Here is a case study for you to consider as we await the sordid conclusion of the final Bowl Championship Series we will ever see: In 1973, as the executive branch was being cleaved to pieces, six teams laid some sort of claim to the national title. Three of them (Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma) had played tie games; two of them (Ohio State and Michigan) had tied each other, which led to a meeting of the Big Ten's athletic directors, who chose to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl based on a rationale that remains utterly opaque four decades later, according to the well-crafted and infuriating Big Ten Network documentary Tiebreaker.
A fourth team, Alabama, still claims the '73 title based on the pre-bowl polls, even though the Crimson Tide lost to undefeated Notre Dame 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl; another team, Penn State, went 12-0 and beat LSU in the Orange Bowl and finished fifth in the final Associated Press poll (behind one-loss Alabama) because the perception of a weak Eastern schedule that was, in fact, no weaker than Michigan's or Ohio State's schedule against the little sisters of the B1G. (This was not a surprise: By then, Penn State had already lost one title based on the whims of Richard Nixon himself.)
There is, of course, no rational answer to this conundrum. The Associated Press voted Notre Dame the postseason No. 1, because the Irish won the Sugar Bowl, but there is a case to be made for Ohio State or Michigan or Penn State or Oklahoma, depending on your choice of statistical and regional bias. It is an unresolvable capital-A Argument, given the ambiguous nature of The System back then, but here's something else to consider: If you are a strict believer in adhering to the rules of The System, then Alabama's claim to the national title, based on that perfectly legitimate pre-bowl coaches' poll (the final UPI poll taken that season, for which Alabama was crowned "national champion"), is as valid as anyone else's.
And so what it comes down to, four decades on, is this: If The System is inherently broken, do we still have to abide by it?
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At this point, we know The System is broken, because even the powers who oversee it have admitted it is broken. Next year, college football commences a four-team playoff, but this year, we are left with the dregs of an incomplete and ultimately failed enterprise. Two teams will play for the national championship, and -- presuming Ohio State and Florida State do not choke on the bones of Michigan State and Duke this weekend -- a one-loss team from what is inarguably the best football conglomerate in the country, the Southeastern Conference, will be left out.
The System advocates for this; The System demands it. If you go undefeated in a major conference and get left out of the championship game, The System says, it would be the moral equivalent of anarchy. And so we have to accept Ohio State, and we have to accept Florida State, because if we don't, then The System breaks down.
But that's what make this choice so utterly compelling: Because The System has already collapsed. So why the hell should we care about what The System wants?
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Football, a highfalutin crank in a bow tie once said, is nothing more than violence and committee meetings, and while I am not the kind of person who goes around quoting George Will, I think he got this one right. Will, of course, was referring to huddles, which hardly exist in college football anymore, given the acceleration of the hurry-up offense. But what still does exist is the bureaucracy and the lobbying and the factionalism that mirrors Will's chosen profession. It is a political enterprise, and if you don't believe me, listen to Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs.
"It would be a disservice to the nation if we got left out," Jacobs said the other day, which is the kind of overwrought AM-radio hyperbole that has long been spewed by perspective-challenged partisans of all kinds.
Yet remove that one clause -- "to the nation" -- and Jacobs may actually be right.
My gut tells me that Auburn is a better team than Ohio State, but my gut also tells me that Ohio State could potentially defeat Florida State, given Urban Meyer and a month to prepare. (I think Alabama is the best team in the country, even though it means nothing now; I have no idea what to make of Missouri.) There are so few direct comparisons to make between the top three -- Ohio State, Florida State and Auburn- -- at this point that it's possible to manipulate data and make a statistical case for any one over any other, which I suppose might be the best possible case for Ohio State to get in. But I have watched high-level Big Ten games this season, and I have watched high-level SEC games this season, and there is no real comparison between the two, and I feel like that should count for something.
There is no historical precedent, in the BCS era, for an undefeated major-conference team losing out to a one-loss team in the rankings. Even in the pre-BCS era, to find an undefeated, untied "major" team that lost out on a title to a one-loss team, you have to hearken back to at least 1975 -- when Arizona State finished second, but did so largely because it had not yet jumped from the Western Athletic Conference to the Pac-12.
In the end, this is all politics, and it will lead to more politics, what with the choice of a playoff selection committee that seemed to deliberately politicize itself before it even began its work. There will still be arguments over that No. 4 slot in the new System, and those arguments will still be dictated by regionalism and numerical cherry-picking and the same manipulation of facts that drives us insane during every presidential election cycle; the new playoff System will be better, but it will never be perfect. Which is why I'd almost prefer to see the old System dismantled and burned to the ground on the way out -- in order to make a philosophical point, in order to wash away the frustrations inherent in nearly 150 years of ambiguous national championship votes. In order to state definitively that the old methods have failed.
In this case, then, my vote is for Auburn over Ohio State. But really, my vote is for anarchy.