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Putting the "No" Back in "No. 1": Is There a National Champion at All?

Thersites only clamour'd in the throng,
Loquacious, loud, and turbulent of tongue:
Awed by no shame, by no respect controll'd,
In scandal busy, in reproaches bold;
With witty malice studious to defame;
Scorn all his joy, and laughter all his aim.
But chief he gloried with licentious style
To lash the great, and monarchs to revile . . .
Spleen to mankind his envious heart possess'd,
And much he hated all, but most the best.

(From Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad)

When not stating the absurd, Stewart Mandel states the obvious:
[W]e are in the midst of a college football season unlike any before it, one in which no team -- not even the mighty Trojans -- is immune from defeat on any given week and where the national landscape changes drastically from one week to the next. In fact, this is the first time I can remember being this far into a season and having no idea who will play for the national championship.

Last February, Sunday Morning Quarterback asked me, not at all rhetorically: "[S]hould college football crown a 'national champion' at all?" While caught off guard by the question, I did my best to respond, replying:
I am not opposed to the declaration of a national champion per se, but I definitely consider it to be of secondary importance. I find decidedly distasteful the obsession with the national title as the be-all and end-all of college football, as it detracts from historic rivalries and conference championships to a detrimental degree. If the pursuit of the crystal football is diminishing the value placed on traditional trophy games, it is doing a disservice to the sport, its heritage, and its fans. . . .

Unquestionably, it matters less to me for Division I-A college football to determine a definitive national champion than it does for us to preserve the sport's unique ability to retain fan interest, as evidenced by the fact that we are having this debate in February. One of my major gripes about the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament is that March madness invariably gives way to April apathy because a consequence of unassailable certainty is subsequent boredom. These are not matters of life and death; games serve to entertain, enrapture, and illuminate, so they might as well be interesting.

The 2007 college football season has been nothing if not interesting, and I find the chaos invigorating, however maddening it may be when it comes time to fill out my BlogPoll ballot. (For the record, I have ranked four different teams No. 1 at some point during the course of the campaign: Michigan in the preseason, Southern California in week one, L.S.U. for five straight weeks, and South Florida last week.)

Upon learning that the Bulls had been ranked No. 1 on the Dawg Sports BlogPoll ballot, U.S.F. coach Jim Leavitt celebrated by recreating John Travolta's most famous dance move from "Saturday Night Fever." Unfortunately for him, the movie wasn't called "Thursday Night Fever," or his team might still be undefeated.

What, then, are we to make of a jumbled national championship picture so chaotic that it has SMQ waxing even more eloquent than usual? This might be the appropriate moment at which to quote Steve Spurrier from this year's S.E.C. media days:

[W]hat we need to do is understand that the object of a football season is to try to win your conference championship. I really believe that. I'm really sort of a coach that tries to win a championship, which in our situation is the conference. I don't really worry about the national that much. I don't know why coaches do, to tell you the truth, because that's really a long shot and a lot of things have to happen.

As usual, even in the midst of saying something sensible, the aforementioned Mandel missed an important point: this college football season is not "unlike any before it." In fact, it bears certain parallels to the craziness of the above-cited Darth Visor's first autumn as the head coach at his alma mater . . . namely, 1990.

Defending national champion and preseason No. 1 Miami (Florida) kicked off that campaign with a loss to then-No. 16 Brigham Young. This allowed Lou Holtz's Fighting Irish---who had gone 12-1 the year before, with their lone loss coming against the Hurricanes---to take over the top spot for four weeks before falling to unranked Stanford and making way for the Maize and Blue, who had lost to Notre Dame in September, to ascend to the No. 1 ranking.

Michigan promptly lost to Michigan State, enabling an undefeated yet spectacularly undeserving Virginia squad to move up to the top of the charts and remain there, like some intensely annoying gridiron version of "Achy Breaky Heart," for three weeks before then-No. 16 Georgia Tech beat them in Charlottesville for what thus far has proven to be the last time ever.

Like Boston College against Miami in 1984, the Yellow Jackets simply exhausted all their good mojo in that venue with that lone win for the ages.

The Golden Domers leapt back into the primary poll position until the Irish lost to then-No. 18 Penn State, at which time the No. 1 ranking devolved upon a 10-1-1 Colorado team whose regular season already had been completed. Although the Buffaloes would not relinquish their hold on the top spot in the A.P. poll, Georgia Tech sneaked into a share of the national championship with a Citrus Bowl win over 19th-ranked Nebraska and arguably some sneaky ballot math by Coach Holtz, who was fuming over a clipping call that cost his team a victory over Colorado in the Orange Bowl.

The Golden Tornado's claim to the title was spurious. The Ramblin' Wreck's lone quality win came against a 10-win Clemson team that concluded the season as a consensus No. 9. The hopelessly overrated Cavaliers ended the season with an 8-4 record and a No. 23 ranking, one notch above the 9-3 Cornhusker squad that fell to the Yellow Jackets in the fourth consecutive setback of what was to become a string of seven postseason defeats in a row for the Big Red Machine against speedy Southern teams, and Georgia Tech's mastery of the pre-Florida State A.C.C. was not noticeably augmented by out-of-conference victories over Division I-AA U.T.-Chattanooga, a pair of 6-5 teams in South Carolina and Virginia Tech, and what remains to this day the worst Georgia squad since the Johnny Griffith era.

On the other hand, the Buffaloes' argument for the national championship was dubious, as well. The Orange Bowl clipping call was open to debate and Colorado benefited from an outrageous (and infamous) fifth down play against Missouri. Even ignoring those questionable officiating decisions, though, Bill McCartney's squad finished with a loss and a tie, but still the Buffs faced a slate several times more daunting than the Yellow Jackets': Colorado took on eventual Big Ten co-champion Illinois, a Notre Dame team that came into the Orange Bowl having won 33 of its last 36 games, eventual S.E.C. champion Tennessee, eventual S.W.C. champion Texas, and eventual Pac-10 champion Washington, in addition to two Big 8 opponents (Nebraska and Oklahoma) that both ended up ranked in the A.P. top 25.

Matters were made more muddled by the fact that the Hurricanes and the Seminoles, each sporting a 10-2 record at season's end, finished ranked third and fourth, respectively . . . yet each of them almost certainly would have been favored against either of the putative national champions on a neutral field on New Year's Day.

Miami, which would not lose again after October 20, pummeled its last six opponents, culminating in a 46-3 whitewashing of the Longhorns in a Cotton Bowl in which the 'Canes were so audacious that the excessive celebration penalty was invented in its aftermath. Florida State, which also would not lose again after October 20, embarrassed L.S.U., South Carolina, and Florida before winning the inaugural Blockbuster Bowl over Penn State.

Remember going to the video store and renting movies on V.H.S.?

So who was No. 1 at the end of the 1990 season? I maintain that there was no national champion . . . or, at least, there ought not to have been. Many teams were strong but every team was flawed and the sport would have been better served by declaring that there was no No. 1, starting the polls at No. 2, and taking it from there.

Thus far, the same seems to hold true for 2007. Why worry about which team is No. 1? Let the conference races play out however they are going to play out, pair the myriad of good teams against each other in one competitive bowl game after another on New Year's Day, and don't fret too much over which is the best team in the land. No single squad appears to stand head and shoulders above the field, so why bother pondering the impenetrable? Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

I would like to think that, unlike Thersites, I do more here at Dawg Sports than merely clamor in the throng, busied by scandal, uncontrolled by respect, and possessing an envious heart. While I will leave the "witty malice studious to defame" proclaiming "laughter all his aim . . . with licentious style" to Orson Swindle, though, I will borrow a page from The Iliad's "[l]oquacious, loud" bit player.

A topsy-turvy season that has seen Southern California lose to Stanford at home provides a fine opportunity to lash the great. When Appalachian State goes on the road and upsets Michigan, it is high time to begin reviling the monarchs of the sport. I don't hate all---really, I just hate Auburn---but giving the best a much-deserved jab in this, the autumn of the upset, is fair game.

No one is No. 1. Now put that question out of your mind, kick back, and enjoy---no; revel in---the rest of your college football season. This has been a public service announcement.

Go 'Dawgs!