football is fluid on a season-by-season basis based on how the specifics of that particular season play out. That’s how championships in football should be decided. Excellent teams shouldn’t be deemed championship-worthy based on a title they won in a conference that is largely determined by something as arbitrary as geography. The definition of being championship-worthy should change based whatever the three months of the college football regular season hand delivers to the selection committee.
If the College Football Playoff expands, there’s no way any Power Five conference commissioner will hop on board without automatic bids for conference champions. That, of course, would include an automatic bid for the top-ranked Group of Five team.
Sure, that could leave room for a marginally worthy team like UCF being left out of the mix every once in a while. But is that worse than an unworthy team that springs an upset in a conference title game getting hot and winning the national championship? Of course not.
Did a team like Wisconsin, which won the Big Ten in 2012 with an 8-5 record, deserve as much of a shot at the national championship as Notre Dame and Alabama that year? Nope. Did the 2017 Pac-12 champion USC Trojans deserve as much of a shot as any of the four College Football Playoff participants after losing to Washington State and getting stomped by Notre Dame? Of course not.
Those were huge, season-defining losses that made major waves across the college football world at the time because of the scarcity and uncertainty that the College Football Playoff creates. In basketball, 19.4 percent of the teams in Division I make the meaningful postseason. In football, 3.1 percent of the teams do.
CFP executive director Bill Hancock said late last year that “scarcity breeds passion.” The scarcity of games during the regular season makes every Saturday must-see TV. The scarcity of games in the postseason creates enormous intrigue and uncertainty throughout the course of the best three months in American sports. The scarcity of postseason teams played a big part in another enormous ratings win for the College Football Playoff this past year and throughout its existence, despite a rather regionalized edition of the most recent four-team tournament.
While the lack of structure that we have in other sports might seem frustrating at times, it’s also what draws people to the sport in the fall. It’s what makes every Saturday upset potentially season-defining. It’s what makes the sport great — even for those who outwardly criticize the postseason.
With an expanded playoff, USC’s meltdown wouldn’t have been as big of a deal, Clemson’s loss at Syracuse wouldn’t have been talked about for weeks, Alabama’s loss to Auburn wouldn’t have been viewed as “season-defining” at the time and Florida State’s loss to Alabama in the season-opener wouldn’t have been nearly as big of a deal.
It’s “that moment” that makes college football great. The emotion and the passion that comes pouring out of the college football fan during a shocking win or devastating loss — regardless of when that moment happens on the calendar — that makes the sport great. Even if that emotion turns out to be wasted based on how circumstances of the season unfold after the fact, “that moment” is what the sport is all about.
“That moment” exists because of the scarcity and fluidity of the postseason structure. “That moment” doesn’t exist in any other sport. “That moment” is is what makes the sport great.