All of us who had hoped for a college football playoff should stop right now and take a moment to thank Jordan Jefferson. The LSU quarterback was so comically overmatched against Alabama’s defense (change the phrase to “tragically overmatched” if you’re an LSU fan) that, as soon as the Crimson Tide’s 21-o curb-stomp in the national title game was over, the powers behind college football agreed: We must do something.
One game can always bomb. Three games aren’t likely to. And so here we are with a four-team playoff, starting in 2014.
Forget what the new playoff means for the bowls, or college presidents, or the quaint notion of the student-athlete — Dan Wetzel does a fine job of outlining how college football is still basically Deadwood sponsored by Tostitos. To cut to the nut:
College football fans get two more meaningful games every year.
That’s basically all we want, right? More games that matter?
Last year, Oklahoma State beat Stanford in overtime in the Fiesta Bowl. It was a thrilling game, a blast to watch, and it meant nothing. It meant less than their regular-season games, because at least those games pointed toward a possible championship. And of course it meant less than the Alabama-LSU title game.
But if the playoff had been in place, Andrew Luck and Stanford would’ve played LSU. Oklahoma State and its pinball offense would’ve tested that Alabama defense. Do you think a few million people would’ve watched those games? Would the Tostitos people have made money? And would fans be at least a little more sure that the best team ended up national champ? Yes and yes and yes.
There are still issues. A Big East team is going to have to be 12-0 to get in. An ACC team will have to be a strong 12-1. (That 13th game is the conference championship, which the Big East doesn’t have yet.) It’s still going to be really hard for Boise State or another team like it to crack the top four. And fans of whoever ends up No. 5 will howl like dingoes. (Do dingoes howl? They ought to.)
Still, the No. 5 team has a much weaker argument than the No. 3 team used to. Most years it’s fair to think that any of the top four teams could be the best in the country. And even if one team looks dominant, it’ll have to prove it twice.
None of this devalues the regular season, because nobody can afford to coast. If Ohio State is No. 1 and gets crushed by Michigan (the idea of a non-SEC team being No. 1 is just a hypothetical), it could drop all the way out of the playoff. And for teams with a shot to sneak into the top four, their regular season gains value instead of losing it. Auburn-Alabama, Florida-FSU, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State get bigger instead of smaller.
College football has moved toward a playoff at the pace of a Senate subcommittee. There was a time when a dozen different pollsters named their own national champions (this is one way Alabama claims, if I have the number right, 147 national titles). There were often two national champions (AP and UPI) in the ’70s and ’80s, and even since the BCS there have been disputes over the national champion (AP chose USC in 2003 even though the Trojans didn’t make the title game).
All of these arguments over who should’ve been in and who should’ve been out are part of college football tradition. But unless it’s your team that got jobbed, those arguments fade with time. You know what’s a better argument? If Alabama ’11 could stop Nebraska ’95, or if Texas ’05 could take Penn State ’86. The best debates are about champions. A college football playoff creates a more definitive champion. Plus it creates two more games that matter every year. Thank you, Jordan Jefferson, wherever you are.