What do we mean by “National Champion”?
This section is about some of the major issues that crowning a national champion faces.
In order to frame the discussion of the best way to choose a National Champion in college football, we first have to consider what the term means. (Yes, this is splitting hairs, but stick with me - it's necessary.) The following are definitions that have either been used or proposed regarding college football and its crowning of its champion.
Definition #1 – “The Playoff Champion”
“The champion is the team which 1) plays well enough during their sport’s regular season to make it into the playoff, and then 2) wins the playoff, either by winning every game of a single-elimination tournament or winning each round and moving on to the next.”
Comments: This is the definition overwhelmingly favored by most team sports in the United States, both collegiate and professional. In many ways, it is simply an extension of the nature of competition: two teams engage in battle, the winner moves on to face someone else, and the loser is, metaphorically, dead. It’s straightforward and simple, yet extremely flexible, allowing for many variations. The playoff definition can be modified to take into account the needs of specific situations, including the number of teams participating, number of games (or rounds) the playoff will encompass, and sport-specific issues and peculiarities. In examining other collegiate team-only sports with championships sanctioned by the NCAA, every single one besides Division I-A football uses this format, including Division I-AA, II, and III football. In a way, it would seem natural for college football to use this definition, especially if we continue with the “competition as a battle” metaphor. But there are also aspects to Division I-A college football which resist this setup – I’ll examine them in the next sections.
Issues: The main issue with playoffs is what I’ll call this the “Cinderella” issue, since it is often the underdog, average-during-the-regular-season teams which embody the problem. It all comes down to which is more important: team performance throughout the whole year (during both the regular season and the playoff), or team performance at the end of the year (during only the playoff). This definition places more emphasis and weight on end-of-the-year performance rather than on the whole season, leaving it unbalanced in favor of games later in the year. Therefore, it is sometimes the case that the National Champion is the team which didn’t necessarily have the best year overall, but whose performance peaked or who got lucky at the end of the year. In theory, with some playoffs that have automatic qualifiers, it is possible that a team that won less than half their games over the course of the year could be named National Champion.
Examples: College Basketball’s NCAA Tournament. PoDunk U which was 10-19 during the regular season could go on a tear at their conference tourney and win, automatically making it to the field of 65. Then they could stay hot and miraculously win the NCAA Tournament as well. It’s extremely unlikely, but it is theoretically possible. And, wonderful Cinderella story or not, I would argue that this definition certainly isn’t the fairest of them all, especially if the team Cinderella beats in the final was 30-2, dominating the regular season and most of the playoff. Another good example is the MLB playoffs from 2006, when a St. Louis team that was barely over .500 during the regular season went on a tear and ended up defeating a Detroit team that was considerably better over the course of the whole year.
Definition #2 – “The Pre-Bowl Polls Champion”
“The team which is voted #1 at the end of the regular season by a system or poll, most notably either the Associated Press poll or the American Football Coaches Association poll.”
Comments: Since other sports use the Playoff definition, this is the first of the “college football only” definitions. It was used from the mid-1920’s until the 1950’s-1970’s, depending on when particular polls decided to include bowl games in their final tallies. This system places emphasis on the regular season only, treating the bowl games as more of an exhibition than a game which counts towards the crowning of a National Champion.
Issues: By releasing their final poll before the bowl games and crowning a National Champion, these systems discounted actual on-the-field outcomes.
Examples: One of the most notable examples is 1973 when undefeated Alabama was ranked #1 in the UPI (Coach’s) poll before the bowls and crowned National Champion. Also undefeated Notre Dame was ranked #3 in the same poll, and when the two played in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve, Notre Dame defeated Alabama 24-23. But Alabama retained their National Championship, which they still claim as one of twelve. This was the last year that the last Coach’s poll was issued and a National Champion named before the bowls. (Incidentally, the AP, which started taking bowl games into account in 1966, named Notre Dame their National Champion for that year.)
Definition #3 – “The Polls Champion”
“The team which is voted #1 by the Associated Press poll or the American Football Coaches Association poll after the bowls have been played.”
Comments: The last year anyone claimed a national championship that was not according to the AP or Coach’s polls was Alabama claiming one from 1941 (given by the “Football Thesaurus”). The AP and Coach’s polls have been the major ones for over sixty years and are the most credible according to many because they are the opinions of sportswriters who cover the games and coach’s who participate in them.
Issues: Because there are two polls, at times they’ve named two different teams National Champion, contradicting the singularity of the term.
Examples: 1978 (AP: Alabama, Coach’s: USC) 1990 (AP: Colorado, Coach’s: Georgia Tech) 1991 (AP: Miami (FL), Coach’s: Washington) 1997 (AP: Michigan, Coach’s: Nebraska). 2003 (we’ll get into this one later…)
Definition #4 – “The BCS Champion”
"The team which wins the match-up between the #1 & #2 ranked teams in the final BCS poll.”
Comments: After 1997 when Michigan and Nebraska split the title, the BCS was implemented with the goal of matching up the top two teams in the country to play one game for the national championship. In this system, teams usually have to get through the regular season undefeated or with only one loss in order to even have a shot at being #1 or #2, and sometimes even that’s not enough.
Issues: The main issue hasn’t revolved around the winner of the #1 vs #2 game – every team that has won the BCS National Championship game has been crowned National Champion by at least the Coach’s poll. The issues have revolved around deciding who deserves to be #1 and #2.
Examples: Pick a year, any year (nearly) in the BCS era. Again, I’m not going to get into them all here, but suffice to say, nearly every major negative situation which could occur has. We’ll get to them more later…
Definition #5 – “The Plus-One System Champion”
“The team which wins both of its post-season, BCS games.”
Comments: This is a system first proposed after the 2003 season when both USC and LSU defeated top-5 teams to (according to many) share the title. The system received an even bigger boost the following year in 2004 when 5 teams, including 3 BCS Conference teams, went undefeated. The basic premise is to choose the top two teams after the bowls games are over and let them play one more for the national championship. Most likely though, the top two teams will have played in BCS games against top-5 opponents, making it basically a 4 team playoff. (But “Plus-One” sounds a lot better than the dreaded “P” word, some people think.)
Issues: The big issue is this – what if you don’t need another game? What if the BCS actually works, as it has a couple of times? It just adds another way for the system to screw up.
Examples: Granted, a Plus-One might have been nice during those years mentioned above, but what about when Ohio State played Miami in 2002? Or when USC played Texas in 2005? Those teams were head and shoulders above their competition those years according to nearly everyone, and the winner of that game deservedly won the national championship. It would be completely unfair to both make them play yet another game and give another less deserving team a shot at the title. The Plus-One system would have been seen as a colossal failure in these seasons, possibly even more so than the BCS was in other seasons._______________________________________
So those are the five major definitions of "National Champion" that have been used or proposed to be used by college football. As such, here’s the situation we find ourselves in:
Fact 1: Most team sports decide on their champion by holding a playoff at the end of the season, and most fans wholeheartedly accept this solution as reasonable for these sports. They’re comfortable with it, in part because that’s the way it’s always been done. In addition, the lower college football divisions (D.I-AA, D.II, and D.III) all hold playoffs and hardly anybody complains about controversy or unfairness.
Fact 2: People are upset at D.I-A college football’s inability to choose a single National Champion that everyone can agree upon. They feel that too many deserving teams have been unfairly left out of the discussion.
Fact 3: The way D.I-A crowns its champion has changed – a lot. It is unique not only in the fact that it uses a different definition than other sports but also because it has changed the definition it uses multiple times (not to mention the near-annual changes that the BCS makes to its formula).
These three facts combine to produce the current situation: People are unhappy with the BCS, they’re happy with playoffs in other sports, and they see how “easy” it is to change the way D.I-A college football names its champion. To most people, the simple, logical solution is to implement a playoff for D.I-A college football. A lot of fans, coach’s, administrators, journalists, and others have taken this stance, even developing dozens (if not hundreds) of ways that a playoff could work. But a small (though vocal) minority of others oppose a playoff for particular reasons. In the next few sections I’ll attempt to add to the discussion and prove why this seemingly natural urge toward a playoff must be resisted...Top > Fairness