Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

The Wonder and Terror (Mostly Terror) of College Football

1869 was a banner year for the United States of America. The stench of flickering, saliva-soaked tobacco and here-one-moment-gone-the-next whiskey bottles drifted through the halls of Grant’s White House. Slick city speculators unsuccessfully conspired to exploit the federal government’s precarious finances and corner the gold market. Insufferable party-pooper Wayne Wheeler, who would spend his life stone cold sober and crying like a baby, was born. And the first college football game was played.

Students from Rutgers College and the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton, met on a field in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They played a game few would recognize today, or even a week later, when the schools played a rematch under different rules in Princeton. Rutgers won the first game by two “runs,” 6-4. The men of Princeton, wily as ever, edited the rules to suit their strengths and won the second game 8-0.

Although both games were surely played with the cast iron courage and Pauline charisma that only takes hold of the male spirit on the battlefield and the gridiron, it’s hard to imagine either group of gentlemen had the audacity or bankrupt sense of humor to claim they were “national champions.”

However, the fiercely irrational, provincial caste system we call college football just wouldn’t be the same without a little controversy. So, over a century later, some guy in Oklahoma named Richard Billingsley went back and manufactured one.

In 1933, Parke H. Davis, a lineman for the Princeton Tigers in the 1880s who, in the grandest traditions of the game, went on to become an ethically dubious coach and a glib, unremarkable historian, set about the task of naming national champions for each season since the sport began. Given that Princeton and Rutgers only played two games, each against the other, and were the only two teams in 1869, Davis decided to name Rutgers and Princeton co-national champions.

It was a pointless and pompous exercise but, if you’re forced to make a call (which Davis wasn’t), an admittedly commonsensical conclusion.

Then, in the mid-1990s, Billingsley, a high school graduate in Southeastern Oklahoma, took a formula he developed in the 1970s for ranking college football teams and began retroactively naming his own national champions. Billingsley’s formula favors the most recent game played and he therefore crowned Princeton, which won the second of the two contests, college football’s first national champion.

The title, shared without contention by two schools that played their best football in the 19th century, was now in dispute.

Billingsley isn’t a well-known figure in college football, but he is a hugely influential one: The ranking system he used to determine the 1896 title is one of the many elements that currently help select which two teams play for the national championship.

It sounds ridiculous to say a rural Oklahoman who lacks either institutional expertise or a background in mathematics developed a formula that plays a crucial role in determining the makeup of the national title game, but when considered against the backdrop of the sport as a whole, it’s par for the course.

College football may have begun in the Northeast but it’s more reminiscent of the sweat-stained, glad-handing, historically agrarian cultures in which the game has thrived. College football is incredibly popular across the United States—basically everywhere except the Northeast—but something about it always strikes me as quintessentially Southern.

Maybe it’s because, since the Associated Press began polling sportswriters in 1936 – a rough marker of college football’s “modern era”—to determine the finest team in the country, 40 of the 74 Division 1-A national champions have been from the 11 states that seceded from the Union or Oklahoma. Maybe it’s because, since the Bowl Championship Series, the current system for determining the national championship, was devised in the late ‘90s, only two schools outside those 12 states—Ohio State and USC—have won a title.

But really, it’s the shameless opulence, rigid class structure and self-congratulatory oversight of a system of indentured servitude that reminds me of the Old South.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I’m a benefactor of this system. Having been raised in Austin, I am a proud fan of the University of Texas, a member of college football’s Brahmin caste. I don’t merely root for the Longhorns. During Texas games, I engage in something that resembles a Pentecostal ecstasy, but with less equanimity. It’s the kind of perverse dedication that makes you disown children and dump women of your dreams if they happen to root for a rival.

(My girlfriend once asked me would we be together if she were an Oklahoma fan. I chose not to respond, out of concern that I might be honest.)

However, I am not so blind with devotion as to deny the fact that Texas benefits from the current system as much as if not more than any other school in the country. There are so many structural advantages a school like Texas has it’s hard to know where to begin. I say we start with the money.

18 Comments / Post A Comment

kneetoe (#1,881)

The problem with ranking college football teams is a math problem. They cannot play enough games, and especially out of conference games, to establish which teams are best. Better to forget national champions and just focus on conferences/regions. And, by the way, the national champion will be whoever wins the SEC.

Graydon Gordian (#3,206)

That's right. It's incredibly difficult — impossible even — to rank two teams that have neither played one another or a mutual opponent.

The BCS is not an NCAA event, like the men’s basketball tournament. The commissioners of the six major conferences created it, and have organized it in such away that, no matter what happens on the field, they reap the financial benefits.

THANK YOU. It's unfathomable that most college football fans can't parse the fact that the NCAA is not involved in the BCS, and that calls for the NCAA to institute a playoff system are preaching to the choir. The NCAA makes money off of the Final Four (and uses it to stage 87 other championships, most of which probably lose money). They don't off of the BCS.

Now, please go tell that to everyone at Deadspin, Bleacher Report, etc.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

SI just did a pretty decent story about who's making how much money off the BCS and the bowl system.

@bod: thanks for the hookup, great read.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Oh snap, did you just lump Deadspin and Bleacher Report together?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

One of the reasons it's so difficult to evaluate teams and pick a champion is the way new talent is infused into the game every year. In the pro game, the worst team gets the top pick of the best incoming players. In the college game, outside of scholarship limits, there's nothing preventing Ohio State or Alabama or any of the other elite schools from getting the best incoming player every year. In fact, those schools' elite status and traditions of winning virtually guarantee them their choice of the cream of the high school crop.

Sure, sometimes a stud goes to Penn State instead of OSU, or Florida State instead of Florida, but by and large, the best schools stay good, or don't stay bad long, because they're the best schools. Boise State and TCU have had good teams the past few years, and Virginia Tech has become an upper tier program based almost solely on the will of Frank Beamer, but it's really only a matter of time before USC and Michigan and Miami are back on the top of the college heap.

All of this is to say, I'm sort of ambivalent about the BCS. It's stupid and messy, but at least it's honest about its motives: we're going to pick the champion of these six big conferences. (Whether that champion should be called the "national champion" is up for debate.) A playoff would be nice and would be a little more transparent, and maybe it would give the Boises and the TCUs a better shot, but do we really believe that we still wouldn't be seeing the same 20 or so top schools competing in it every year?

kneetoe (#1,881)

Also, the idea that it would be easy to pick the 4 or 6 or 8 or however many playoff teams is misguided. Look at the controversy with basketball whenever they pick their 65 (right?) teams, and each of those teams plays 30 or so games.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Since it's the second most popular thing after college football, a potential football playoff sometimes gets compared to March Madness, which I find hilarious. Firstly, for the reason you just said: even with 65 teams, there's still snubs. If the MAC champion gets a spot in the playoffs, that means that a probably much better team from the Big 10 or SEC won't.

And even though Cinderella might get an invite to the football playoffs, she's definitely not getting a dance with the prince. A plucky, less-talented basketball team can get hot for three or four straight games. The Buffalos and Kent States of the football world probably cannot.

Please don't think that I think the BCS is great. I went to Boston College, so I've never really ever been concerned with my team competing for a national championship.

I think this would be an awesome problem to have in college football. "OMG, we're arguing over who should be the 16th team in a playoff bracket!"

That is infinitely superior to only having two teams playing for the national championship, in spite of having 10 BCS "bids". I'd rather be arguing about seeds 14-18 getting "snubbed" than seeds 3-6, which is what we have today.

KenWheaton (#401)

"I engage in something that resembles a Pentecostal ecstasy, but with less equanimity."

Well done, sir.

growler (#476)

You really should have noted that Notre Dame is an exception to the rule. How they aren't a member of any conference, mainly due to the slavish devotion of Catholics nationwide, and Regis Philbin. They make serious coin even when they have a shitty year (or years, lately).

Just glad to be a Penn State fan. At least most of their players get a good education.

Oh, and a large part of the enjoyment of college football is that you get a completely new team every few years; it's fun watching awkward freshmen develop into skilled athletes.

Graydon Gordian (#3,206)

I really thought about delving into Notre Dame's unique situation. But the whole system is so sprawling, I was trying my damnedest to stay on topic and avoid one too many rabbit trails.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I don't want to sound like a broken record, but my point above about the good teams staying good applies to Notre Dame. Except replace "staying good" with "staying profitable like a good team but playing like a Sun Belt team."

I could expound for pages about my loathing for Notre Dame, but I don't want to bore anyone. Shame on USC for losing to them.

growler (#476)

Yeah, I get that. There's a whole lot more that cold be said, that would probably bore most Awl readers. Though I would like to add:

Screw_Michigan (#8,015)

College football is nothing more than a guilty pleasure. You know the system is so horrifically fucked up that it's almost impossible to justify supporting it, but it's college football, which we love. That's why I root for my Mid-American Conference alma mater: it's a little more righteous.

I've also found out over the last few years as I've become better handicapping NFL games, I've become way more interested in the NFL than college.

KarenUhOh (#19)

There's the glory and spectacle of college football, and then there's Illinois vs. Fresno State. Oskee Wow Wow, or something, from one whose provenance guarantees that Mr. Billingswhatever's formula will never apply to my team.*

*The 2008 Rose Bowl and 2002 Sugar Bowls being aberrations that prove the rule.

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