College football has arrived, and with a decent bang. Lots of good nonconference games. Clemson-Georgia, Wisconsin-LSU, OSU-Florida State, all Saturday. Ole Miss-Boise State got a head start Thursday night.
And those games come with more panache than in the past, thanks to the new college football playoff system.
In days gone by, Clemson-Georgia was huge for Clemson and Georgia. Wisconsin and LSU gargantuan for the Badgers and Bayou Bengals. OSU and Florida State bigger than big for the Pistol Petes and Osceolas.
But that has changed. Nonconference showdowns aren’t just elimination games and resume boosters for teams. Now, nonconference showdowns are yardmakers for conferences. They are the chief metric by which leagues can be compared. And comparing leagues is far more important than ever before.
That’s because the electorate has changed.
College football for decades relied on writers and coaches to pick a national champion. Then it relied on writers and coaches and dignitaries and computer formulas to pick two teams to play in a title game. Now, to bracket four teams for a tournament, the sport has called upon 13 people, all theoretically sharper than Charlemagne’s sword.
Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. If not, we’ll know soon enough. The committee will rank teams the way pollsters have ranked teams for 70 years. By the loss column.
Like the coaches vote in 1990, when they voted Georgia Tech the national champ with an 11-0-1 record. Those Yellowjackets’ best wins came in the Citrus Bowl over Nebraska, ranked 19th by AP, and Clemson, which was ranked 15th at the time and finished 13th. Georgia Tech tied mediocre North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Colorado finished 11-1-1. The Buffaloes tied a Tennessee team that went to the Sugar Bowl, lost to an Illinois team that tied for the Big Ten title and beat Pac-12 champ Washington, Southwest Conference champ Texas, Nebraska, OU (which finished 8-3) and Notre Dame, the latter in the Orange Bowl. It was one of the greatest seasons in gridiron history.
And the coaches voted Georgia Tech No. 1. If the new committee votes like those gooberheaded coaches of 1990, we’ve been walking around in circles and still haven’t found our way out of the wilderness.
But maybe the committee will do what it’s been commissioned to do and what the members say they will do. Not be lemmings. Not just check the records and then order room service. If the committee will study teams and schedules and results, college football actually could rise above the morass and find the four most worthy squads to battle for the championship of American campus football.
Which brings us back to nonconference showdowns. If you don’t automatically pick 12-0 Baylor over 12-1 South Carolina, or don’t automatically pick 13-0 Florida State over 12-1 Oregon, or don’t automatically pick 12-1 Ohio State over 11-2 Alabama, how do you differentiate?
College football’s chief structural problem is that it’s not regulated. The best teams don’t always meet. In fact, they rarely meet. So how do you compare?
Clearly, the best way is to rank teams within a conference, because those schedules are regulated. Then you figure out a way to compare an 11-2 UCLA with an 11-1 Oklahoma, or a 12-1 Michigan State with a 12-1 LSU.
And that’s where conference supremacy comes in. We know by a decent amount of evidence, good common sense and ESPN decree that the Southeastern Conference has been the nation’s best for lo these many years. But that doesn’t mean the SEC is the best in 2014. Previous reputation should not count. The SEC probably will emerge with that distinction, but that laurel wreath is earned not in conference play, not by ’Bama and LSU and South Carolina and Georgia all beating up on the likes of Auburn and Florida and Missouri. That distinction is earned in nonconference.
Every league is .500 in conference play. It’s a mathematical certainty. A league’s prowess is determined in nonconference games. And not games against Louisiana Tech or North Texas or South Dakota State or Hawaii.
The SEC’s stature will be determined by Georgia-Clemson, LSU-Wisconsin, Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, Auburn-Kansas State, Ole Miss-Boise State, Arkansas-Texas Tech.
The Big 12’s reputation will ride on KSU-Auburn, OSU-Florida State, OU-Tennessee, Texas-UCLA, Texas-Brigham Young, TCU-Minnesota, West Virginia-Alabama.
When Oregon and Michigan State play a week from Saturday, a team will walk off the field having elevated the status of their league. Same with Virginia Tech-Ohio State. And Nebraska-Miami.
Even games not involving contenders affect a league’s status. Kentucky-Louisville. Maryland-West Virginia. Northwestern-California. Iowa State-Iowa. Southern Cal-Boston College.
When the committee goes to select a semifinalist, it needs to know if winning the Big Ten is more impressive than winning the ACC. Needs to know if a Pac-12 team that went 7-2 in conference play but won the league championship game is somehow less lofty than a Big 12 team going 8-0 through league play.
Having several dominant teams at the top of a conference does not prove a league’s superiority; it could mean the bottom half of the conference is rubbish. Having parity at the top — five Big 12 teams in 2010 finished 6-2 in league play — could mean no great team, or it could suggest great depth.
To find out the truth, you have to see how a conference performed against outsiders. Which makes these showdown games more important than ever.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1.