If you’re reading this write-up you’re aware that Alabama beat Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl (college football’s best rivalry) on a last play, time running out, 4th and 31 pass. Alabama wideout Isaiah Bond miraculously caught Jalen Milroe’s pass in the corner of the end zone, and victory was sealed. Another great story in a storied rivalry.
Notable here is that the next day the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Buffalo Bills in overtime, and after a miraculous end-of-regulation, 59-year field goal by Jake Elliott. To be clear, it was an exciting kick if you were an Eagles fan, as was the overtime win likely exciting assuming you’re indifferent to referees putting the proverbial thumb on the scale in suspect ways.
The Eagles are now 10-1, but it wouldn’t really matter at all if they were 9-2. The reality is that the Eagles are playoff bound no matter what. A loss in the regular season in the NFL isn’t terribly meaningful. You can lose, and realistically lose several times, yet still make the Super Bowl. And you can win it. The 2011 New York Giants won the Super Bowl after posting a 9-7 regular season record.
Keep the Giants in mind as certain college football fans who should know better smile at the evolution of college football, including a 12-team, NFL-style playoff that will reveal its lame self next year. Those with no sense of history claim this way things will be settled on the field. They’re not serious. See the Giants yet again. See them both times they won the Super Bowl during the Tom Coughlin era.
Back to Alabama’s win, next year such a win will be rather ho hum. No doubt fans will care as the rivalry with Auburn is special, but next year a two-loss Alabama team will almost certainly make the playoffs. Which is the sad point. In order to better resemble the NFL, college football is on the path to shrinking the meaning of its regular season. You see, college football has long been “weird.” Teams played for New Year’s Day bowls tied to their conference, and the path to the national championship was born of rankings. It was weird, but also a blast. Rankings forced teams who wanted to finish #1 to schedule difficult out-of-conference opponents for style points that would pad their conference records, after which the debates began on New Year’s night in the aftermath of the bowl games. They continue to this day.
Voters decided on national champions, but then that’s what made and makes the debates so much fun. It also made the seasons fun. Precisely because a loss could end one’s title hopes due to the rankings system, every game mattered. In these scenarios, miracles happened, including the one on Saturday care of Milroe and Bond. Next year the excitement will be deadened even more than it's already been by the unfortunate introduction of a 4-team playoff.
In the new college football, had Milroe not completed the pass Alabama would still be heading to the playoffs. For all we know, some of Alabama’s best players might not even have played last Saturday if the 12-team playoff monstrosity were already in place. We know this because that’s already what happens in an NFL that college football’s powers-that-be are trying to imitate. Games are thrown at season’s end sometimes to get the teams healthy for the playoffs. A playoff is a tradeoff. By definition it sucks some or a lot (see college basketball) out of the regular season, and that’s too bad for college football. Tradition is its life.
Which is why fans who value tradition should drink deeply of last Saturday’s games. Their value was a consequence of the way things were, and will be sacrificed at the altar of the way things will be. Some will say this is a business decision, but all decisions are a business decision. College football is making a bad one, and evidence supporting this truth will be found through vivid memories of Alabama fan excitement about a most improbable win. Next year that win won’t matter.