Erstwhile’s Keith Aksel writes about the historical significance of the College Football Playoff and the flaws of everything that came before it.
No sport has cheated its fans quite like big-time college football. Sure, the 1994 Major League Baseball strike and the steroid era that followed comes close. But, baseball’s moment of fan abuse only lasted around a decade. College football, on the other hand, has been robbing its fans of a legitimate national champion since the notion of a national champion came to the fore in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, the sport is moving to overturn more than a century of tradition in order to implement a tournament-style playoff that not only aligns the sport with the rest of the American sporting landscape, but removes opinion polls from their long-held perch as the authority in deciding championships.
The four-team playoff participants this season are slated to be chosen after conference championship games in December by a thirteen-person selection committee made up of university administrators, politicians, and other public figures. Although there are significant problems with the playoff system as it stands, this season’s initial foray into a tournament-style playoff is the most important structural change in the history of the game. This system forces contending teams to prove their muster on the field in order to win it all, without computer formulas or human polling to intervene.
College football’s inability to authoritatively award national championships has produced sometimes-confounding predicaments over the years. The 1970 season ended with no less than three national champions recognized by various polling organizations. The 1996 season ended with four one-loss teams and none undefeated (Florida ultimately was given the nod in the polls). Even in years of relative calm, such as the 1994 season, questions still linger with regard to who the national champion should be. Nebraska was named “unanimous” Associated Press and Coaches Poll champions, but Joe Paterno’s undefeated and untied Penn State Nittany Lions, who thrashed Oregon in the Rose Bowl that season, were not awarded even a share of that year’s title. In each case, college football officials avoided implementing a deciding fixture due to the sport’s dependence on long-standing bowl game traditions and the use of opinion polling to decide championships.
The concept of an annual bowl game got its start in an era before winning a national championship was even a goal of intercollegiate football competition. The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as a part of a wider celebration of Southern California’s warm wintertime weather and natural beauty. In the 1930s, Texas and Florida cities began to hold their own wintertime festivals, hosting a football game as one of many diversions for festivalgoers. Playing in such games was viewed as a special bonus for teams that were invited to play. Typically, these bowl games pitted two teams from different regions who would most likely never meet in the regular season. Playing in these games was reward in itself, and was not normally looked upon as the barometer for a successful season.
At its core, college football was and is a regional game. Athletic conferences organized around geographical regions, and through the turn first three decades of the twentieth century, championships within conferences were the main way teams weighed success. But, thanks to the proliferation of interregional bowl games in the 1930s and 1940s, college football began to take on more national overtones, and speculation about which team should be considered the best in the country grew with it.
Since bowl games were used as sites for bi-regional competition, and did not cooperate to produce a system that would allow a multi-regional playoff to occur, opinion polling became the accepted way to award national championships. Early polling efforts attempted to rank teams within a given region. A December 1922 poll in the New York Times cited confusion that arose among prognosticators about which team in the East deserved to be called the best. “Out of the confusion of the most indecisive football season in many years comes the realization that the task of ranking the Eastern elevens is no longer a happy, joyous parlor amusement….Even a casual inspection of the 1922 records shows that the various leading elevens are remarkably well-matched.” What is striking about such early polling were the qualifiers that preceded the poll. The reader was reminded to be skeptical about the findings, and that the poll was simply one way to interpret the season’s results. Such polling claimed no authority over the sport itself.
Later national polling methods such as the Associated Press (1934) and United Press International’s Coaches Poll (1950) inhibited speculation in their findings by awarding annual championship trophies, and presenting their poll in all media outlets. These later national opinion surveys offered no disclaimers about the subjectivity in their publication, assuming authority with their wide dissemination. Still, opinion polls often disagreed with one another about which team deserved the title, which is why so many seasons name multiple teams as champions.*
Further complicating the picture was the often varied date of final poll publication. In some cases, polls were finalized before bowl games, while other polls finalized their findings after bowls were played. What resulted was a highly disorganized and rather unreliable championship mishmash that gave bowl winning teams “co-championships” with teams that may have lost their bowl games.
Herein lies the crux of college football’s problem; while bowl games continued to multiply and nationalize the game, they still functioned as sites for bi-regional, rather than national, competition. In other words, football officials have since been attempting to use stages for regional competition to decide national superiority. Polling attempted to bridge that gap by projecting which team would hypothetically beat the others if there were a playoff among regional champions.
To say that this method “worked” would be kind. Due to opinion polling, few seasons have ended without deep controversy and debate. Even the Bowl Championship Series (1998-2013), which combined human polling with computer formulas to help decide which teams deserved to play in the championship game, was not without significant flaws. For example, 2011 Alabama won the national championship game without winning its own conference championship.
Now, the College Football Playoff begins an era of the undisputed national champion. Just as fans have become accustomed to acknowledging playoff winners as undisputed champions in other sports, college football will earn the same credibility with its own playoff. In order to achieve this, officials have pushed hard against a long legacy of opinion polling and traditional bowl games intended for a much earlier era. In this new era, bowl games will serve as sites for playoff games, finally adjusting the function of those games to a more modern purpose.
As historians, we seek to understand the past in part to inform our present. The history of college football’s championship should remind fans that the changes occurring in the sport today are historically significant, and should be appreciated as such. Although the playoff in its current form should be expanded slightly in the future, its first iteration will go down as a win for fans and sport purists alike.
*It should be noted that the AP and Coaches Polls were only two among many championship-selecting organizations at the time. Others, such as the Dickenson System, essentially rode on the whims of a single individual who selected an annual champion. This absurdity in the sport’s history is best dismissed as amusement rather than an official awarding method.