Monday night’s winner of the Clemson – Alabama game will be the undisputed national champion of college football. That team will be the winner of a four team playoff which is part of a system that every FBS conference and team bought into and participated in. Gone are the days of split national championships or of systems where not all teams and conferences participated.
The playoff provides one national champion culled from the ranks of four contenders. Lost in the praise for the system is the fallibility inherent in having a playoff of only four teams.
Four teams is a drastic improvement over the two team playoff that existed under the BCS, but four is an arbitrary number. In any given season there aren’t only four teams who are capable of winning two games against the best teams in the nation. Last year TCU blasted #9 Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl 42-3. Does anyone doubt TCU could have won two games if given the chance?
The Horned Frogs were famously and controversially denied that chance in favor of Big Ten champion Ohio State. The Buckeyes wen on to win two games and the national championship. The ‘controversy’ over OSU’s inclusion in the playoff died down among simplistic arguments of “see they belong; they won it”. Those arguments simplified the issue then and didn’t address the issue of whether Ohio State deserved to be there.
Put another way, just because a team wins a game or two in the playoff doesn’t mean that team should have been in the playoff. There are more than four teams capable of winning those games; that doesn’t mean those teams should be in there, but we should acknowledge the possibility that teams capable of winning the playoff were left out. Teams like TCU last season or perhaps Stanford and Ohio State this year.
There’s only room for four, and this year was a pretty easy year for the committee. Clemson and Alabama were no-brainer inclusions. Oklahoma and Michigan State, as major conference champions with only one loss, were the right decision to. All other contenders either weren’t major college champions or had two losses. The committee chose correctly this year.
However there’s no getting around the fact that there are other teams in college football who would have been capable of winning the playoff. That doesn’t and shouldn’t diminish the legitimacy of the national championship game. The winner will be the undisputed national champion with no asterisks, explanations or equivocations. And in making absolute declarations of the supremacy of the Tide or Tigers we should remember that just because one of those teams does win it doesn’t mean that others couldn’t.
So, what does this mean? Again, it doesn’t mean that the national champion isn’t that; it means that the playoff itself didn’t include everyone who could win. Some people think that means the playoff should be expanded, perhaps to 6 or 8 teams. Most people are fine with the four team playoff, and that’s fine. The playoff leaves out teams who could be the best in favor of putting in the four teams who are the most deserving. Reasonable minds differ about which is right and whether it is important. What should be a given when debating the playoff and the conclusions that can be drawn from it is that there are other great teams out there who could win the playoff was well.