So here’s a little peek into how things work in the real world. For a long time, big time college football fans from all over have been protesting, screaming, complaining, railing against the establishment because there is no playoff. Columnists have written screeds. Authors have written books. High profile coaches have given speeches. Fans have expressed extreme outrage. Polls have shown overwhelming support for playoffs. This has gone on for decades.
Now, I believe, college football fans will get what we want. College football will have a playoff very soon.
Why? Exactly. Because LSU and Alabama played an intensely boring football game.
One thing that you find in studying history is that change, real change, requires more than just righteous indignation, more than clear purpose, more than just an overwhelming “This is the right thing to do,” feeling. Branch Rickey undoubtedly wanted to strike for a cause when he signed Jackie Robinson … but he also wanted to give the Dodgers a big competitive advantage and boost attendance. Women’s suffrage — as described in Daniel Okrent’s fine book Last Call — was driven in many respects by the desire of many people to make alcohol illegal.
Many, many, many people have been fighting for a playoff in college football for many years, but the most they could get were tiny (and usually annoying) adjustments to the system. Why? Well, you can’t sum up anything complicated with only one reason, but the big reason is probably this: College football is hugely, irrepressibly, inordinately popular. And when something is that popular, there is overpowering pressure to keep things where they are. The people who are making the most money obviously want it to stay the same. The people who have the most control obviously want it to stay the same. Change, as the old saying goes, is hard. People have to get pushed aside. Schedules have to be altered. Traditions have to be smashed. Directions have to be shifted. And why do all that when everything is going just fine?
Yes, people yelled about the bowl system … but so what? We kept coming to the games. We kept talking about college football non-stop. We kept referring to various teams as “national champions,” even though there has never really been a national champion except as voted by writers or coaches or figured by computer programs. Every now and again, the people in charge would rearrange how the bowl teams were picked — a reshuffling of the cards — and they would tinker with which writers or coaches or computer programs got to choose the teams. The screaming did get louder, but I’m convinced that the screaming could have reached jet engine volumes and not mattered a lick.
Then, Alabama played LSU for the so-called national championship.
I do not remember a college football game that got more hype than the Alabama-LSU regular season game last year. I was was mostly focused on other sports at the time, but the hype still seemed to me inescapable — my toast would come out with an Alabama logo, my car engine sounded like the LSU fight song. It was everywhere. The game itself — a 9-6 LSU victory — seemed to me as artful and entertaining as garbage trucks colliding, but many people lectured me that it was actually a symphony of breathtaking defense and that I was missing the wonder of it because I’m a college football neanderthal who likes “scoring.” I accept that. I didn’t fall for college football until long after I was out of college. I felt about that first Alabama-LSU game the way I feel about “2001: A Space Odyssey” — I don’t get it at all but I accept that it’s a masterpiece because smarter people said so.
Here’s what struck me, though: When Alabama played LSU the second time for the so-called national championship, I hardly heard anything at all about it. Again, I was mostly focused on other sports, but I was still shocked at how little I read about the game, how little I heard about it, how nobody around me seemed to talk about it. The first game, I must have had 25 conversations about the game. The second game, I had none. The first game had been Charlie Sheen hype. The second game was hyped like the the other guy on that show, whatever his name is, you know, the one who played Duckie in “Pretty In Pink.”*
*I’m told Jon Cryer is a very nice man, and he’s a fine actor, and I do not mean any offense just because I had to look up his name.
It turns out that this wasn’t just a lack of media hype. Many people around America legitimately did not care. The game drew its lowest ratings in a few years. Bowl games in general drew significantly lower ratings — the lowest since the BCS began. And the game was torturous to watch — the BCS system had been put in place to give us a thrilling battle between the two best teams in America, and instead they could only give us a tedious rematch of superior defenses, overmatched offenses (one significantly more overmatched than the other) and a demonstration of field goal kicking.
And this led to a real problem. There have been plenty of bad Super Bowls and World Series and Final Fours — but nobody ever watches those and thinks, ‘Why did they have this game?” We KNOW exactly why those games happen — this team beat that team, and that team beat the other team, and that’s why it happened. Matchups happen organically.
The BCS Championship though doesn’t have that kind of order. Alabama and LSU played each other because, well, a few people kind of thought that maybe they were the two best teams. That doesn’t hold up too well under the microscope.
What happened after the game? The predictable. College football people began to panic. Bad ratings? Bad game? No hype? We all know 2011 was a terrible year for college football for many reasons — suddenly college football does not seem quite as invulnerable. And voila, like magic, Big 10 Commission Jim Delany, who had widely been viewed as a leader of the anti-playoff forces, said that he wanted to have have the playoff “conversation.” NCAA President Mark Emmert came out in favor of a four-team playoff. Reports emerged saying there is now “momentum” for a playoff.
You bet there’s momentum. From people I have talked with, the future seems pretty clear. There will be a college football playoff — it could start as soon as 2014. It turns out all the screaming and protesting and brilliant takedowns of the BCS were not equal in power to the bored flipping of channels during the LSU-Alabama game.
Yes, there will be a playoff. It will begin as a four-team playoff. Get ready for it — and get ready for the people in charge insisting that it will always be a four-team playoff (a Football Final Four, if you will). Yes, they will say that four teams is the perfect number, and that any more than four would be unseemly, poisonous to the academic institutions, unfair to the players and all those other things they have been saying the last few years about NO playoff.
It will stay a four-team playoff right up to the point that the ratings drop, and the hype drops, the games are lousy and people stop caring. Then it could become an eight-team playoff. A 16-team playoff. And so on. In the real world, the story always ends with “and so on.”