Alabama Wins 14th National Championship; Playoff Needed

There's no perfect system for choosing a champion but we can do better than this.

Judging by the running commentary on Twitter last night, Alabama’s 21-0 defensive beatdown of a Louisiana State team that was being touted as The Greatest College Football Team of All Time was not enjoyable television to those of us who aren’t Crimson Tide fans. Indeed, judging by my own reaction, it wasn’t all that enjoyable to those of us who are.

Alabama played a truly great game on defense. But this was marred substantially by LSU never seeming to shake off the rust of the absurd five-week layoff that the silly college bowl season imposes. Their quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, played at times like George Jefferson (which I swear Kirk Herbstreit called him about every third time). Indeed, toward the end of the game, I tweeted that they should try putting in Weezie. Simply put, as good as Alabama’s defense was—and it was the best in the nation all year long—LSU didn’t bring the offense that put up ridiculous point totals against quality opponents like Oregon, West Virginia, and Arkansas earlier in the season.

The fact that Alabama didn’t score a touchdown until the closing minutes of the game, treating the television viewing audience to yet another field goal-kicking exhibition, didn’t help matters. Not after the November 5 Game of the Century between these same two teams which featured Alabama attempting six field goals and making only two and LSU needing overtime to kick its third and decisive field goal.

There was, of course, the perennial debate about whether a team left out of the one-game playoff known as the BCS National Championship Game shouldn’t have been invited instead. Scott Lemieux joins thousands in arguing that, given that only two teams can be invited, it should have been Oklahoma State and not Alabama.

The experts mostly agreed that Alabama was the second-best team in the country but, it was argued, having already lost to LSU—and thus not winning its own division, much less its own conference—someone else should have gotten a chance. The snoozefest two months earlier added to that sentiment.

Still, OSU’s loss to lowly Iowa State overshadowed an arguably more impressive victory list. Plus there was the fact that Alabama statistically dominated the first game, losing by 3 points in overtime because of an inability to kick even short field goals and a brilliant defensive play that took away what would otherwise have been Alabama’s winning touchdown.

Had the roles been reversed—with Alabama beating LSU in the regular season and then having to win the SEC Championship Game only to have to face LSU again as equals—I’d have been pissed. But the current BCS system aims to match the two best teams in the country in a championship game and most of us think that’s what happened.

This year, I’m not sure LSU should have had to play again after the SEC championship given their strength of schedule and the lack of other serious no-loss teams. No one really deserved a right to face LSU as equals in a single-elimination tournament.

Then again, there’s simply no perfect system for choosing a champion.

The closest is that employed by the NBA and NHL, which involve a string of best-of-7 series. That pretty much eliminates a fluke play or hot night from deciding the championship and almost always results in the best team holding the trophy at the end of the tournament. But it also renders the regular season meaningless.

The most exciting championship in American sports, hands down, is the NCAA basketball tournament. But it’s really a ridiculous way to pick a champion. One can argue, for example, that last year’s winner, UConn, shouldn’t have even been in the tourney.

That said, we regularly live with that sort of outcome. Many a time, a team that I root for has dominated the regular season, won its division, and gone on to lose to a wild card team from that division in the playoffs. The Atlanta Braves did it several times, in fact, including both of the Florida Marlins championship years. The Dallas Cowboys went 13-3 in the 2007 season, including two victories over the New York Giants. The 9-7 Giants then edged the Cowboys on a freak play in the second round of the playoffs and then proceeded to beat a series of other teams that had beaten them in the regular season, culminating in beating the 18-0 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl on another freak play.

That’s sports.

There have been enough years where an undefeated or highly deserving one-loss team has gotten hosed in college football that I favor a playoff. The so-called “Plus One” system—essentially, a four-team, single-elimination tournament—strikes me as being the right balance between including the worthy teams and maintaining the importance of the regular season.  But the likely outcome of that would have been an Alabama-LSU rematch and a defensive struggle that made for bad television.

Photo credit: Reuters

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Oh, the Allstate SEC West Divisional Championship was last night?

  2. I could have appreciated Alabama’s defense a bit more had LSU given a hint that they had not forgotten how to play offense. As I tweeted last night: did Les Miles not see that the option was NOT* working (and, moreover, that Jefferson was doing an exceptionally poor job of executing it)?

    I concur: at a minimum, do the +1.

    Also: enough with the ridiculous layoff between the season and the game.

    I can’t help but imagine that the ratings (and hence, the revenues) would be higher for more real championship. Indeed, the fact that the game was on ESPN and Castle was on ABC rather underscores the fact that even the programmers don’t see the BCS title game as a major TV draw.

  3. *And important word was left out above (now fixed).

  4. Herb says:

    which I swear Kirk Herbstreit called him about every third time

    So it wasn’t just me….I kept wondering what kind of Jefferson would name their kid George in this day and age.

    Don’t follow college ball that much, but the playoff gods have been kind to my Broncos. I’m not looking that gift horse in the mouth……

    Teee-eee-bow, woah!

  5. David M says:

    The +1 format isn’t as good as a playoff, but it’s much better than we have now. I did skip the game, as I had zero interest in seeing another SEC conference championship game. Now if there was a playoff and two teams met from the same conference, that might actually mean something. Unfortunately this is probably the least meaningful SEC national championship game I can remember.

  6. Jeremy says:

    I used to be one of those guys who didn’t understand why so many people were interested in sports, because I thought it was dumb. Now I realize it’s play a vital role in our society, by giving us a chance to step away from politics before our brains explode and let us punch each other things besides Democraps or Repthuglicans (or Libertarians).

    And fortunately, since my team is not in the BCS tier, I can root for just about anybody from game to game and not care. Though I think I’ll be required to find an NFL team…

  7. @David M:

    I did skip the game, as I had zero interest in seeing another SEC conference championship game.

    It ended up being the lowest ratings for a BCS championship since 2002, so a lot of other people did too apparently:

  8. Franklin says:

    Even this blowout was far more interesting that that high-scoring Washington/Baylor game that everybody called “exciting.” Sorry, but my dead grandmother could carry a football down the field with those pathetic defenses on the field.

    And to be honest, it was suspenseful until I realized in the 4th quarter that LSU was seriously never going to jump-start their offense. I guess I should have known, since Alabama’s defense didn’t have a chance of getting worn down on the sidelines.

  9. If there is going to be a playoff system, it’s going to have to incorporate the Bowls somehow. As much as some people hate them, they bring in a ton of money for sponsors, networks, conferences, and schools so they are not going away.

    One suggestion I’ve heard is that the “big four” Bowls (Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar) become the first round of playoffs, then two more games a week later, then the Championship. Of course, that would mean breaking some long standing traditions such as the Big Ten-Pac Ten Rose Bowl so I’m not sure how popular that idea is going to be.

  10. Jay Dubbs says:

    Just for the record, UConn was in the tourney because they won their conference tournament and therefore secured the automatic bid. (Had to defend the alma mater.)

    But football should look at the excitement that basketball causes and go to a 8 or 16 team tournament. (I would prefer 16.) That way you can protect the 4-6 major conferences champions and still have room for hot non-BCS team. I would start the first weekend in December; take the week off between Christmas and New Years, then have the championship in January. (You can even keep the ancillary bowls if you feel the need, like the NCAA has the NIT.)

    Just a pipe dream i am sure, but even a plus 1 doesn’t solve one of the big problems that the BCS has now — the five week layover. Keep ’em playing, and hopefully you won’t have the same performance that LSU put up last night.

  11. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    As much as some people hate them, they bring in a ton of money for sponsors, networks, conferences, and schools so they are not going away.

    Most schools lose their shirts going to bowl games. For example, they’re forced up-front to buy huge blocks of tickets at face value, and if they don’t recoup that money on sales, too bad.

  12. Anderson says:

    My colleague down the hall and I have solved the problem: 16-team playoff over 4 weeks.

    But we agreed that “money” would somehow stop this from happening, because if someone weren’t making more money off the current system, the playoff would’ve happened already.

    … Re: the debacle last night, I’m not convinced LSU has a worse team, but I’m 100% convinced LSU has a worse coach. Saban had the Tide honed into an LSU-killin’ machine.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I think the notion that a game putting the consensus top two teams against one another somehow isn’t a championship game is silly.

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yeah, I’m not sure what the deal is with putting the game on a channel that not everyone gets. You’d think the NCAA would have insisted on a broadcast network. And I’m pretty sure that–and the fact that both teams are from the same part of the country and from small states to boot–explain the low ratings.

    @Jay Dubbs: I get that UConn should have been there by the rules. I just think the rules are silly given the long season.

    @David M: A plus-one is just a four team playoff. (Although some have talked about a bizarre system wherein #1 and #2 would play and then meet the #3 team, which would be absurd.)

    @Jay Dubbs: @Doug Mataconis: @Anderson: 16 teams strikes me as way too many; it simply lets in too many mediocrities and totally takes away from the power of the regular season. College games “mean” much more than NFL games precisely because losing means so much. In the NFL, a 7-9 team can go to the playoffs; in college, more than 1 loss almost always keeps you out of the championship game–one usually does the trick.

    @Doug Mataconis: The BCS ruined the bowl system so far as I’m concerned, relegating even the BCS bowls to exhibition games. So, I’m not sure why they couldn’t continue to co-exist with a playoff.

  14. Jay Dubbs says:

    @James Joyner: Maybe a 12 team playoff. That way all 6 major conference champions get automatic bids; top 4 teams get a bye, so regular season means something; plus you could have brackets like basketball which will bring more fans to the watching the games.

    Plus the #12 team in the AP, Michigan, finished at 11-2, which is certainly respectable.

  15. Anderson says:

    College games “mean” much more than NFL games precisely because losing means so much. In the NFL, a 7-9 team can go to the playoffs; in college, more than 1 loss almost always keeps you out of the championship game–one usually does the trick.

    That’s a bug, not a feature. As last night’s game suggests, losing one game does not a bad team make. A 16-team playoff might let in some “mediocrities” – but then, Clemson and LSU sure looked mediocre, or worse, in their bowl performances.

    But it also might let a good team that lost one or two games – hello, Oregon! – have the chance to kick ass and win its way to the top.

    The emphasis on going undefeated or nearly so, also contributes to the vice of seeking a weak schedule. Knowing that you could lose a game or two and still have a shot at the national title – that would make teams more willing to try stuff like the LSU – Oregon game at the start of the 2011 season.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @Anderson: True. Alabama played a couple of unconscionable creampuffs this year but has also done a good job of scheduling tough out-of-conference opponents. In recent years, they’ve played neutral site games against Clemson and Virginia Tech and a home and away with Penn State. Next year, they open up against Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

  17. ernieyeball says:

    @Herb: ” Teee-eee-bow, woah!”

    Matthew 5: v5 and v6

    5 ‘And when thou mayest pray, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites, because they love in the synagogues, and in the corners of the broad places — standing — to pray, that they may be seen of men; verily I say to you, that they have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou mayest pray, go into thy chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret, and thy Father who is seeing in secret, shall reward thee manifestly.

    broad places=gridirons?

  18. Racehorse says:

    I used to watch a lot of these “bowl” games – back when the last one was on New Year’s night.
    Now, it is an endless drone of endless corporate – named bowl games. By last night, I had forgotten that there was even a game. Some of the teams even had losing records – unthinkable a few years ago: a watered down, mediocre mess that has ruined the entire thing.

  19. @James Joyner:

    I think the notion that a game putting the consensus top two teams against one another somehow isn’t a championship game is silly.

    If that’s the only qualification to qualify as a championship game, then can LSU claim to be national champs too, on account of winning the National Championship game on November 5th? LSU and Alabama were even more of a consensus then (BCS .9931-.9447-.8836) then they are now (BCS 1.000-.9419-.9333)

    And even is we accept the argument for Alabama being #1, what’s the argument for LSU staying at #2 after getting blown out in their bowl game?

    What’s silly is treating the BCS rankings (and consequently and “championship” derived from them) as anything than circular “the SEC is the best because they play more SEC teams” BS.

  20. A voice from another precinct says:

    Maybe the real secret would be to acknowledge that we’re talking about a game rather than something important. On the other hand, in a world where coaches have multi-million dollar contracts before the shoe contracts and other bonuses that horse has probably already jumped the fence.

  21. Herb says:

    @ernieyeball: From the book of John (Elway) Chapter 7, Verse 97-98:

    Haters gonna hate.

    Depending on one’s perspective, Tebow’s Christianity is either a joke or an inspiration, but it’s not why he’s in the play-offs.

  22. LaurenceB says:

    There are two problems with the current system:

    1. We never really know if the top two teams are in the Championship game. Joyner understands this and proposes some solutions. Good for him.

    2. Teams in certain conferences are eliminated from consideration before the season starts. Even if they go undefeated they won’t be given a chance at the the Championship game. Joyner (like most big conference fans) hardly even recognizes this problem exists. In fact, if a playoff system were to result in Boise State or Utah winning the National Championship those fans would probably consider that to be a clear indication that the system is flawed.

    (For those with short memories – Utah finished as the only undefeated team in 2009 and absolutely destroyed fourth-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Just sayin’.)

  23. Franklin says:

    @James Joyner: And based on your (Alabama’s) performance last night, you’re going to have a field day with us (Michigan). But I do have a little bit of faith that we’ll be more imaginative than LSU if things aren’t working.

  24. @Franklin:

    Just remember that Penn State’s Defense was a joke this year and we still managed to score 21 points against Alabama. 😉

  25. Penn State’s offense, even.

  26. Beavis and Butthead says:

    “Tebow’s Christianity is either a joke or an inspiration, but it’s not why he’s in the play-offs.”

    So Sez Herb.

    I agree. I do not think Tim Tbone is getting any supernatural help.
    Of course if he is… he’d be cheatin’!

  27. superdestroyer says:

    The only way to make a play off work is four there to be four conference of 14-16 teams each where the conference championship games serve as the first round of the playoff. There a four team first round in the middle of December and then a championship game on New Years Day. Of course, those southern cities all lose the revenue of having bowl games

    the other fallout is that there would end up being less than 64 schools in Division I. All schools outside of the four conferences would either move down I-AA (old term) or give up football. I suspect that many of them would give up football.

    It would also mean that the big time universities would no longer get to have 7 or 8 home games like Wisconsin did this year. Without the smaller school who desperately need the money, a school like Penn State or Florida would be unable to schedule MAC or Sunbelt schools.

    A playoff that is always sold as helping a school like Boise State will in the long run end up destroying the football program at Boise State because none of the four big conferences will want Boise State, House, or even Iowa State in their conference.

    Also, when there is only four big football conferences, it will only be a matter of time before they decide to leave the NCAA so that they can have separate eligibility requirements and no revenue sharing.

    The quest for a football play for the big school could easily end up destroying March Madness, the College world series, and the rest of the NCAA championships.

  28. @superdestroyer:

    The only way to make a play off work is four there to be four conference of 14-16 teams each where the conference championship games serve as the first round of the playoff.

    Since no other college sport has been limited to four sixteen team conferences, this obviously isn’t the only way to have a playoff.

  29. superdestroyer says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Having an eight team playoff with the current 11 conferences means that some conferences would not get any team into the playoffs. Those conferences would have no reason to exist. A 16 team playoff with the current 11 conferences and with five wildcards would mean that some team like Boise State still does not get into the playoffs since they did not win their conference and a school like Michigan is looking at four road games to win the national championship.

    The I-AA schools play the playoff games at home. Can you image the idea that LSU would get three home games in December (after the semester had ended). Image Arkansas playing Wisconsin in the second around in front a half empty stadium on Dec 15 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The same people complaining now would complain about that.

  30. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: You mean, in both years combined right? The score was 27-11 this year at Happy Valley with Penn State’s lone touchdown coming against the 3rd string in the 4th quarter. It was 24-3 last year in Tuscaloosa.

    I think realignment is the only true solution to the small conference problem, since wins against weak opponents will always be discounted by the voters. Still, TCU, Boise State, Utah, and others would have had been in a four team playoff in recent years.

  31. Scott Edward says:

    James your take on the best BCS defensive game shutout was a thing of beauty. IN all my days on earth I doubt we as fans will ever see that again. Let me educate you on the situation. Alabama would have stopped Oklahoma St. or Stanford. Neither have much on the defensive side of the ball. You just want to see an offense light it up for your selfish entertainment. OSU would not have lit it up against Alabama they might have against LSU. Alabama produced the best defense I have witnessed in my 54 years of life. Let me keep educating you. The two best teams played and the best team won. For the life of me you want a lesser team to play because you THINK they can light it up against an SEC team. Wrong! Alabama took care of Texas, Florida took care of Oklahoma with all their high powered Offences. Alabama played a Texas Tech team in the Cotton Bowl and held them to 10 points. Do the research. Get with the program, only the best two play for the Title. If there had been a playoff Alabama would have won it all anywhy. Your arguement is without Validation and Adjudication.

  32. @Scott Edward:

    Let me educate you on the situation. Alabama would have stopped Oklahoma St. or Stanford.

    Maybe: but the only way to know that is to see them play.

    You just want to see an offense light it up for your selfish entertainment

    Why else does one watch sports, save to be entertained?

    . If there had been a playoff Alabama would have won it all anywhy.

    This may well be true (indeed, I think that the probabilities are high). However, one never knows unless one plays the games, yes?

    BTW: you do realize that James is an Alabama alum, yes?

  33. @James Joyner:

    Sorry, mistranscribed the score. My point though is that one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten out scored all of Alabama’s SEC opponents except for Arkansas and Auburn. Likewise the Penn State defense held Alabama to less points than all of its SEC opponents except for LSU and Missippi State. Even though Alabama won the game, it makes you think perhaps the SEC gets a little too much credit for being so good at playing itself.