Four thoughts on the first College Football Playoff Top Four:
Let us imagine that you have a friend, and let us imagine that you and this friend play two games of, oh, I don’t know, canasta. Let us say that you win the first game, and your friend wins the second game and then your friend, utilizing an advanced mathematical formula of canasta metrics that he devised himself, goes ahead and declares himself the champion of your little universe.
This is the baseline that we’re working with when it comes to college football: It is a sport that has never possessed a baseline in the first place. In 1869, the first informal year of its existence as a sport, there were two teams, Princeton and Rutgers, and those teams played twice, and Rutgers won one game and Princeton won the other. And yet according to the historians who have done retroactive studies of those games, there is no consensus: There are those who believe that the “national championship” (such as it is) should be split, and there are those who think, for reasons that defy all logic, that the title should belong solely to Princeton.
And this is the inherent problem with college football that will never properly be solved. It’s not that there is any kind of grand conspiracy going on, as much as you might like to think so. It’s that the whole thing developed in fits and starts, migrating from the Northeast to the Midwest and the South as the country itself spread outward. And so it settled, region-by-region, into a diffuse framework, one that’s messy and incomparable and purposefully designed to defy human logic.
The real issue is that, much like America, college football is as much a capital-a Argument as it is a sport.
And so, even as the Argument takes on new contours, it continues to rage: On Tuesday night, the sport graduated into a new era, with the College Football Playoff committee releasing its first Top 25, an entirely incomplete survey of the sport through the first nine weeks of the season. This poll is nowhere near a final draft. This poll is still subject to massive amounts of revision. There was no logical reason for the committee to release any poll at all at this point; in college basketball, the NCAA tournament selection committee meets once at the end of the regular season, when things are decided over a couple of days, in one fell swoop, without allowing for weeks of second-guessing.
But I think the powers-that-be recognized that college football is powered by a subjective energy that relates directly to polls and rankings and surveys. I think the people who run college football have a tacit understanding that the sport, more than any other, is driven by an undercurrent of (often-rancorous) disagreement and distrust. And this is why college football is now the only sport that is essentially publicizing a glorified mock draft: Because people want something to rage about. Because this kind of mock draft, whether a poll or a survey, has been an essential part of its culture ever since the very idea of a “national champion” first took shape in the early 20th century.
The conspiracy theory du jour, of course, is driven by a complex series of assumptions involving a southern football conference and a major television network/industrial complex. This is low-hanging fruit for the goofballs, since both entities are powerful institutions, and since powerful institutions will always be targets for those who somehow feel that Occam’s razor is for suckers. Because three Southeastern Conference teams are in the playoff committee’s first top four, the thinking goes, there must be an inside job taking place. Never mind that the conference in question has won seven of the past eight national championships; never mind that objective statistical analyses show that the top four SEC teams are playing, at least at this moment, a higher level of football than anyone else in the country; never mind that at least one of those SEC teams will almost certainly be knocked out of the picture by virtue of the simple fact that they have to play each other (Auburn and Ole Miss, currently ranked third and fourth, do so tomorrow night).
Never mind that all of this is fluid, and none of it is set in stone. And never mind that the only entity with a real claim to conspiracy are the smaller conferences, who seemingly have no real chance to get into this playoff in the first place and are essentially being driven out of the FBS by proxy. Because the point of college football has never been entirely about the end result. The point of college football is that the Argument will always win out.
And in the end, this makes me happy, because the one thing I worried about with the advent of a playoff was the notion that the Argument might somehow get lost. But I guess I should have known better. I should have known that there are now so many online outlets for outlandish thinking to fester, and that there was no possible way this element of college football could possibly diminish in an age when conspiracies can be proliferated with the push of a button. I should have known that the sport, like our politics, will always reflect both the best and the worst of the national debate.
So go ahead, believe what you want to believe. This is America. This is freedom. This is the Argument. And if the rest of us happen to think you’re a demented paranoiac, well, that’s just part of the process, too.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb