Myth: Bo Schembechler, consummate Michigan Man, emerged from the womb to embark on a lifelong crusade against Woody Hayes and Ohio State.
Reality: Bo Schembechler played and coached for Hayes.
Myth: The tradition of the Big Ten and Pac-12 meeting in the Rose Bowl dates back to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded California to the United States.
Reality: Alabama played in five Rose Bowls before UCLA played in one.
Myth: The college football regular season has been so mystical and flawless that any change in championship procedures will render it devoid of all meaning.
Reality: The past was never perfect. Tradition is overrated.
Why do we watch college football? Because our 7-5 team can win a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl “championship” over Ball State? Because our teams have worn the same design on a piece of fabric for 40 years? Because athletes play for free? Because of tradition, that ambiguous word we cling to when we don't want things to change?
No, we watch because of the games themselves, because of deep associations with our schools, because of a lack of sterilized stadium experiences that are so prevalent at the pro level, because of the daylong appeal of a football Saturday.
In January 2014, the Bowl Championship Series will breathe its last breath. The start of college football this Thursday begins a two-year lame-duck period. Mercifully, a playoff will follow -- four teams, playing at bowl sites -- and despite all the flaws and all the new controversy it will surely bring, this is a major victory. The BCS once prevented Auburn, the undefeated SEC champions, from competing for the national title. Support the current system, and that’s what you’re defending.
But the changes shouldn’t stop there. The playoff should expand, whether it’s to eight teams, or, preferably, 16, to include all conference champions. Every sport in America uses a more inclusive playoff, and while it’s nice that college football has so many unique qualities, this isn’t one of the ones that make it special. No sport needs an inclusive playoff more.
There are 124 Division I-A teams. No, Middle Tennessee isn’t USC, but if all 124 insist on playing at the same level, they all should have playoff access. These 124 teams play only 12 regular-season games apiece, eight or nine of which are in-conference. They play three or four nonconference games, and for the major schools that compete for the national title, maybe one or two of those are legitimate tests. Championship contenders have been arbitrarily picked by humans and, later, by computers, based on the smallest sample size in major sports, and somehow this has been acceptable for decades.
The common assumption is that the more the playoff pool grows, the greater the damage done to the most exciting regular season in sports. This is partially true, in that a larger playoff grants teams a margin of error that previously didn’t exist. Oklahoma State could lose to Iowa State and only have to worry about its seed, instead of being effectively eliminated from a shot at the national title game.
But that leads us into the murky world of résumés and perception, which is how one-loss Alabama earned a national title bid over one-loss Oklahoma State and subsequently beat LSU, rendering the Tigers’ regular-season win over the Crimson Tide meaningless despite the assertion that “every game counts.” Debating college football means engaging in never-ending circular arguments, which is a silly, antiquated alternative to pursuing fairness and ditching a punchy slogan that appeals to the tradition lovers in all of us but is blatantly false.
For those who see bowls as rewards for student-athletes, there’s still little reason to think that those games would die off. TV networks live for football programming. The Rose Bowl alone gets an average of $80 million per year from ESPN; the Mountain West/Conference USA mashup will soon cash in with a big TV deal of its own.
Even if a playoff expands to 16 teams, the first two rounds could be played on campuses in December, allowing those who are knocked out to play in consolation bowls, while the rest head to the final four, which is what the new system is anyway. As long as someone is willing to pay for them, and as long as people like me will sit on the couch and watch the sport for 12 straight hours, bowl games can survive as the glorified exhibitions they’ve always been.
Between forward-thinking administrators, like the Pac-12’s Larry Scott, and even opportunistic ones, like the Big Ten’s Jim Delany, all will see the dollar signs and push to expand the playoff at some point. Playoff spots will be on the line all season, upsets will still matter, rivalry games will still define seasons and an expanded postseason will create added intrigue for the entire Top 25.
There’s no need to romanticize a past that was never as idyllic as we think. There’s no greater fallacy than tradition. Bring on a bigger playoff, because the reality is that fall Saturdays will only get better.