As I am not yet ready to comment on the Mumbai tragedy, I will stick to the lighter fare of college football. The debate rages between opposing camps, those who favor a single national championship bowl game and those who favor a playoff to determine college football’s national champion. The issue must be important, as Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue more than once in the last few weeks.
Those who favor a playoff have legitimate points, including that every other NCAA national champion is determined by a playoff, including those in other NCAA football divisions. Those who favor a national championship bowl game also have legitimate points, including that a playoff will devalue the regular season and that the most talked about playoff system – a 16-team playoff – will add four games to a season that is already plenty long given the violence of each football game and the possibility of injury.
The fundamental problem with the bowl-vs.-playoff argument is that its key term is not defined. If “national champion” is supposed to describe the best college football team in the country, it is unclear that any more than four teams should play for the national championship. In few years are there more than three teams that can claim to be the best team in college football before the bowl season a the end of the regular season. Never in recent memory have even five teams even had a plausible outside claim to having been the best team in college football based on their regular season performances. Consequently, a 16-team playoff is nothing more than a tournament.
The winner of the proposed tournament will be deemed national champion though it is hardly clear that the winner will be the best team in college football. This is no surprise. Anyone who thinks the winner of the NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament is necessarily the best team in college basketball should look at the list of winners of the tournament, including two of its most inspirational – the 1984 North Carolina State Wolfpack and the 1985 Villanova Wildcats. Golf provides an even better example. The winner of The Open Championship (the British Open to most) is designated the “champion golfer of the year.” Rarely in the last 10 years has that title meant anything unless it was being bestowed on Tiger Woods.
If folks want to see a post-season tournament with a clear winner, so be it. However, if folks want to guarantee that the best team in college football is crowned national champion, as our president-elect seems to want, we are going to have to think much harder about the issue rather than default to a tournament.