What Exactly Is A National Champion, Anyhow?

Musings from 37,000 feet en route to Knoxville.

Having been delayed a day due to weather, I finally made the first leg of my journey home from Wyoming to Knoxville for the next semester.  Thanks to a pleasantly welcome 3-hour layover, I had the chance to log in, catch up on email, and clear out my feed reader.  (By the way, kudos to Denver International Airport for abandoning that stupid pay internet service and going to a free w/ad system.)  As is now the custom for this time of year, my sports feeds consisted mostly of (a) empty articles written by recruiting sites who are waiting for actual recruiting news, (b) articles containing novella screeds about the BCS, college football playoffs, bowl games, etc., and (c) articles I actually bothered reading because they don't fall under (a) and (b).

Having read through the interesting material in my feed, I still needed to kill some time in the airport while waiting for the plane.  Knowing that the recruiting articles would be dead space, I skimmed through a few of the BCS-related entries.  Unsurprisingly, the only changes in the articles over the last couple of years are the names of the teams.  Go back 2 years ago, replace Boise State and Oklahoma with Utah and Alabama, and the ’07 Fiesta Bowl write-ups could be read as the ’09 Sugar Bowl write-ups without really missing anything of importance.  This year, Texas will serve nicely as the ’04 Auburn Tigers, though you would have to ignore the whole “undefeated” term that our plainsmen brothers have in their arsenal.  I guess my point is this:  the “BCS sucks” meme had already matured into its current form years ago; all we’re seeing at this point is the same complaints applied to a new year.  While that neither bolsters nor diminishes the argument itself, it does make for some tiresome reading and exchanging of opinions during the football season.  Except for the hope of finding some new insights and interesting takes from some truly outstanding writers across the web, I could really save myself a lot of time by turning off about half of my feed reader once the BCS rankings start appearing and turning it back on sometime in March (once the basketball tournament kicks in and people are sufficiently distracted from the previous football season).

The repetitiveness is, by itself, really nothing to bother writing about.  We see repetition in nearly everything sports-related; every season bears many similarities to previous seasons by design.  In college football, all seasons have been 10-13 games in length for many years now; conference teams mostly play each other; a few nonconference games are routine; Notre Dame continues to be a horrible TV investment by NBC while simultaneously being ridiculously overrated by every media outlet.  But what gets me about the BCS diatribe is that I just don’t see the connection between the complaint and the objective.

As a college football fanbase, we’re generally obsessed with the concept of crowning a “true national champion” – some team that everybody will somehow agree to call the champion for the year, no questions asked.  Who’s the best?  Who’s number 1?  (To further emphasize this goal as unmet, the term “Mythical National Champion” - MNC for short - is often used to describe the winner of the BCS game.  I have pretty well given this up, personally, but I’ll use the abbreviation TNC to describe the desired goal – a “True National Champion”.)  But is it realistic to even consider a team a TNC?  Honestly, I have yet to find a cohesive argument that says “yes”.

First, let’s look at the BCS system itself.  The BCS – a second-generation Bowl Alliance – is designed for only one purpose: to match up a #1 vs. a #2 team in a bowl game.  We must be careful to not read too much into that.  It’s not necessarily a matchup of the best two teams in the nation.  It’s not even technically a matchup of the two most deserving teams.  It’s a matchup of a #1 vs. a #2, according to the polls.  At first, you’d think that the #1 and #2 would actually be the best/most deserving.  The problem is that we have no clue what it even means to be the best/most deserving.  Is it the team with the best record?  (Utah, 13-0.)  The team that won the toughest conference?  (Oklahoma.)  The team that just “feels” thetoughest?  (Florida.)  The team that sounds like the most NFL-ready team?  (USC.)  My wording may be a bit rough, but that’s usually how the votes will come down.  Even computers cannot agree on the question to be asked; after all, the computer polls are each programmed by people who are attempting to model their opinions with numbers.  So the BCS sets aside one bowl game that as absolute rights to the #1 and #2 teams in the nation (and throws sufficient money at them to keep them from asking questions).  After that, the remaining bowls get to maintain the same tie-ins they had before the BCS/Bowl Alliance was around.

It’s not a system to “find the TNC”; it’s a system to guarantee a matchup of the polled #1 v. #2.

But if the goal is to find a TNC, why is that important?  The answer is simple: since the BCS is not designed to meet that goal, it cannot be considered a failure if it does not satisfactorily reach that goal.  Even the ’04 Auburn Tigers must agree that the polled #1 and #2 teams played each other – Auburn’s beef is that they believe they should have been one of those teams.  Instead of blaming the BCS, Auburn has an objection with the polls.  That difference is huge.

Still, it’s perfectly fair to be upset that the system in place does not pursue the concept of a TNC.  (Aside:  yes, the media calls the BCS winner the national champion.  Ask yourself this: how many times do you take the media to be the authority in a sports matter?  So why should the media’s terminology – which is designed to help ratings and their revenue – be considered authoritative?)  As I said before, most people want a TNC, not a #1 vs. #2.  To achieve the goal of a TNC, you necessarily must find a system designed to determine a TNC.  The most common answer?

Playoff.

Let’s be direct and honest; a playoff does not determine a TNC.  A playoff determines a playoff winner.  Let's look at how a few of the other sports leagues treat playoffs.  In major league baseball, you have 30 teams playing 162 games each just to winnow the list down to 8 teams.  Of those 8, you crown 2 League pennant winners, one of whom becomes a World Series pennant winner.  In each case, results of the regular season become effectively immaterial once the playoffs begin – just ask the St. Louis Cardinals.  Even fairly recently, MLB used to crown their league pennant winners without a playoff, then let them play each other for the World Series.  In pre-playoff and pre-interleague baseball, you effectively had 2 leagues, each with about 15 teams playing 162 games a piece to determine the pennant winner (read: league champion).

In the NHL, there are 30 teams playing 84 games in the regular season.  The team with the best regular season record wins the President’s Trophy in acknowledgment of their success.  Then the Stanly Cup is awarded to the playoff winner, with no regard to the regular season.  The “best” team may very well not win the Stanley Cup.  Heck, it’s very plausible for a team well under 0.500 in the regular season to win the Stanley Cup – especially if they’re fortunate with regards to injuries in the postseason or their goalie suddenly becomes a brick wall.
In college basketball, each conference has a regular season champion and a conference tournament champion; neither is dependent on the other.  Then you have the NCAA champion, who again is often not among the “best” teams in the country.  The tourney champion is simply that – a tournament winner, not a “national champion” in the sense that college football fans with to see in their sport.
Tournaments (playoffs) create tournament (playoff) winners.  Extending the title beyond the bracket is unfair, as the winner of the bracket does so without any regard to the regular season records.  Sure, the top seed is awarded to the “top” team, but that (a) requires the declaration of a #1 seed in the first place (the very problem many people have with the BCS), and (b) gives that top team an assumedly easier playoff road than any other team, theoretically requiring that team to do less than other teams to achieve the same goal.

I have no problem with wanting a playoff.  I have no problem with crowning a playoff winner.  But I do not understand how a playoff winner is supposed to equate to a TNC.  If everybody wants a playoff (and a playoff is logistically workable), then let’s have a playoff.  But let’s call it a playoff and leave the concept of a TNC behind us.
And for the record, I really don’t care which way we go.  I enjoyed the bowl system before the BCS/BA; I enjoy the BCS/BA games just as much as I did the previous bowl system, and I’m sure I’d enjoy a playoff system.  I also don’t really care about determining a TNC.  It’s just not sensible to believe that you’ll be able to find the “best” team every year when 120 teams play 12-15 games, even if there was more interconference play.  Team performance varies too greatly from week to week to assume that any system would be able to differentiate the “quality” of the teams enough to declare a TNC year after year.  (That’s exactly the reason I quit using the term MNC; even though it’s technically accurate, it’s used to pursue a goal that is unattainable in the first place.)

Well, there you have it.  To pass away the time while flying, I just wrote yet another one of those (b) BCS screed articles that I generally skip past in my feed reader.  But I’ve only written on the BCS once before, and that was largely for humor.  Here, I've given you my general thoughts – albeit without my normal proofing and refining – so you know where I stand.  As a rule, I’ll stick to writing about the teams, players, coaches and games.  Unless I have something new to add to the discussion of the postseason format, I’ve had my say and I’ll spare the repetition.

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