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Tossing the Crystal Ball: What’s Lost When the Path to College Football’s Championship Is Made Clear

College football needed a playoff system. But something is lost when we clarify who wins.

Pop quiz: Who won the college football national championship in 2004?

Tommy Tuberville, coach of the Auburn Tigers that year, bought championship rings for his whole team. “We did all we were asked to do. We beat five teams in the top 15, three in the top 10, and we had a heck of a football team,” he said this September, in an interview at a 10-year reunion for the rarest of teams: an undefeated SEC champion that couldn’t find its way into the national title game.

Or were the USC Trojans the champs? Despite having their BCS title vacated as a result of NCAA violations, they were recently named as the best team of the BCS era by the AP. A flashy and dominant club, led by Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart and budding superstar Reggie Bush, USC manhandled its title game opponent, Oklahoma, 55-19.

How about the Utah Utes? Led by coach Urban Meyer, they destroyed all comers, never winning a game by fewer than two touchdowns. They ended their undefeated campaign by routing Big East champ Pitt 35-7. Their quarterback, Alex Smith, was drafted first overall.

The 2004 college football season was a wonderful, delirious mess. That there is no official champion is a perfectly fitting outcome for the year that may have finally spurred the creation of the College Football Playoff. Yet the 2004 season may also have produced something better than a clear winner: an argument that’s still going on.

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October 28, 2014, is meant to be the beginning of the end of our long national nightmare. On that fine autumn day, the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings will be sent down from on high, and finally, following a debate that extended from stadium bathroom lines to the Oval Office itself, we will have our College Football Playoff. And with it, supposedly, the era of injustice will be over.

The argument over how to choose a college football champion may seem quaint, now that most discussions about the future of college football center on player compensation, health care, pension plans, image rights, and unionization. But for years, it dominated the agenda. College football was stuck with the gargantuan and unique task of taking both a sport and a setup that were fundamentally regional and bending them to the demands of nationalization brought on by massive popularity and equally massive television profits. People wanted a winner. They wanted to know who was best.

The BCS system (and the free-for-all that preceded it), it was argued, was unfair. But just what fairness meant and how it’s changed as sports have grown in scale and import wasn’t really scrutinized. Where once we placed a general emphasis on consistency of excellence, new playoff systems have instead sought to improve everyone’s chances to win by placing an increasing emphasis on excellence under manufactured pressure. At one time, the idea was to ensure the two best teams met to determine the champion. Now we create paths for more and more teams to show they can perform best “when it matters.” Playoffs are said to be fairer. They’re not. What they are, it turns out, is more fun — a guarantee of an annual blip of excitement. Fans’ preference for more playoff games has made it easier for major sports to continue playoff expansion to increase revenues while rightly claiming to be in step with the wishes of their followers.

What made college football different was that, for years, it remained unable both to make the most money possible and to give people what they said they wanted. Its inherent regionalism made it exceedingly difficult to emphasize consistency or relative excellence, while also creating massive logistical problems when trying to give more schools the chance to prove themselves. Now that there’s a playoff system, the result is supposed to be more objective — though, as plenty of people have pointed out, the choices of playoff teams are ultimately subjective, and the controversy will just kick down to the question of whether the fifth-ranked team got screwed. But we should be used to this — and instead of fairness, we should consider what we really want.

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Just how badly did college football need fixing? There may have been a consensus that the system was “broken,” but a Harris poll conducted in January showed that only the NFL and MLB are more popular than college football in the United States. As many Americans call college football their favorite sport as claim the NBA and NHL combined. This, despite college football failing at what is supposed to be a sport’s basic mission: to determine an undisputed champion.

As maligned as the BCS was, when the standings devolved into chaos, college football generated something uniquely fascinating. When there were a multitude of undefeated teams, superior one-loss teams, and clubs beset by injury, with their coaches, players, and boosters bellowing about why they should be in the big game, the conversations and arguments about who was best invariably intensified. We claimed to want a clean and clear championship, but we were consumed by the lack of clarity. There was some abstract idea of exactly what a champion should look like, but what preoccupied us was seeing this bizarre computerized attempt at objectivity crushed under the weight of the complexity of reality and the emotionally tinged aspects of human observation and deep allegiances. Years from now, the most memorable BCS seasons will likely be those like 2004, when bars and stadiums across America were full of fans dissecting the fates of undefeated USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, and Utah.

This isn’t to say that we can no longer locate the soul of college football, or to romanticize a past that featured split championships and seasons that truly ended with no definitive conclusion. But there was something engrossing about college football’s ham-handed attempts to choose its champion. The process was fascinating precisely because it was different, precisely because it retained a subjectivity that everywhere else was being stamped out in the name of justice and revenue.

It is hard to measure how important this difference was to helping college football become so popular. While the sport now has the advantage of being in its second century of existence, somewhat immune to substantial ebbs and flows of popularity, it is doubtful that it would have risen to such prominence without decades as a primarily regionalist concern. The creation of rivalries held up by the loyalty of alumni and local citizens has long been considered a key factor in America’s love for this game. Conference championships are similar to state championships in high school — incredibly important to those involved. It is precisely this regionalism that created the sort of argumentative oral history that helped bind these regional entities into something greater.

Before the BCS, we weren’t even able to scapegoat the computers. So, some years the results seemed clear, and others were as muddied as Memorial Stadium on a rainy Saturday in October. But that was part of the allure — the recognition that nothing was perfect, not even a perfect record. In 1997, star Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost gave an impassioned postgame address over the PA system at the Orange Bowl after beating Tennessee, stumping for a tie between the Cornhuskers and the similarly undefeated Michigan Wolverines. “It’s been split before,” he said. “It’s OK to split it.” It’s hard to imagine such a sentiment being uttered now. Sure, it may not have been definitive, but in its own sense, splitting that championship was as fair as it will be to split the hairs between whoever the supposed fourth- and fifth-best teams end up being at the conclusion of this season.

All of these years later, if you happen to run into a Nebraska fan and a Michigan fan meeting at the end of a bar, pull up a seat and hear all about Charles Woodson, Ahman Green, the Flea Kicker, and the insane ending to the Rose Bowl. No champion, no doubt. But: a story that’s been told, an argument that’s been had, for almost 20 years.

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In our increasingly uniform way of choosing champs, we want to believe there is clear reasoning: that if we give more teams a pathway to the playoff, we are creating a journey the champion must complete in order for us to feel that the team in question is a justly deserving winner. More often than not, though, the narratives that have been most compelling are actually those in which the outcome seems unjust. Whether it’s a judge robbing a boxer of a deserved victory, or a fresh horse being sent out at Belmont to prevent a Triple Crown, or a system that chooses the wrong two teams to play in a purported title game, these stories drive home the reality that sports aren’t actually fair, nor were they meant to be.

MLB is the most recent major league to expand its playoffs, moving from eight to 10 playoff teams. Proponents of expansion point out that baseball still has the fewest playoff teams of any professional sport, and that more playoff teams is, of course, a fairer way of doing business. Having playoff teams blunts the issues raised by imbalanced schedules and economic and competitive disparities. What’s really blunted, though, is not only the competitive imbalances built into the sport, but also the importance of the entire season itself.

Gone are the regional pennant races that captured the imagination and attention of fans in late summers and early falls. Now we watch the scoreboards of teams that don’t play particularly great ball but haven’t yet been eliminated from contention. MLB’s evolution perhaps most closely parallels that of college football, in that these moves may be the right ones for gratifying a more nationalized base of fans demanding more high-stakes games in October, but there is no doubt that much of what first drew people to these sports is gone. Yes, the wild-card gave us the gift of the Red Sox and Yankees meeting in the postseason — previously an impossibility — but what made that rivalry the greatest in American sports were the drawn-out pennant races that are now meaningless. The tragedy of the Boston Red Sox, the galvanizing injustice felt by its fans during their long wait for a championship, would simply never have happened.

The common cry has long been that good teams deserve a chance to win it all, that a 103-win team like the 1993 San Francisco Giants, which lost out on the final day of the season to the 104-win Atlanta Braves, should have a chance to play for the championship. But of course, the Giants did have a chance to win it all. They had 162 games’ worth of chances. That was baseball, and the exclusivity of its playoff separated it from the others. What supporters of playoff expansion see as increased competition is actually the creation of a less competitive, lower-stakes environment in which teams not actually worthy of champion status are often awarded it. Why does a team that had 162 contests in which to finish above its competitors get another try after failing to do so? The real answer is: because it makes for more (and more exciting) TV.

We don’t have to look far for an example. This year’s World Series participants each failed to win 90 games. To even get this far, both the Giants and Royals had to win the wild-card play-in games that were created in the most recent playoff expansion. To be sure, their improbable runs to the Series have captured the attention of many, and it would be foolish to claim that it hasn’t been incredibly exciting to witness these two markedly flawed baseball teams grind their way through the postseason. But are they the two best teams? Are we being treated to baseball in its highest form? Hardly.

These playoff systems are themselves are a bit like democracy, in that they may just be the worst option except for all the others. While the majority prefers them, their failings are seen in the way we appreciate them. After you’ve watched enough sports deliver you enough championships year after year without fail, eventually you realize that winning one isn’t really all that impressive. It’s hard, sure, but hard is different from impressive. It’s hard because you have a roughly 1-in-30 chance of winning. But it’s less impressive because one of those 30 has to win it every time, no matter what. So, what we actually gravitate toward is the forming of dynasties. The first question about a champion is often: Can they repeat?

For all the ridicule launched at LeBron James for his infamous “not three, not four, not five … ” moment, he couldn’t have been more right. The uniform and repetitive way in which we determine our champions necessitates that greatness has to transcend a single season. It’s the same reason that when the Spurs finally won another title last year, the common response was that they “deserved it” for their consistent excellence even when they weren’t winning titles. Likewise, the New England Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since 2004, but have retained a strange, pseudo-dynastic air by routinely turning up for AFC title games and failing and failing to get back to the mountaintop.

In fact, even multiple championships may not be enough to determine true greatness. After all, if these San Francisco Giants do win the World Series, it will be their third title in five years. Isn’t this a modern-day dynasty? By the numbers, sure. But somehow it doesn’t quite feel that way, does it? Instead it seems like a fascinating, drawn-out anomaly that will be recalled with a confused shake of the head. Remember that Giants team? How on earth?

What was interesting about college football was that it stood out from the increasing uniformity of sports through the intriguing inadequacy of its system. Its frequent inability to make sure the best team was awarded the championship was fun to watch because of that inability, not in spite of it. It was a demonstration of why a playoff system is needed but also a counterpoint against all the inadequacies of a playoff system when it comes to achieving the supposed goal. It avoided soft scoreboard watching. Every game mattered. It laid bare the difficulty of crowning a champion at all. Instead, it gave us what we want just as much as anything else from sports: a season full of high-stakes games, and something to talk about.

Michael Terry (@michael_a_terry) is a writer in Brooklyn.