Think with your heart, not your head
How college football crowns its champion is not what makes the sport special
The lead story heading into the 2014 season is whether the College Football Playoff will be better than the Bowl Championship Series. Most are concluding it will be, as three games giving four teams a shot to win it all are better than one game with two teams. When you cut away extraneous details, more meaningful, quality football is better than less.
Next, the chattering classes are considering if it will be more controversial. Will the outrage from those left behind be more muted at Nos. 5 and 6 compared to Nos. 3 and 4 with the BCS? Will a 13-person selection committee be superior to a dehumanized BCS ranking with its incomprehensible computers? These questions lead to speculation over an inevitable expansion of the playoff format to eight teams vying in three rounds for the national title. As heads nod over such a notion, someone then sagely asserts the game will completely reinvent itself over the next decade or so, as it throws off its outdated and disingenuous airs of amateurism and becomes more centralized and professionalized.
Such a discussion is an academic exercise, important and relevant viewed through the lens of our litigious summer, if a bit dry.
Yet perhaps we, particularly you who are emotionally involved, should focus less on the logistics of the playoff and future models of the game and more on what makes us tick as fans of specific teams and enthusiasts for college football itself. Not just on winning and losing, either. With college football, there's a lot more than just that.
Start with the universal hope and anticipation of August, which is augmented by a longstanding tradition of more preseason rhetoric than any other sport -- see the enthusiasm and resentment accompanying the preseason polls. Moving forward into the season, envision ourselves immersed in the bubbling debate that reconstitutes itself on a near-weekly basis -- this team versus that team, that conference versus this conference, this conspiracy versus that conspiracy. Finally, there's December, when we will zigzag our way toward the naming of the first four playoff teams, which should provoke an all-time great cascade of opinion and outrage on social media.
For what is most important about college football isn't what actually happens on the field. It's the imperfect process overlaying it all. For a moment, forget the games, which are fantastic bits of theater, no doubt, but all sports have those. What really sets college football apart, what makes it unique and makes its fans the most obsessive is the debate, the controversy, the regionalism, the obsession with bias, the fact fairly often the season ends with a smattering of question marks rather than a consensus exclamation point.
The playoff won't change that, and for that we should all be grateful. We'll have great football, more football and everyone can still troll the heck out of each other throughout the process. That totality -- the games and controversy and endless chatter -- is what makes college football great. That is not going away.
Ah, not yet at least. Pause the celebration here, because it's impossible not to speculate on the sport's trajectory and ultimate destination amid such drastic changes. We should wonder at the potential endgame, wonder where we are headed, and if we might eventually lose something along the way. As Albany noted in "King Lear," "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well."
Let's then project forward to a potential scenario in, say, 2027: Four 12-team, semi-professional conferences overseen by a commissioner operating outside the NCAA. Eight-team playoff. Playoff spots are determined by standings, just like all the professional leagues.
Is that, or something approximating it, ultimately what we want? Maybe it is.
After all, sports are about winners and losers. And injecting shades of gray into that, as college football often does, is about fostering impurity in ostensibly black-and-white competitive events. There was no debate on whether the teams in the World Series, NBA or NHL finals or Super Bowl deserved to be there. Even the curious setup of the World Cup doesn't ignite much controversy, as a so-called "Group of Death" is simply accepted.
The question, ultimately, is if we continue to purify the process of crowning a college football national champion, if we continue to make it less controversial by extending the playoff bracket, will we gain or lose something? Certainly it would be a little of both, but in what proportion?
"The thing about college football, it's the greatest sport, and we've created it," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "Everybody hated the BCS. Well I'm going to tell you what the BCS did -- it only made it the most popular sport out there. I think the playoff is going to enhance it, and for the fans, that's very important."
We live in an age of chatter, one that embraces controversy and notoriety and moot point debates on social media. Perhaps that's why college football has grown so much during the BCS era. While all that complaining was going on, the game grew exponentially, provoking the changes that are presently taking place.
Think about this: What percentage of your time as a college football fan is spent discussing the games themselves compared to everything else? How is your fan experience different compared to how you root for teams in pro sports? With college football, you debate the polls, you debate relative conference quality, you debate strength of schedules, you debate recruiting rankings, you hound opposing fans and journalists who don't see things your way. Little of that runs parallel to how pro sports fans conduct themselves.
The new College Football Playoff won't reduce any of that. It might increase it. That's a good thing.
Unlike pro sports that change incrementally, college football has been changing in dramatic fits and starts over the past two decades. We have been set on a trajectory that seems to have a life of its own. It's both exciting and worrisome. We should enjoy ourselves but not lose sight of just why we are having so much fun.
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