This coming Monday night, college football powerhouses Alabama and Georgia will meet in the sport’s purported “National Championship Game.” This year’s matchup is embarrassingly marred by the fact that Alabama and Georgia each lost earlier this season to Auburn, which was itself just beaten by Central Florida (UCF) in the Peach Bowl. UCF’s victory over Auburn put the crowning touch on its undefeated season, prompting athletic director Danny White to tweak Alabama, Georgia and the whole NCAA by declaring UCF to be “national champions.”
School pride aside, White and UCF are dead right about one thing: UCF has as much claim to the title as anybody, and the current playoff system is no way to crown a national champion. The best thing that can be said about college football’s playoff is that it is better than what existed years ago. But it’s still pretty terrible.
Constructing a satisfying championship system is as much art as science. A good system allows on the one hand for the drama of the unexpected result, while on the other hand it produces champions who are viewed as deserving rather than mere beneficiaries of random chance. The balance must be struck differently in different sports, due to their unique attributes. Baseball’s championship absolutely requires a series format because one-game results there are virtually meaningless: even the worst major-league baseball teams win roughly 40 percent of their games. In football by contrast, the better team wins the vast majority of individual games. This is why a single-elimination system works well for professional football; the better team usually moves on, but there is enough chance of an upset to be suspenseful.
The college football playoff system fails to produce meaningful, satisfying results because it substitutes subjective, off-the-field judgments for settling matters on the field of play. Alabama and Georgia are competing for the official championship because judgments were made that each team’s respective overall body of work – their results over a full season against stronger competition – was more impressive than UCF’s undefeated season. This judgment may well be correct: but who cares? Even if true, it’s no way to determine a champion because it precludes even the possibility of a Cinderella team ever being crowned – a possibility essential to the dramatic suspense of any well-constructed championship process.
Great sports moments often arise because an upstart team has been given the chance to prevail over an opponent with a more impressive pedigree. When the 2007 Patriots were upended in Super Bowl XLII by the New York Giants after going 18-0, the fact that the Pats had had the better regular season did not rescue them. The Giants were recognized as champions, period, because they won the championship game. The 1980 Soviet national hockey team would undoubtedly have beaten the American squad 19 times out of 20 – but the Miracle on Ice happened because, just that one time, they didn’t. Surely no sports historian would prefer a system that precluded the Americans from playing for hockey gold simply because they were huge underdogs before the event.
The current college football playoff structure deprives participants and fans alike of the potential for such a historic championship upset. No good playoff system works this way. In professional football, baseball, basketball or hockey there are clear and surmountable conditions established in advance for making the playoffs. Win enough and you’re in; no poll or committee decision can keep you out. The NCAA basketball playoffs do involve a selection committee making subjective judgments – but that system also gives teams the chance to qualify automatically, and its at-large bids are numerous enough so that any team with a remote chance of winning it all has an opportunity to do so.
The fatal flaw in the college football playoff system is that it denies a team like UCF an avenue to win the championship – even if they succeed utterly and never experience defeat, as happened this year. While all undefeated seasons are certainly not created equal, someone should have to beat you if you’re going to be knocked out of championship competition. Athletes can’t overcome the odds to become champions if they’re not even given the chance.
Charles Blahous holds the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Chair at the Mercatus Center and is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Many years ago he used to publish statistical analyses in Baseball Research Journal.