Last Friday, * my beloved LSU Tigers lost to Arkansas in triple overtime, blowing their shot at a national championship. At least, that’s what I assumed. By the following afternoon, college-football pundits were saying that somehow the Tigers still had a chance: If likely title-game participants Missouri and West Virginia both lose this weekend (admittedly an unlikely scenario), LSU could squeak into the title game against Ohio State.
Even a Louisianan homer like me can recognize that LSU, now a two-time loser, doesn’t deserve to play for any kind of championship. Then again, neither does Ohio State—the Buckeyes have no wins against top-tier competition and lost to a mediocre Illinois team at home. West Virginia doesn’t have a great case, either—the Mountaineers blew it against middling South Florida and, like Ohio State, lack an impressive win. Missouri, which has the strongest résumé of any contender, still gave up 41 points in a loss to Oklahoma. A month before the BCS title game, we already know college football’s national champion: nobody.
Since every team has proven itself undeserving of this year’s title, there’s only one truly fitting way to end the season, by calling off the BCS title game. Vacate the title as they do in boxing, give everyone a trophy as they do in youth soccer—but don’t make anyone national champion.
Engraving “N/A” onto a crystal football might look ridiculous. What’s far sillier is the sports world’s fixation on looking out for No. 1. Consider: The Pulitzer board often decides that no play, novel, or symphony is deserving of its yearly honors. The Nobel Prize also on occasion goes unawarded.
Pro and college sports insist on crowning a champion. But in some sports, in some years, the question of which team is best isn’t worth answering. The college season just completed is a prime example. College football was more thrilling than ever this year precisely because no team ever separated itself from the pack. Each week, the nation’s most storied programs succumbed to peons. Michigan lost to Appalachian State, USC lost to a team worse than Appalachian State, and Notre Dame lost to every team but Appalachian State. As the traditional powers fell, a group of exciting new contenders—South Florida, Boston College, Oregon, Kansas—found themselves on top. Then they all lost, too.
The fluidity of this year’s rankings has been unprecedented. Never before have so many teams gone in and out—and in again and out again—of title contention. Poor college-football columnists would print their bowl predictions on Friday, only to see them made ridiculous by Saturday’s results. The teams at the top of this week’s BCS standings, West Virginia and Missouri, got there by attrition rather than accomplishment—both had the good fortune to lose early in the season, before everyone else’s losing binge began. If they survive this weekend and make the title game, it will be thanks to timing more than talent. Someone has to be in the chairs when the music stops.
The BCS was created in 1998 to bring some semblance of order to the college postseason. Every year, we discover a new scenario the system can’t deal with. But the BCS isn’t what’s wrong with college football. The problem is trying to overlay any kind of rational framework onto an irrational sport. College football’s design makes it nearly impossible to compare teams: Since schools in different conferences have few common opponents, the regular season hardly ever settles which team is best. In college football, an undefeated season has always been difficult but attainable—a useful proxy for greatness if not direct evidence of a team’s immortality. When two and only two major-conference teams (sorry, Hawaii) survive the season without a loss, a championship game provides the perfect ending. In every other situation, a one-off title game is guaranteed to be an unsatisfying conclusion. As the BCS has shown, for every year in which there are two and only two great teams, there are several more in which there are four great teams, or three, or one. And then there’s this year, where there happen to be none.
Remember that before the BCS, college football championships weren’t won on the field. Teams were shunted off to bowl games based on conference affiliation or promises of huge payoffs. Once the bowls were over, media hacks would compare teams’ résumés and take a wild guess as to whether 9-1-1 Alabama was better than 10-1 Michigan State. The team (or teams) that ended the year at the top of the AP and UPI polls was known as the “mythical national champion.” A maddening system, maybe, but at least in the olden days people acknowledged that college football didn’t lend itself to sensible conclusions. In a year like this one, it makes more sense to guess which team is best than to try to suss out an answer with a single game. After all, if Missouri loses to West Virginia, couldn’t you argue that Kansas is the national champion? Sure, Kansas lost to Mizzou—but at least the Jayhawks didn’t lose to South Florida.
My modest proposal for college football is to have a little flexibility. In an ideal world—one without pesky things like TV contracts—the sport would play it by ear. If Texas vs. USC is the only game anyone wants to see, make it happen. If there are four one-loss teams, throw them all into a playoff. And if there are five or seven or 10 teams that are roughly indistinguishable, don’t bother with a playoff or a championship game. The regular season may do a terrible job at selecting the country’s best team, but it functions rather well at determining who the best team isn’t. This year, every team has done more than enough to eliminate itself from contention. So, let’s play all the bowls, give everyone a smallish trophy, and tell them better luck next year. I’m looking forward to a potential game between Missouri and West Virginia. Just don’t try convincing me that the winner is anything close to great.