College football lives on passion
Its identity is in its tradition and pride, its rivalries and die-hards – even the mascots, too. The game fills stadiums from Tuscaloosa to Norman, from Boise to Athens, from Ames to Los Angeles.
It breathes off the breath of nine-year-olds cheering into chilled October nights and survives off the sweat of 19-year-olds running wind sprints through heavy August heat.
It is a game of emotion, yet requires the perfect balance between player’s heart and his head. It is a game of skill, and millions go to sleep at night wishing they had enough of it, wishing they too could walk between the raindrops in Baton Rouge, or roll like Big Red in Lincoln.
But college football, for all its wealth of purities, seems to live in the shadow of one striking impurity — the BCS and the even more feeble system of crowning a champion that preceded it.
Now, like cool grass in September, there is hope.
A committee of university presidents approved Tuesday a four-team Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) playoff, the first of its kind at the highest level of college football, which has been going strong since William J. Leggett captained Rutgers to a 6-4 win over Princeton in November of 1869.
These are baby steps, of course, a minor semblance of progress in a game that until 1998 did not hold a championship and has since staged its title game primarily off the logic of a computer, an IBM or maybe even a Mac that gets fed scores and stats on Sunday mornings while a middle-aged man in his bathrobe brews a cup of coffee.
But in this format, as revolutionary and progressive as it might seem, the computer still lives and will live at least through 2025 when the current agreement expires. That's why Tuesday's approval wasn’t as much of a breakthrough for college football as it was a delay for FBS high-ups.
It gives them time.
Time to test their new product. Time to give fans what they’ve wanted. And time to come up with a new plan (of escape, most likely) when this new one grows old, which it eventually will.
College football fans know they want a playoff. By 2014, they’ll also know this: A “playoff” isn't a playoff unless every team in a league controls its own destiny at the start of the season.
Examples? Every other division of sport in the world.
You can dress it up in a four-team bracket and even give it a marketable name and a few sponsors (because, really, what's a college football game these days without a little corporate coin?), but it isn't a playoff until every single team – from Texas to San Jose State — can start the season with an equal chance of winning a title. Margins of error throughout the year don’t have to be the same (nor should they), but on Day 1 all sides should be square.
Equality won’t be guaranteed with a four-team playoff and can only happen in a 16-team format with all 11 conference champions earning automatic berths and the remaining five spots given to the top at-large teams.
That, of course, is a pipe dream. Anyone close to college football, for or against a super-playoff format, knows that, despite the obvious logical and economical benefits of it.
Still, an eight-team playoff is a real possibility and would likely cut out any recurrences of an undefeated non-BCS team being left out of the national championship game, which has happened 11 times in the last 14 years.
But like this Tuesday’s decision, that will have to wait, too, at least until 2025.
The four-team playoff is better, but is it really progress? When one minor step is taken after nearly a century and a half, is it truly progress? Naturally, yes, but it’s nothing to be given a Nobel Prize for.
A four-team format keeps the cartel in the game. It keeps the BCS and the computers and the human biases alive, giving them all a small part of their old game to cling to.
Eliminate that influence, and you’ll get your progress. Until then, perhaps the banners outside the 2014 playoff sites should read as such:
College Football Playoff – 143 years in the making and we still can’t figure this thing out.