Amidst all the outrage and taunting on Sunday, I hope everyone took the time to enjoy the rush. A reminder about college sports: the athletes are not as good as the pros. The game is not nearly as polished. What makes up for the majority of participants having no chance at becoming well-paid professional athletes is the chaos. Passion and moments that leave mouths agape are what make the games worth watching. The College Football Playoff provided one for the ages with the decision between Alabama and Florida State for the final spot.
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Regardless of how individuals feel about undefeated FSU being left out, arguments like that one are a key ingredient in the special sauce of college sports. A 12-team playoff would be more representative of the best teams in the country with not only Florida State, but also Georgia, Oregon, and Ohio State making the cut. However, once that system goes into effect next season, sport fans will lose a great American past time — arguing about which college football teams deserved to be national champions.
The process by which college football’s national champion is declared has gone through a couple of overhauls in the last 25 years. Prior to 1998, all of the major bowl games were played on New Year’s Day. After the games were played, the Associated Press and coaches would vote on who they believed to be the champion. Sometimes the polls agree on the same champion and other years, like 1997, multiple would be declared.
Beginning in 1998, the Bowl Championship Series set out to determine the best two teams in the country and match them up in an annual National Championship Game. With there being nearly 70 teams considered major college football programs every season, neither of these systems was an efficient way to crown a champion. So in 2014, the College Football Playoff began, with four teams and two games. The participants would be selected by a committee.
There have been a few controversial decisions by the committee, but rarely are there four teams actually capable of winning a national championship. In 2023 though, parity arrived to college football in a big way. Many of the playoff contenders have squeaked by mediocre teams, and others have largely skated by spending the majority of the season playing against below average opponents.
FSU quarterback Jordan Travis suffered an injury that ended his season with 11 quarters remaining in the season and his team undefeated. The ‘Noles won their next three games, including on the road at The Swamp in Gainesville, Fla., and held an offense that averaged 30.9 points per game — Louisville — to six in a neutral site conference championship game.
Defending back-to-back national champion Georgia began the season ranked No. 1. They did not lose until the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. The Tide’s only 2023 loss was Week 2 at home to Texas. The Longhorns beat Oklahoma St. in their conference championship game, 49-21, and their only loss was a neutral site rivalry matchup against No. 12 Oklahoma. Michigan ate up a cake schedule, before beating then undefeated Ohio State in Week 13 at home. And how did Washington make it, they narrowly defeated Oregon — the team with the second-best point differential in the country, trailing only Michigan — twice.
With eight teams having a legitimate argument that they are the best in the country, not even the tidy 4-team playoff could easily navigate this convoluted season. Once the top four of Michigan, Alabama, Washington, and Texas was revealed on Sunday, kickoff of the NFL’s early slate could not pause the conversation about the College Football Playoff.
ESPN’s Booger McFarland was furious that an undefeated team was left out in favor of one-loss Alabama, which needed a 4th and 31 miracle in Week 13 to defeat unranked rival Auburn on the road. His coworker, Kirk Herbstreet, believes that the committee got it right. Fans, media, and members of FSU football, have not been shy about expressing their satisfaction with the playoff or outright disgust.
“Why even bother playing the games if this is the result?” “Florida State is simply not one of the best teams in America without Travis, and the ACC sucks.” “The SEC has a losing record against the ACC this year.” “The SEC is the best conference yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever because I said so dammit.”
I am a millennial so social media is always at least a small distraction while watching television. Combine a weak early window of NFL games, and the most compelling national championship conversation since 2006 when some people wanted an Ohio State, Michigan rematch in the title game, never has RedZone been more difficult to focus on than Sunday.
College football fans are always unhinged. Toss them a debate with no correct answer, and a fired up national sports media, moments like these are what make watching college athletics worth it. In that world, games are decided by 4th and 31 touchdowns, kick sixes, and referees who make bad fumble calls on a play when a coach decided not to kneel out the clock. The madness is riveting.
Madness that is gradually being chopped away by degree. Beginning next season there will be two conferences with all of the biggest names in college football. The ACC and Big 12 will still have Power 5 talent, but those two conferences will be a clear level below the Big Ten and SEC.
There will also be no room to argue about the merits of Big 12 and ACC conference champions, because the playoffs are expanding to 12 teams. No one will want to hear the complaints of the first-four out in this tournament, because no 12-seed is going to win a national championship.
Sure, the process of deciding the best team of the season will be cleaner than ever, but who said that neat and tidy makes college sports best. The mess and frustration are the best part of the viewing product.
Save the proper evaluation and shameless money grabs for professional sports. Those are the best athletes in the world, so their excellence is entertaining by itself. College athletes are people fresh out of high school participating in high-stakes competition, and the biggest fans are people who spend 24/7, 365, completely intoxicated on regional pride.
As the powers that be in college sports continue to try and bring what they think is order to the chaos that was beautiful as it was, Sunday after conference-championship Saturday 2023 was one last showcase of the masterpiece.