Tonight, the 15th BCS National Championship Game will cap yet another extraordinary college football season. College football is the only major American sport that emphasizes the regular season over the postseason, like baseball did in its glory days (when the two league champions went directly to the World Series). Correspondingly, it’s the only sport that sufficiently rewards teams for season-long excellence, rather than for a brief flourish of postseason glory (on the heels of regular-season mediocrity), of the kind now routinely celebrated in Major League Baseball and the NFL.
College football’s postseason not only caps, rather than effectively supplants, its regular season, but it’s also unique. The Rose Bowl, the first bowl game, came about because the people of Pasadena, California decided that it would be good to celebrate New Year’s with a parade and (a few years later) a game. Now Pasadena is the center of the nation, and perhaps the world, on New Year’s Day. As such, the Rose Bowl and other bowl games are a reminder of America at its best: a nation of free citizens who come together, through their own choices and cooperation as private citizens (perhaps in connection with local governments), to form Tocquevillian civil associations that found, create, and build great things. Give me the bowl games over yet another generic playoff any day.
The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) has provided the best of both worlds: A stirring regular season of the kind now unseen in any other major American sport, followed by a true national championship game — which college football never officially had prior to the 1998-99 season (the year of the BCS’s inception).
Tonight’s National Championship Game is especially intriguing. An intersectional matchup involving arguably the two most successful and tradition-rich programs in college football history, it also manages to contain a clear element of David versus Goliath. Alabama is playing in its third BCS National Championship Game in four years; Notre Dame is playing in its first in BCS history. Alabama was ranked #2 in the preseason coaches’ poll and actually received the most 1st-place votes of any team; Notre Dame barely cracked the top-25, coming in at #24 and receiving only 12 percent as many points as the Crimson Tide. Alabama coach Nick Saban is coaching in his fourth BCS National Championship Game; Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is coaching in his first. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron was the offensive MVP of last season’s title game; Notre Dame’s quarterback Everett Golson is a redshirt freshman. Yet Notre Dame is the undefeated team, having gone 12-0 to Alabama’s 12-1, versus schedules of nearly identical difficulty.
The game is full of compelling questions: Can the luck (or is it just true grit?) of the Irish, who have gone 4-0 in games decide by 3 points or in overtime, continue? Can Alabama, a team with no obvious weaknesses on either side of the ball, be beaten by a team that had to go to three overtimes — at home — to beat a Pitt team that finished 6-7? Can the stingy Irish defense (led by Heisman finalist Manti Te’o), which — in a season marked by high-scoring offenses — never let any opponent score so much as 21 points in regulation, manage to hold the Crimson Tide under (or even within range of) that number?
We’ll find out tonight in Miami.