We college football fans were spoiled on Saturday. We saw a number of outstanding games all within a single Saturday afternoon fueled by a combination of rivalry hate, conference pride and championship stakes. Try to match that, NFL.
The Saturday, of course, was capped by the Iron Bowl – a game many are claiming to be the best game in years, maybe ever. A bitter rivalry, a potential end to the most powerful dynasty of the BCS era, a massive upset, a divisional championship at stake, a national championship berth on the line, and of course finishing on a 100-yard field goal returned for a touchdown. It was magical.
When the shouting of glee, anger, or just plain shock subsided, many of us just smiled to ourselves. This is college football.
And then my mind shifted to how this incredible moment might be altered with the changes coming to the sport. Those changes of course are the dismantling of the BCS system in favor of the four-team playoff.
The main problem is that a four-team playoff would have removed the must-win nature of the Iron Bowl for Alabama. Alabama will likely not drop below the fourth spot in the BCS rankings, and even if they do, they will remain in the top four once either Mizzou or Auburn lose in the SEC Championship Game next week. This means that win or lose in the Iron Bowl, Alabama would have gotten into the four-team playoff.
Does this mean the game would be meaningless? Of course not. It would have been great, but one of those factors I listed above, namely the national championship berth being at stake, would have been removed for Alabama (Auburn still would have needed the win). Does this knock down the importance by a small degree? I believe so.
The common mistake that proponents of the college football playoff make is saying that the playoff adds intrigue to the sport. After all, we’re adding semifinal games in at the end of the season. Won’t that add two new and exciting games that we didn’t have before? Yes. However, it won’t be a net-gain to the season. It will essentially just be a transfer of excitement and intrigue from the regular season to the playoff. A game or two or three will become less important in the regular season while the two new semifinal games become very important.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a thing, and to ignore it is silly. Few deny that the semifinal games will be great college football. They will be huge matchups between teams that are both high quality teams and probably squads that rarely face off against each other. The entertainment value will be high.
The negative here is that we’re boosting the profile of an infrequent matchup (such as Auburn v. Ohio State) while risking the profile of traditional rivalries like the Iron Bowl. I prefer to protect the traditional rivalries and the regular season, but to do that requires a system like the BCS.
The rivalries won’t go away, but it’s another bite taken out of college football tradition. Major changes rarely occur overnight, but rather via a series of smaller steps. Make no mistake about it, a move to a playoff is a step that will de-emphasize traditional rivalries and the regular season. For Alabama in 2013, a four-team playoff would have essentially shortened the season making the Iron Bowl meaningless with regards to gaining entry into the playoff. Essentially, Alabama would have locked up a place in the playoff after 11 weeks. What happened in week 12 would only have changed their seeding.
The Iron Bowl will still be a big game for the households within the state of Alabama and SEC fans all over the southeast, but the risk of it losing something when both teams enter the Iron Bowl highly ranked as they did yesterday is real.
Remember, Alabama fans would feel differently today if this happened next year. Rather than the utter devastation they feel today and the complete disdain they harbor towards their rival, they would feel disappointment but remind each other: “Hey, we’re still in the playoff. Three in a row is still a possibility.”
The Iron Bowl won’t be ruined. It will just be changed.