Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
Those of us born in the Northeast during the Eisenhower administration recall growing up understanding two simple facts of college football life: that the system is strange, and that it will be unkind to Penn State.
Remember, this was during a pre-Big Ten era in which the Nittany Lions were a home team of sorts for this region, so when their undefeated seasons in 1968, ’69 and ’73 resulted in not a single No. 1 finish in the AP poll, it confirmed the sport’s pro-South/Midwest bias.
(It happened to undefeated Penn State again in 1994, even after it joined the Big Ten.)
Now here we are in a new, allegedly more enlightened millennium, where an undefeated, Power 5 team is almost certain of a national championship, and yet issues remain in the fairness department.
If No. 7 Penn State defeats No. 6 Wisconsin for the championship of the 14-team Big Ten on Saturday in Indianapolis and the other conference finals go as expected, the Nittany Lions likely will be left out of the College Football Playoff in favor of Ohio State, a team from its own division that it beat head-to-head.
And if Clemson or Washington falters, the selection committee could include Michigan in the national semifinals, another team that was behind Penn State in its own division, and which currently is ranked fifth by the committee. (Michigan beat Penn State, 49-10, and beat Wisconsin, 14-7.)
All of this is more logic-defying than the Electoral College, and it should be changed with bi-partisan support as soon as possible.
Yes, the committee may invite a clearly superior non-conference-winning team, hence Ohio State’s likely and Michigan’s possible inclusions. But it shouldn’t be allowed to.
There are two acceptable alternatives to repair the latest wrench in a championship-determining system that, while going from the Boal Coalition in 1992 to the Bowl Championship Series in 1998 to the CFP selection committee in 2014, has resisted a clearcut fix for many decades.
Conference champs only — period. The selection committee’s lone task for the four-team playoff field would be to decide which of the Power 5 champs would be left out, and perhaps whether an undefeated non-Power 5 team should be let in.
The negative is that the best team or teams would not necessarily reach the Final Four, which has not seemed to hurt the men’s college basketball tournament, and that some of those matchups might be lopsided and be less-than-optimal TV ratings draws.
The positive is one heck of an entertaining, meaningful conference championship weekend, as well as coherence, simplicity and fairness.
This system also would lessen the relevance of debating strength of non-conference schedules, because it only would matter in determining which conference champ to exclude.
Eight teams, of course.
The negative is more games, more injuries, more time away from school and whatever pretense is left that major college football is an amateur pursuit of full-time students — a notion that actually left the building in the early 20th century.
The positive is that it is the fairest, fan-friendliest system of all.
The five major-conference champs would be in, and the committee would take three at-large teams and seed everyone, just as in basketball. So this year Ohio State and Michigan would be in, along with some other worthy wild-card such as undefeated Western Michigan.
Give me either of the above over what we have now.
There are some Penn State fans who would just as soon see the Nittany Lions secure a nice, old-school visit to the Rose Bowl to play USC, thereby avoiding the Alabama buzz saw in the playoffs.
That’s understandable, and at the moment it is the more likely scenario than a CFP invitation. But that doesn’t make it right.
Anyway, back to 1968, ’69 and ‘73, formative sports-fan years for those of us old enough to know Lydell Mitchell from John Cappelletti. What was evident then remains evident today: College football is weird.