Last Saturday in Miami, a quarterback named Rakeem Cato threw a touchdown pass in his 39th consecutive game, a towering feat no player in college football history had ever matched, and an accomplishment that, at least on a national scale, went almost entirely unnoticed.
So it has gone for Cato throughout his career, and so will almost certainly go for Cato’s team, the Marshall Thundering Herd, at the end of the season. As I write this, Marshall is one of the four undefeated teams remaining in the Football Bowl Subdivision, or the Classification Formerly Known as Division I. Three of those teams – defending national champion Florida State and a pair of Southeastern Conference upstarts from Mississippi – are among the favorites to qualify for the first-ever four-team playoff in college football. And the fourth, even if it wins every game remaining on its schedule by six touchdowns – even if Cato puts up, say, 104 points in a game, which is not out of the realm of possibility – has absolutely no chance.
Such is the perverse logic of college football: Even when it purports to democratize, it doesn’t really democratize. Not all records are alike, and not all undefeateds are alike; because Marshall plays in Conference USA, which is not one of the “Power Five” conferences, its (potentially) undefeated season is considered a false equivalency. Because Marshall plays in Conference USA, it is very possible that, even if the Herd go undefeated, a two-loss team from a major conference could get chosen for a playoff spot ahead of them.
(And before you fall into acrid complaints about Marshall’s scheduling in the comments section below, as I’m sure you will, here is Mississippi State’s non-conference slate: Southern Mississippi, UAB, South Alabama, Tennessee-Martin. Of the two schools, which do you think would have an easier time scheduling marquee games in September? And, in a larger sense, do we really want to spend our time blaming the players for decisions made by athletic directors?)
This, of course, is not an issue for most college football fans, because most college football fans are rancorous partisans who happen to be clustered in the upper tiers, in the Pac-12 and the Big Ten and the Big 12 and the SEC and the ACC. This is not an issue for most college football fans because they see Marshall as something less than an equal, even though, last I checked, Marshall still plays in the same division. And I will admit that it’s very possible that these people are correct: I am not Nate Silver, but if I were, I might find, according to the numbers, that if Marshall played Mississippi State on a neutral field, the Bulldogs would win 97.4 out of 100 times.
And I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is whether that percentage (which I just made up) is the only thing that should matter.
There have been complaints, in certain corners, about this year’s World Series lacking spark because neither team was particularly good during the regular season, and because the baseball playoffs have become increasingly egalitarian over the past couple of decades. The best team in the regular season does not always win the World Series these days, and this is one of those things that bothers a certain breed of sports fan much more than it bothers me. Because this is what has always set college sports apart – the underdog has a place, however small. (Four of the best days of the year are the first two real rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, for this very reason.)
So here’s the fundamental issue college football faces as it moves forward: Does it care about determining the best team, or providing an egalitarian path for every team? Earlier this year, the Power Five conferences – the ones I mentioned above – chose to become autonomous from the smaller conferences so they could have more leeway in terms of providing scholarship money and benefits to the players they recruit. This is a good thing, in terms of athletes’ rights, but it gave the Power Five even more of a fundamental competitive edge, and it raised questions about the future for schools like Marshall and Boise State, programs that sit on the cusp of big-time football. Do they drop down into their own subdivision, and compete amongst themselves? Or do they remain in purgatory, clinging to the hope that someday, they may win enough to earn entry into the playoff and then the Power Five, as schools like TCU and Utah have done?
“I will say that my feeling is that those teams have a better opportunity through the playoff,” said Bill Hancock, the College Football Playoff’s executive director, slinging the same brand of pungent fertilizer to ESPN that he once did when while arguing against a playoff as director of the Bowl Championship Series. “For one thing, there’s two more slots available. For another, they’ll be considered by a committee of human beings that will know every detail about all the teams.”
Given Marshall’s current status (and the forgotten place of another small-conference school, East Carolina, whose only loss came to an SEC team – albeit South Carolina, which is not a great SEC team), this would appear to be entirely untrue. The playoff as it stands, at four teams, has done nothing to level the playing field. The playoff has simply boosted the fortunes of the top echelon while ignoring the middle- and lower-classes (who says college football isn’t a metaphor for America?)
Maybe Marshall would lose to a more physical and more powerful team with more high-profile recruits. But maybe, on the right day, under the right circumstances, they wouldn’t. The question we have to ask ourselves is if that opportunity really matters anymore.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb