Has the National Championship Game in Glendale Already Been Played?

Talk of Boise State is all the rage, and deservedly so after last night's Fiesta Bowl.

From Sunday Morning Quarterback's somewhat cynical take to Burnt Orange Nation's more straightforward approach to the incredulous outrage of the Blogger Who Came In From the Cold, the focus has been on the Broncos, to whom I afforded much early respect before giving in to misplaced doubts, but on whose behalf I remain prepared to make a championship case.

Ere we get to that point, however, a related exchange in a recent comment thread warrants being bumped up to the front page, lest it pass by unnoticed. The rebuttals and rejoinders commenced when I wrote:

Nothing drives me battier than a commentator choosing the most inopportune moment to force the square peg of a major bowl game into the round hole of his insipid advocacy of a Division I-A college football tournament. Near the end of the Fiesta Bowl, one of the nimrods in the booth injected an asinine observation about the "clamor" for a playoff. Uh, dude, an up-and-coming mid-major program that has never quite been able to get over the hump was moments away from winning the biggest game in the program's young history over a storied traditional power in a thrilling contest. That is not the moment to be shilling for a system that would have rendered such a game either impossible or meaningless.

In retort, frequent Dawg Sports commenter 34hawk had this to say:
Why, precisely, would such a matchup be impossible if we had a playoff system? And why would it be meaningless? More to the point, why would it be more or less meaningless than in the present situation? As it stands, Boise State is undefeated and has no chance of claiming a national championship.

In your defense, the NCAA basketball tournament is dreadfully dull, and mid majors like Gonzaga routinely record victories which are both impossible and meaningless.


To this, I answered:
I am not sure why you conflate "dreadfully dull" with "meaningless." The N.C.A.A. basketball tournament is not boring, largely because its opening rounds produce many thrilling and cognitive dissonance-inducing upsets, but much of it is meaningless, for two reasons.

First of all, the tournament crowns a clear champion, but that clarity often comes at the expense of accuracy, much as the Bohr model of the atom is more lucid than the electron cloud model, but the electron cloud model's lack of certainty provides a truer picture of the atom it is intended to represent. Jimmy V's N.C. State team makes for a great story but a completely incoherent No. 1 ranking; the same goes for the 1997 world champion Florida Marlins and last year's Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers.

Secondly, how many of those Gonzaga victories produce tournament titles? In a winner-take-all system (which is the only possible way to characterize the N.C.A.A. tournament), all victories are hollow except a season-ending win; otherwise, all a team can claim is that it lost later than anticipated.

Meanwhile, Boise State (a team most unlikely to run a three- or four-game playoff gauntlet to win the N.C.A.A. equivalent of the Super Bowl) has a B.C.S. bowl victory to its credit, which is a meaningful achievement. George Mason's final four appearance is a heartwarming footnote that pales to insignificance by comparison.

It is, of course, true that Boise State has no chance at the national championship. We know this because B.Y.U. didn't win the 1984 national title, just as the Zags didn't win all those tournament games. Also, I didn't write a posting offering a case on behalf of B.S.U. . . . .

Please note that I wrote that a playoff system would render games like the Fiesta Bowl "either impossible or meaningless" . . . one or the other, but not both.

Either a playoff system wouldn't have allowed such a matchup as occurred in the Fiesta Bowl (which might have been the case, despite Boise State's undefeated record, due to the Broncos['] strength of schedule . . . a key component of the R.P.I., which plays a role in the selection of a basketball tournament field whose seeding often is a good deal more murky, secretive, and baffling than college football's bowl pairings) or B.S.U.'s stirring win over Oklahoma would have been a precusor to one of two events: most likely, elimination in a subsequent round of the playoffs or, less plausibly but still possibly, a late-season tournament run culminating in a national title that raised as many eyebrows as the numerous N.C.A.A. tournament results in which a mediocre team's hot streak in March proved much more meaningful than a consistently good team's season-long performance, which was negated by a stumble in a single game.

Personally, I'd rather know that all the games counted instead of arbitrarily selecting a few late-season games as the only ones that really matter.


Not to be outdone, 34hawk gave as good as he got in response:
The weakest links in your apologetics for a college bowl system are on full display in this post.

In order to defend the present system you define as "meaningless" any post-season game which is followed by another. For example:

"Shouldn't we treat those previous meetings as though they meant something rather than rendering them immaterial by ... forcing the winners to prove themselves anew?"

And most transparently here: "all victories are hollow except a season-ending win."

I am unaware of anyone, other than yourself, who shares this peculiar perspective regarding which games are and are not meaningful. It is a ridiculous and fanciful construction and it deserves to be widely and loudly mocked.

Additionally, you are fond of decla[i]ming that any great game that occurs under the bowl system is unlikely (or indeed impossible) to have occur[r]ed in a playoff system.

You get no credit for combining these two dubious premises in your apologetics.

Additionally, the and/or distinction you seek to draw between the impossible and/or meaningless matchup you imagine is itself a red herring, because under any reasonable playoff system the BSU/Oklahoma matchup is both possible and meaningful.


Finally, I concluded my remarks upon the subject thusly:
For what it's worth, I will take one last stab at addressing the meaningfulness of playoff games, then I will give you the last word (at least for this round).

In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore received something like 49.9% of the popular votes cast in Florida. (My math may be off, slightly or significantly; if so, I regret it, but it is of little consequence, since the point is that he came very close to receiving a majority yet fell somewhat short of it.)

Suppose, however, that, instead of receiving 49.9% of the popular votes cast in Florida, Vice President Gore received 0.0% of the popular votes cast in Florida. In other words, imagine that George W. Bush had won the Sunshine State unanimously rather than narrowly.

What difference would that have made?

If presidential elections were decided upon the basis of the nationwide popular vote totals, that distinction would have made an enormous difference. Vice President Gore received a majority of all of the popular votes cast nationwide, but, had he received no votes in Florida, he would have gone from winning the nationwide popular vote to losing the nationwide popular vote. In sum, the difference between 49.9% in Florida and 0.0% in Florida would have been the difference between winning and losing the presidency.

Under the electoral college system, however, the gap separating 49.9% from 0.0% is a distinction without a difference, because Florida's electoral votes were a winner-take-all proposition. If Governor Bush received more Floridian votes than Vice President Gore, it is of no importance whether the margin of victory was one or one million. Either way, Governor Bush received 100% of Florida's electoral votes and, hence, the presidency.

I maintain that tournament systems are winner-take-all propositions. For a baseball team to win its division is of no real importance; the Atlanta Braves owned the National League East for a decade and a half, but routinely lost in the playoffs, whereas the 1997 Florida Marlins won none of the National League's three divisions, yet still (and incongruously) they were the National League champions because they took four of the seven games designated for that purpose, rendering moot the 162 games that decided the division race. For Braves fans, the division banners flapping in the breeze over Turner Field are maddening symbols of frustration rather than emblems of unprecedented achievement.

Likewise, a Division I men's basketball team scarcely cares about winning its regular-season conference championship, because that season-long result is immaterial when compared alongside the importance of winning the postseason conference tournament, which, yet again, pales in comparison to the importance of winning what is called "The Big Dance" for a reason.

Because college football does not have such a winner-take-all mentality, a team may celebrate a championship season even if it loses its bowl game. The 1948, 1968, 1976, 1981, 1982, and 2005 Georgia football teams all lost in postseason play . . . but seeing the S.E.C. championship banner unfurled in Sanford Stadium at the first game of the 2006 season was not one whit less stirring than seeing the S.E.C. championship banner unfurled in Sanford Stadium at the first game of the 2003 season.

You are right that we cannot really know how exciting a Division I-A college football playoff would be, although it sure seems to me that an awful lot of the Division I-AA college football playoff games are routs. Last Saturday's Boston College-Navy, Iowa-Texas, and Georgia-Virginia Tech bowl games produced a better slate of back-to-back-to-back postseason games than I ever remember seeing on an N.F.L. wild card weekend.

Even if the games are just as thrilling, though, the diminished importance of the regular season in a playoff system cannot be doubted. Last year, South Carolina beat Florida in football and swept Florida in basketball during the regular season. The gridiron result was a big deal for all concerned; the hardwood outcomes are mildly interesting footnotes to the Gators' national championship campaign.

Had there been a Division I-A college football playoff in place in 1980, it simply would not have mattered whether Buck Belue completed the pass to Lindsay Scott, because a 10-1 S.E.C. champion would have made the tournament field, anyway. I, for one, like that the greatest play in Georgia football history mattered.

Maybe Al Gore feels good about almost winning the presidency. If so, good for him. If he takes solace in the moral victory of coming within a whisker of carrying Florida, or if George Mason revels in the moral victory of winning more games than expected before losing in the N.C.A.A. tournament, I applaud their ability to find the silver lining.

Boise State just won the biggest game in school history, though, and the significance of that result will never be diminished. Boise State, unlike George Mason, doesn't get a few days' worth of gee-isn't-it-cute-that-a-small-school-got-this-far media fawning before having its accomplishment reduced to dust by a subsequent, season-ending setback; the Broncos will be the undefeated 2007 Fiesta Bowl champions for the rest of time.

Postseason tournaments are premised on what Reese Bobby told his son, Ricky, at career day: "If you ain't first, you're last." Reese was high at the time, and, years later, when he sobered up, he taught his son the truth and Ricky Bobby learned the same lesson Lightning McQueen learned in another racing movie released that same year.

There's more to life than the crystal football or the Piston Cup. The bowl system recognizes and rewards that fact. Playoff systems deny and destroy it.


You may take the foregoing exchange for what it is worth and accept whichever perspective you will, but, because I believe teams should be ranked according to their resumes, that discussion provides a bit of context for my argument on behalf of Boise State.

What bedevils the Broncos, of course, is their strength of schedule. B.S.U. faced Division I-AA Sacramento State and a slew of the weak sisters of the W.A.C.: Fresno State (4-8), Idaho (4-8), Louisiana Tech (3-10), New Mexico State (4-8), and Utah State (1-11). That slate suggests that Boise State's 13-0 record has been fattened up by a steady diet of cupcakes.

This, however, is not the case. The Broncos defeated seven bowl-eligible teams . . . more than the number of postseason-qualifying opponents bested by Michigan (6), Oklahoma (6), or Wisconsin (5) and equal to the number beaten by Auburn and California.

B.S.U. beat six teams that finished the season with fewer than six losses . . . as opposed to, say, Southern California (which beat five), Michigan (which beat four), Texas (which beat three), or Wisconsin (which beat two).

Four of Boise State's victims finished the season with nine or more victories and the five bowl-bound opponents beaten by the Broncos during the regular season went a combined 4-1 in postseason play . . . with Nevada falling just short of making it a clean sweep.

Ian Johnson, Jared Zabransky, and their coevals beat an 11-win Hawaii team, beat the Big 12 champion Oklahoma Sooners, badly beat Utah on the road, badly beat a 10-win Oregon State squad that defeated the U.S.C. team that convincingly beat Michigan, and badly beat an eight-win Nevada squad that nearly beat a Miami squad that nearly beat the Florida State team that nearly beat Florida. Aside from East Coast bias and mid-major prejudice, what reasons do we have for believing that Boise State isn't capable of playing with just about anyone?

Yes, there were causes for doubt before. For several years now, Boise State has been the program that cried, "Wolf!" Every time the Broncos appeared on the verge of turning the corner and moving up in weight class, they proved to be the Not Ready For Prime Time Players.

B.S.U. went 12-1 in 2002 . . . but fell to Arkansas on the road by a convincing 41-14 margin. B.S.U. went 13-1 in 2003 . . . but came up short against Oregon State in Corvallis. B.S.U. posted an undefeated record during the 2004 regular season, complete with the Broncos' first win ever over a Pac-10 team . . . but they fell to Big East-bound Louisville in the Liberty Bowl. B.S.U. began 2005 with sky-high expectations . . . but came crashing to earth following a 48-13 whipping administered by the 'Dawgs.

That was then, this is now. Whether Boise State's elite status will possess longevity cannot now be known, but the Broncos' legitimacy in 2006 is beyond question. In 1984, Brigham Young went 13-0, beating 8-4 Independence Bowl champion Air Force, 5-6 Baylor, 3-8 Colorado State, 7-4 Hawaii, 6-6 Michigan, 4-8 New Mexico, 3-7-1 Pittsburgh, 4-7-1 San Diego State, 6-5 Tulsa, 6-5-1 Utah, 1-10 Utah State, 2-9 U.T.E.P., and 6-6 Wyoming . . . and the Cougars won the national championship.

In 2004, Utah went 12-0, beating 5-6 Air Force, 3-8 Arizona, 5-6 Brigham Young, 4-7 Colorado State, 7-5 New Mexico, 6-6 North Carolina, 8-4 Pittsburgh, 4-7 San Diego State, 7-5 Texas A&M, 2-9 U.N.L.V., 3-8 Utah State, and 7-5 Las Vegas Bowl champion Wyoming . . . and the Utes garnered gobs of respect for non-B.C.S. conference contenders everywhere.

Without taking anything away from the 1984 B.Y.U. and 2004 Utah squads, it appears clear that the 2006 Boise State team accomplished more on the field than either of them. Obviously, I haven't begun considering Ohio State's and Florida's resumes in depth, as their respective seasons are not yet complete, so I am not going so far as to state definitively that a Gator victory in Glendale would cause me to vault the Broncos into the top spot.

I don't rule it out, though . . . and neither should any other conscientious college football fan, whether coach, sportswriter, or BlogPoll voter.

Go 'Dawgs!

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