Has there ever been a better season of college football? The final game of the Bowl Championship Series, which ranks among the finest ever played, further confirms what has been clear for some time: This is the golden age of college football.
On Monday night, before 94,000 people in the glorious Rose Bowl Stadium, Auburn took a 21-3 2nd-quarter lead over undefeated Florida State, a team that had beaten every previous foe by at least two touchdowns. The Seminoles fans in attendance were dumbfounded, openly asking how this could be happening and feeling powerless to provide the answer. But Florida State's defense dug in, Auburn's eventually started to tire, and the Seminoles roared all the way back to take a 27-24 lead deep in the 4th quarter. Auburn then responded with a remarkable clutch drive, capped by a splendid touchdown run by All-American Tre Mason, to go up 31-27 with just over a minute to play. But the Seminoles quickly drove into Auburn territory, toward the end zone that was surrounded by those wearing navy and orange, and, with just 13 seconds on the scoreboard's game clock, they snatched the national championship from the Tigers' worthy grasp.
It's hard to square such a scene, or such a resolution—Florida State is now the clear national champion—with Jason Gay's claim in the Wall Street Journal that the BCS was "a mess," "didn't solve much," and didn't offer the "clarity" of a playoff. Tell that to Florida State fans. Tell it to anyone who watched on Monday night, who watched from September onward, or who watched over the past decade—during which time the BCS (whose formula was wisely revised after the 2003-04 season) always put the matchup on the field that fans thought should be staged, always produced a clear national champion, and was more—not less—likely than a playoff to pit #1 versus #2 for all the marbles.
Gay writes that the BCS "was a reactive half-measure." But the BCS's focus on improving rather than overhauling was a key to its success. Overhauls give us the likes of Obamacare. Improvements give us the likes of Monday night's game. It's no coincidence that the man for whom Obamacare is named didn't like the BCS.
Gay, perhaps channeling his inner Obama, says that "fairness" necessitated a change. That's the only real argument he offers on behalf of his apparent hope that college football will eventually jettison its bowl games altogether. Meanwhile, Gay offers plentiful arguments showing why a playoff is a bad idea: perfect seasons will no longer be so handsomely rewarded (he actually cites this as a virtue); teams' real fans won't so overwhelmingly be the ones in the stands, as they are at bowl games but are not to the same extent at NCAA Tournament basketball games; and, as he writes, "an expanded playoff format" (beyond four teams) "could diminish the thing that makes college football college football: the weight of the regular season." That's a pretty big downside.
Gay misses the most important point, however, about the shift to a new format next season after a decade of splendor under the BCS. The most important change is not the shift from a 2-team to a 4-team playoff; it's the shift from a selection process that refined and enlarged public opinion (the polls) by rooting it in objective measures (the computer rankings) and producing a numerical result, to one based entirely upon the subjective and unchecked conclusions of a tiny supercommittee of "elites."
You see, while a 4-team playoff will unfortunately undermine the Rose Bowl, which will now get to host a lot of runners-up from the Pac-12 and Big Ten, it won't undermine college football's unmatched regular season to any great degree. But an 8-team playoff would be a game-changer, sapping college football's regular season games of much of their meaning and hence of their drama, and undermining a hallmark of the BCS: fans' interest in games in other regions. A tiny, subjective, closed-door committee invites an 8-team playoff, as fans will surely demand that its unilateral decrees be made less influential.
The BCS Standings would have produced a playoff field this year of Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, and Michigan State. Nobody knows what the supercommittee's decrees would have produced, and therein lies a large part of the problem.
How long college football's wonderful golden age will continue, therefore, will likely be decided by this relatively straightforward question: Will college football's powers-that-be wisely reverse field and reinstitute the selection process that has worked like a charm for a decade? Or will they plunge ahead with a new selection process that is wholly subjective and will all but guarantee the expansion to an 8-team playoff in relatively short order? Asked otherwise, will their determination not to reverse field -- their determination to plunge ahead with the supercommittee -- cause them to inadvertently trade the sport's spectacular regular season and its colorful bowl games for bland sameness and the sort of misguided "fairness" that eschews season-long greatness?
One hopes we're nearer the middle of the golden age than the end. But there's something about "supercommittee" and "golden age" that don't belong in the same sentence.