Here is something Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said yesterday.
"We're disappointed by [winning at Illinois on Saturday] 60-35. We didn't cover whatever spread that we needed to, didn't score enough points to boost up our rating. That's a reason why we're disappointed with the way that we played."
In addition to serving as a rather succinct summation of Illinois football, Meyer's statement is a fascinating time capsule document of college sports, and why they're both better and more frustrating than professional sports. (I mean this in an aesthetic, fan-experience sense, not in a morally justifiable way.) It is a quote that contains multitudes.
Here are basic facts conveyed by Meyer's quote:
- Ohio State should have won by more than 25 points on the road against Illinois.
- Ohio State should have won by more than 25 points on the road against Illinois because it wants to play in the national championship game, and if it continues to have poor games like this, it will not receive the opportunity.
- How much a team defeats an obviously inferior opponent by matters.
- Coaches, in addition to the daily madness of running a collegiate football team, must constantly be aware of "rating," a sort-of theoretical quantitative measure no one, least of all the coaches most affected by it, completely understands.
- Sixty points -- 60 -- is not enough points to score, in the opinion of Ohio State's coach, to boost this "rating."
- Ohio State's coach is aware of Vegas point spreads and believes his team should cover them.
- If Ohio State doesn't play well enough to cover a spread it is illegal to even acknowledge, or increase a rating it doesn't understand, even if it beats a Big Ten team on the road by 25 points (while scoring 60), this victory is a "disappointment."
Ohio State has won 22 consecutive football games. Urban Meyer has never lost as head coach of the Buckeyes. And everyone is disappointed.
In August, the Wall Street Journal listed the 20 biggest injustices of the BCS era. I was surprised, looking at the list, how little outrage it inspired in me. It did seem unfair that USC was skipped over for the 2003 title game, and it did stink when Alabama and LSU had that rematch in 2012. But all told: I remember being a lot angrier then than it seems, now, like I should have been now. Part of this is because I don't care about any aspect of the BCS other than the championship game. Missouri being left out of the BCS in 2008, or Georgia last year, doesn't make much difference, because in the zero sum game we're discussing, BCS bowls that aren't the national championship game are essentially the same as the Beef O'Brady's Bowl: consolation prizes. That's how Urban Meyer sees them; that's how I'm treating them.
This brings up a fundamental tension at the heart of college football that the BCS never really resolved: If you accept the problem the BCS was trying to fix -- the lack of a true, declared national champion -- then you also, implicitly, accept that every other bowl game is pointless. There was a time when bowl games were their own rewards, and that reward was enough. That time is over. In a worst-case scenario, if Ohio State goes undefeated this season, it will play in the Rose Bowl. It wasn't long ago that the Rose Bowl was the ultimate goal; now it's a booby prize Buckeyes fans will be furious about having to play in for a decade. If the Rose Bowl was enough, the way it once was, no one at Ohio State would be disappointed by a blowout victory over Illinois. It would be just another victory en route to Pasadena. Everything was an audition during the BCS era, a fundamental change to the game, and the BCS itself never quite caught up. It couldn't have. In an age where perfection itself might not be enough, a system set up to land on just two teams was just never going to cut it.
The College Football Playoff, which comes next year, has taken criticism because it doesn't seem better in any appreciable way except for the fact it has four teams, rather than two. But this improvement is enough, really. (For now.) Meyer, in that same story, argues the new system won't be better because, "it's not a 64-team playoff; you can only have four guys. What's that fifth team going to feel like?" Well, it will probably feel a lot better than the No. 3 team feels now. When you set up a tournament like this -- even if that tournament only has two teams -- not making the tournament makes whatever success you had during the regular season seem completely pointless. This is another reason a potential move to an eight-team tournament seems inevitable; once we've accepted that making this tournament is all that matters, that it's the goal of every team in the country, expanding it is the only growth strategy. (Witness: every other sport in the world.) When the College Football Playoff is a success next year -- and it obviously will be, with the exception of all the teams complaining they didn't get to play in it -- it will make all the other bowl games look even more dumb.
This is the door we have opened. In the pre-BCS age, a blowout like Ohio State's would be nothing but a positive. Now, it's not enough. The desire to win and the desire to impress a vague, unknowable ratings master are two entirely different things; one requires simply winning, and the other is a thirst that's basically impossible to ever fully quench. The reason the College Football Playoff will be better than the BCS is because it makes winning more important, and trying to please the gods less so. It will still matter: When there is a subjective component like a selection committee -- a necessary evil in a world where not all schedules are equal -- you're always trying to impress someone. But four teams sets the bar lower than two. And eight lower than four. Everyone might have been happier when you just had to worry about winning your games, and that was it, but that door was closed long ago. Once college football became just about winning championships, it lost the ability to just be about winning. What's coming next year gets it back closer again. Then Ohio State can get back to feeling happy about scoring 60 points against Illinois, like everybody else.