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A Dumb Path to a Dumb Solution: The College Football Playoff

Once upon a time the NCAA was content with not having a clear national champion in football. Then the 90s came.
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On New Year's Day, America's four "best" college football teams will play semi-final games in Pasadena and New Orleans, the winners facing off in Dallas a week later. This is considered an improvement. Most people (at least people outside of Fort Worth and Waco) agree that for now, it is the best that the folks in charge of college football can do. But the system is still rooted in shady motives and corporate greed.


For many years, the NCAA was willing to endure temporary criticism whenever there was a dispute as to who was actually the best college football team. Mostly, we could safely assume, so long as profits were made, no one in those offices worried themselves with such trivial matters. In the years 1954-1978, 12 seasons ended with multiple "national champions," including 1964, when three teams staked that claim. In 1978, the Associated Press named Alabama national champions even though they had lost to USC, who finished no. 2. But in those years, college football had a lower profile—complaints about who the national champion was came more or less from the fringes of the sporting world.

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As college football has become increasingly popular, and increasingly corporate, the NCAA has tried various methods of ensuring that the best teams in the country play one another in the first week in January, leading to this year's inauguration of the playoff system. The first such method was the formation of the Bowl Alliance in 1995: an attempt, albeit a transparently slimy one, to close the season with a consensus champ.

The Bowl Alliance—and the strong sense that there ought to be a consensus king of college football—came from an especially muddled run of Januaries in the early 1990s. In 1990, Georgia Tech and Colorado split the vote despite the Yellow Jackets' unblemished record and the Buffaloes controversial "5th down" win over Missouri. In 1994, no. 1 Nebraska beat Miami, but Penn State was undefeated, too, and many people questioned if the Nittany Lions were not the better team.


The brief, three-year life of the Bowl Alliance spanned from 1995-1997. This Real World/Road Rules Challenge-esque alliance between the Sugar, Fiesta, and Orange Bowls was exactly the kind of backroom handshake deal between men in expensive suits that we've come to expect from the NCAA: ostensibly, it gave the public what they wanted—in this case, the top six college football teams in the country playing one another—while making the member bowls an extra Brinks trunk full of money each and screwing everyone else. The bowls would rotate order of picks annually. The Fiesta Bowl chose first in the inaugural Alliance year, choosing the no. 1 and no. 2 teams. The Orange Bowl hosted the no. 3 and no. 5 teams and the Sugar Bowl pitted the no. 4 and no. 6 teams against one another.

Declaring a champion was easy in 1995-96. Because of the Bowl Alliance's alignment with most of the major conferences —the Big Ten and Pac-10, Rose Bowl loyalists still, being the glaring omissions—the Fiesta Bowl was able to host no. 1 Nebraska and no. 2 Florida, a Cornhuskers win.

But omitting the Rose Bowl ended up as the Alliance's tragic flaw.

The Alliance was lucky again in 1997 when both no. 1 Florida State and no. 2 Arizona State (who was locked into the non-Alliance Rose Bowl against no. 4 Ohio State) lost their bowl games, allowing no. 3 Florida to claim the title. They weren't so lucky the following year when no. 1 Michigan—another Big Ten, Rose Bowl-bound team that featured Heisman winner Charles Woodson—capped off an undefeated season against no. 8 Washington State. Nebraska crushed no. 3 Tennessee, which, technically, made the second-ranked Cornhuskers champs for the third time in four years.


The wheels came off the Alliance for good in 1997 when Brigham Young University, ranked fifth in the country, was left out of the major bowl games due to their lack of alliance affiliation. For the first time, the NCAA was about to be called out for their favoritism.

Trying to find a national champion without including the Rose Bowl was pure folly by the Bowl Alliance. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Bowl Alliance's failure gave birth to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), the flawed, computerized system that weighted poll rankings and strength of schedule, but left out the so-called human element, and didn't necessarily ensure a consensus top team. The BCS, like its predecessor, catered to power conferences, leaving many universities rightfully unhappy. BYU head coach LaVell Edwards even testified in a congressional hearing about the inadequacies of the BCS (our tax dollars at work, ladies and gentleman!).

"The problem with the [BCS]," Edwards said at the time, "is that it prevents student-athletes at 54 universities from achieving the dream of ending the season ranked number one. Being a national champion is only a fantasy for these players. It's not right, not fair, not just."

This inability led to recruitment disadvantages, went the argument. People like Edwards, along with millions of football fans who tend to root for the underdog, began clamoring for a playoff system. Only then, they maintained, could a true national champion be crowned.

Yet here we are in year one of the playoff system, and perceptions of favoritism and power conference greed are still here. Four teams just may not be enough. Not with upstarts Baylor and TCU left out while historically powerful programs from Tuscaloosa, Eugene, Tallahassee, and Columbus are again in the mix at the end.

Meanwhile, apparel from Alabama and FSU are among the top ten selling college brands. Ohio State is, according to Forbes, one of the highest valued teams in the country. And Oregon, with its Nike ties, has the "most geographically wide following," according to a study by the New York Times. Florida State is the defending champ; Alabama won in 2011 and 2012. These are household names.

But of course there is skepticism. Football fans want to believe that their school is always the best, and everybody knows that the NCAA is the worst. Controversy chaperones the NCAA wherever it goes. So maybe eye-rolling is the appropriate response, distrust is exactly what the NCAA deserves. We've earned the right to be cautious and wary of their intentions. Maybe it's for the best. Dissent being the highest form of patriotism.

Then again, the playoff games will still attract deep-pocketed sponsors, impassioned alumni, and casual fans alike. Most importantly, they will profit millions of dollars. We'll all still be watching, and that's all that's ever mattered.