December 28th, 2005
America has a (possibly inaccurate, but nevertheless there) international reputation for competitiveness and brutal corporate efficiency. To a bewildered outsider like me, this makes college football even more inexplicable.
I like football, in the American sense. It’s a smartly designed game which, for me, kicks the crap out of the English football. Despite not being American I have a decent grasp of the rules, the plays and even most of the prominent players. What I DON’T get, since I don’t have that American prism to view everything through, is the structure.
NFL, now, that’s nice and simple. Same fairly sensible yet commercially effective system as baseball uses. Regular season, playoffs, championship game. Simple. Right. Sorted.
College football, now, this is an entirely different kettle of aquatic creatures. Up until today I pretty much understood that college teams played 11 (usually) games a season against other college teams, they were split into quite a lot of divisions (“conferences”) with some odd names, and then they had a post season, which consisted of a bunch of “bowl games”, so called because they’re all the Something Bowl. I didn’t _know_ how the bowl games were actually organised, but somewhere deep in my brain I assumed it was all done in a logical way, with the teams with the best records playing in the most important games, and the teams with worse records playing in less important games, and the teams with bad records not playing at all.
Today I decided to actually do some research, and found out to my delight and bemusement that it’s not this logical at all. That’s _roughly_ how it works, but there’s lots of elements of amusing randomness thrown in there.
The people who organise the bowls get to pick who plays in them. They do this partly on the basis of how good the teams are but also, for e.g., how many tickets they’ll sell, and how many hotels they’ll fill up. (Yes, non-Americans, this is true.) Up until a decade ago or so, this was mostly entirely arbitrary. It also meant there was no simple way to say who was the national champion.
Yep, college football is a massively important sport in the States, with big TV audiences and a very high level of play, but for over a century, no-one could really say “we’re the champions!” and have everyone agree. There were a bunch of opinion polls which claimed to declare the national champion. The Associated Press usually got the last say. Oh, that makes sense! Colleges tend to claim as many national championships as they can reasonably get away with claiming, which means if you add it all up, there’ve been several tens more champions than actual seasons have been played. It’s like the old “which is the oldest college in Cambridge?” chestnut.
So finally everyone realised this was ludicrous, and designed a far more sensible system. Oh, yeah. Now they take an average of most of the said polls, and the two teams which come out top get to play for the championship. In either the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl, in rotation. (None of these important bowls could bear to _not_ be the one that decided the national champions, so they decided they’d share it out).
But the team which wins whichever bowl is the “national championship” each year still isn’t COMPLETELY the champion. It’s still just a bit unofficial. The trophy isn’t sanctioned by the NCAA, and the Associated Press, whose importance in all of this I am yet quite to understand, can also choose another team, if they want to. Which, in 2003, they did.
So, there ya go. Competitive and fearsomely monetarily-efficient America, after more than a century, still hasn’t quite come to terms with the idea of deciding who, definitively, has actually won. How’s that for inclusiveness?!
What I like the most about this is that most people consider it entirely normal and sensible and people who suggest some kind of sane playoff system be introduced are considered terribly radical and possibly dangerous. It’s adorable.