The 2014 college football season, now over, is only beginning to be processed. This was a major transitional moment in the sport’s 146-year history. It marked the passing of the baton from the Bowl Championship Series — 16 years of tumult and upheaval — to the College Football Playoff.
We all had a sense this sport was going to remain messy — that’s college football’s signature characteristic, after all — but we didn’t know HOW it would be messy beyond the most obvious surface details, namely, that the battle for the fourth and final playoff spot would be the biggest point of contention. When looking at the bigger picture, we had to wait and see how the whole selection process would unfold. We also had to see how the semifinals and title game would run their course.
Those events now exist in the past tense. So, what can be said about college football in a fuller historical context now that this seminal season is done? A lot of things, for sure (you’ll get a continuous unpacking of the season in the coming days and weeks while this site transitions to more college basketball coverage).
Today, let’s take things slowly and simply focus on two core realizations I personally gained from the past season. They’re not my only epiphanies, but they’re the ones that stand out the most, roughly 36 hours after Ohio State captured the first playoff championship with a thunderously decisive win over Oregon.
At the heart of the 2014 college football season — capped by the inaugural College Football Playoff in January of 2015 — one can find two fundamental realities that will be explained below:
1) Cupcake non-conference games are a waste of everyone’s time and energy.
2) The reality of a provisional plus-one game after the bowls would have solved a majority of college football debates in past seasons; would have represented a simple fix outside the unnecessary BCS structure; and is still relevant today as a would-be solution to problems, grievances, and uncertainties in the sport.
Let’s start with number one.
Cupcake games are a waste of time, and no section of the college football world embodied this problem more in 2014 than the SEC West.
In our cover photo above, you can see Arkansas and Mississippi State going at it in Starkville.
Here are the non-conference teams Arkansas and Mississippi State played in 2014: Nicholls State, Texas Tech, Northern Illinois, UAB twice, Southern Mississippi, South Alabama, and UT-Martin. Give Arkansas some credit for scheduling a top MAC team and Texas Tech. Mississippi State has nowhere to hide, however, with UAB being its toughest opponent.
For the most part — though again, Arkansas achieved something of note outside the SEC — these two SEC West teams were able to reach significant goals by dint of what they did OUTSIDE the SEC rather than within it. Arkansas’s 4-0 record out of conference is what truly enabled the Hogs to return to a bowl game; they were 2-6 in the SEC. Mississippi State’s lack of taxing non-conference games allowed for a smooth entry point into the SEC season.
Let’s say more about MSU here: The Bulldogs were fresh and relatively healthy for the front end of their SEC schedule, and that paid off against LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn. However, after absorbing a month or so of pounding from those opponents, the Bulldogs looked — scratch that, they WERE — conspicuously ordinary and unthreatening in November. Their offense became almost entirely punchless. Their defense lost its bite. They ran out of ideas and energy, and even after a month off, a far more inspired Georgia Tech squad ran rings around the Bulldogs in a not-close-at-all Orange Bowl.
Four non-conference games in a 12-game regular-season schedule told us absolutely nothing about Mississippi State. Yet, that lack of risk-taking translated into a New Year’s Six bowl bid, which teams such as Kansas State (Auburn) and Wisconsin (LSU) didn’t get because of non-conference losses against higher-quality opponents. Everything about Mississippi State’s season shows why non-conference scheduling is not yet enough of an issue in this sport. The Bulldogs’ final ranking (in the top 12 of both polls) and their bowl placement existed above their true level of quality. Had they scheduled at least one big-time non-conference game, they might have been exposed the way they were by Georgia Tech. Then again, they might have proved themselves and — had they not lost to Ole Miss — would have subsequently made a much stronger case to be the fourth seed in the playoff.
Playing four easy non-conference games did Mississippi State a favor in terms of getting the Bulldogs a good bowl slot while not punishing them in the rankings. SEC teams know how to work the system to their advantage. Yet, in terms of being able to evaluate the Bulldogs accurately, the four games were a pure nothingburger, offering no insight into how versatile and resourceful coach Dan Mullen’s team was. When MSU finally had to play a strong non-conference team in bowl season, it was undressed.
The postscript on Mississippi State: When teams don’t achieve anything out of conference, the bowl game becomes that much more a referendum on their season, at least if their conference season didn’t offer spectacular achievements. MSU’s best win came over five-loss Auburn, so no, there wasn’t anything great the Bulldogs did within the SEC and its West Division.
College football fans have to realize that a surface record (10-2) isn’t automatically a window into a given team… not in full. A 10-2 record clearly marked a step forward for Mississippi State, but how much of one? Ultimately, not much following a third loss in the Orange Bowl. That 10-2 (now 10-3) record would have contained a lot more heft if it had been built on the strength of a robust non-conference slate. Records can easily mask levels of quality in this sport, and that does no favors to the selection committee as it tries to determine “who’s in and who’s out” every November and early December.
Because of this persistent problem — and because teams are not yet mandated to schedule Power 5 opponents out of conference (though that could be on the near horizon, at least to some degree) — college football needs to adjust its scheduling processes and parameters.
The key insight from that piece as it relates to Mississippi State and other similar examples in the college football world: Take away the ability of schools to schedule a fourth cupcake game. Through sleight of hand, essentially restructure the season such that the “12th regular season game” simply assumes a different identity: that of a playoff quarterfinal. You’re changing the labeling while not extending the length of the season. You’re also addressing concerns from college sports leaders about the season not extending too long and not putting athletes at additional risk of injury, especially concussions or the other harmful effects of accumulated hits.
This is the way forward for college football in terms of regular-season (re-) structuring in conjunction with the postseason.
Now, let’s tackle point number two.
We never needed the Bowl Championship Series.
No, we didn’t.
The 2015 College Football Playoff has made this clear in a number of ways, including one way you might not immediately appreciate.
What’s the main reason many people view the BCS as insufficient? The playoff’s new semifinals (the first in the sport’s history at the FBS level) dismissed the two teams that would have contested the national title under the BCS system: Florida State and Alabama.
That’s a valid point, but there’s something even deeper to point out about this first playoff system and the landscape which greets us after 38 bowls and a play-in title game (also the first of its kind): there’s still a debate to be had.
No, no, no, Ohio State fans — this is not an attempt to say that your team hasn’t fully earned its national championship. It has. That’s not the debate here. The Buckeyes fully deserve what they have. They proved it on the field in two games, not just the one game the BCS set up as its championship-determining event. Playoff champions earn their way to the title twice as much as BCS champions did (winning two games instead of one, under very different game-preparation circumstances). Ohio State is the rightful owner of a trophy.
BUT… without taking a single thing away from Ohio State… can we then turn to Fort Worth, Texas, and acknowledge that TCU — not only locked out of the playoff, but also (this is an under-emphasized point) given a comparatively lousy New Year’s Six bowl opponent — deserves to play one more big-time game this season?
In a perfect world, we’d have TCU play Ohio State on Saturday, Jan. 24, for all the marbles. In a world of compromises, TCU would play the next highest-ranked New Year’s Six game winner, Michigan State, offering a test more worthy of the Frogs’ talents compared to the hollowed-out shell Ole Miss became for most of November (except for its win over Mississippi State, which became even MORE of a hollowed-out shell than the Rebels down the stretch).
Yes, one might also want TCU to play Oregon in a battle for No. 2, or even Alabama in what would be an undeniably sexy matchup. However, teams that lose in playoff semifinals should not be force-marched into another game. The New Year’s Six’s two highest-ranked winners, if given a chance to play an extra game, would add another showpiece to the January postseason. ESPN would get another game between two teams that would (probably) be excited to play. This would also add a sweetener to the non-playoff NY6 games: the chance to win one’s way into another big game.
Interested by this? Maybe you’re not, but consider the larger reality being addressed here: It is reasonable for TCU fans to want to play another game — not just because of their absence from the playoff, but because the NY6 put them against a comparatively weak opponent.
One thing I’ve long said at my previous college football writing home, College Football News, is something I’ll repeat right now at The Student Section: College football’s most central problem as a product is that it leaves so many games of consequence unplayed.
Some of this season’s major unplayed matchups:
Michigan State-Georgia Tech.
You get the picture.
College football leaves a LOT of matchups on the table in most seasons, since most seasons end without complete resolution and absolute certainty about the best team. (The BCS’s 16-year run featured only three title games that were 100 percent free of controversy, either before or after the matchup occurred: those from the 1999, 2002, and 2005 regular seasons.)
Note that last distinction: the best team, NOT the most deserving team.
The most deserving team refers to what has happened in the past. Based on results and circumstances, the most deserving team should receive Prize X. After the bowls, it is easy (or at least easier) to identify a single most deserving team compared to the much more uncertain reality which precedes the bowls. Ohio State is that team for the 2014 season.
The BEST team, though? Given Baylor’s loss in the Cotton Bowl to Michigan State, and given the ferocity with which TCU won its bowl game, there is at least a question about the best team in college football — not the most DESERVING team, but the best one.
Based on the playoff and its results, Ohio State deserves everything it has.
This does not and should not, however, deny TCU fans the right to say, “Hey, what would happen if we played the Buckeyes?”
It leads to a very simple and perhaps surprising conclusion about college football’s postseason, the back end of the sport each January: a plus-one game still exists as a final argument-settler. (This will obviously not be put in place under the new playoff structure; hence, the desire to stage an extra game between two non-playoff NY6 winners as a compromise plan.)
What exists with Ohio State and TCU in 2015 also existed throughout the BCS era: a plus-one would have solved that “one last debate” after the bowls were over.
In the 1998 season, Ohio State-Tennessee would have been the first plus-one.
In the 2000 season, Oklahoma-Miami would have been the plus-one game that could have been what Ohio State-Oregon became under the new playoff.
In 2001, Miami-Oregon.
In 2003, LSU-USC, perhaps the single best example of a plus-one resolving a debate during the BCS era.
In 2004, USC-Auburn, with Auburn-Utah being an example of an exhibition game akin to what TCU-Michigan State hypothetically would have been this year, in January 2015.
In 2006, Florida-USC.
In 2007, LSU-Kansas, with Georgia-USC being the exhibition game (one a heckuva lot of people would have watched had it been staged in January of 2008).
In 2008, Florida-Utah would have been the plus-one. Texas-USC would have been the TCU-Michigan State-level exhibition.
In 2009, Boise State-Alabama would have been the plus-one.
In 2010, TCU-Auburn.
In 2011, Alabama-Oklahoma State.
In 2012, Alabama-Oregon.
In 2013, Florida State-Michigan State.
In the pre-BCS era, we can immediately identify examples of how a plus-one would have solved a debate as well:
1977: Notre Dame-Alabama.
1982: SMU-Penn State.
1990: Colorado-Georgia Tech.
1994: Nebraska-Penn State.
1996: Florida-Ohio State (though Florida State and Arizona State should have met for the title that year if the bowls lacked a plus-one system).
That’s just a small sampling — we’re not even going to deal with the era when national championships were handed out after the regular season and before the bowls. That era ran through 1967 — it was only in 1968 when the Associated Press made it a regular annual practice of awarding its title after the bowls. The United Press International Coaches’ Poll didn’t join the AP in adopting the practice until 1974.
You’ve read a lot of words to get to this point, so let’s conclude with only a few:
Reduce cupcake intake, college football.
As fans or as fellow pundits, realize the value of plus-one games after the bowls — not just today, but during the BCS and through much of college football’s history. We didn’t need any sort of elaborate system, folks. We just needed a willingness to play one extra game in the middle of January after the bowls.
Once in a great while, a season’s plot twists and permutations would have evaded the ability of one extra game to fully resolve that season’s central debate. In most seasons, however, a simple plus-one would have done the trick.
Including this just-concluded 2014 rodeo… certainly in the eyes of Texas Christian University and its fans.
The more things change in college football, the more they stay the same… even when postseason systems make considerable advancements and leave the disaster known as the BCS in the rearview mirror of history.