Monday, December 11, 2017

Feeling More Like March

By Jonathan Lowe

It hasn't been a good week for some of college basketball's "higher-ups." Kansas lost twice (once in their house, once in their home away from home). Notre Dame got beat by an underwhelming Ball State team. Florida needed to gut out a win versus Cincinnati to stop a three-game skid. Duke dropped their conference opener at Boston College.

All of these top teams would have loved to finish this week (and all weeks) without a blemish. However, over the breadth of this season, things can be corrected. Confidence can be regained. Dominance can be re-established. Losing early provides time to get back in the good graces of the people that matter.

Come March, each of these squads should have gaudy records and plans to make the NCAA tournament. Let's say, though, that all of these teams lose an unexpected late-February game to a less-than-stellar opponent, along with an early matchup in the conference tournament. Losing late may cost these specific teams some positioning, but it shouldn't exclude them from the ultimate postseason goal.

In college football, the most fervent fans say that its regular season matters the most of any sport. Losses matter more. Timing matters more. And reputation can play a key role. The sport's postseason structure has evolved from bowl exhibitions to a single-game championship match to its current exclusive, four-entry tournament. Even through all of that time, those platitudes regarding the importance of the regular season remain. And, to be honest, that drives me batty.

Now, I'm a fan of college football. I don't follow it as religiously as some ... but I'm probably on a slightly lower tier. That said, it appears that the psychological of the hardcourt has some kind of influence to that of the gridiron. Completely lost, yet? Hear me out.

From 1902 (the first year of the Rose Bowl) until the 1998 season, the title contenders would be scattered to all ends of the country's southern tier. They would face other champions in designated games that were predetermined, with only the occasional coincidence being the determining factor of a "true" national championship meeting. In the BCS era (1998-2013 seasons), a mathematical system took the guesswork out of which teams would be put on the same field for a national title tilt. This was all separate and unique to college football at the highest level.

Starting with the 2014 season, the uniqueness of postseason play altered in a way that shared familiarity with other entities. For most other collegiate team sports, including basketball, a group of individuals had to decide the entrant field to play for the championship. A committee does that for football. But we probably thought that this process would stay unto itself, with the best of the conference champions dueling it out. It's the last two seasons where hoops influence could be seen most in hallowed football circles.

Last year, people were debating why Ohio State deserved a spot in the national semifinals. Yes, they had one loss. We all know that they did not win their division of the Big Ten, let alone the league's championship. We all know that they to eventual conference champ Penn State, who only lost twice in the regular season. We all know that the Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes head-to-head. In the end, it was Ohio State's full resume that gained the respect of an invite.

This season, Alabama was the favorite. From day one, the Crimson Tide had the path to win another championship. That path was unhindered for eleven games. Then, the Tide went downstate to take on a blood rival. A loss to Auburn on the last weekend of the regular season denied 'Bama the SEC West title, a chance to play for the SEC crown, and, supposedly, a chance to win the whole thing. After a championship Saturday where Auburn and Wisconsin lost, however, the committee saw it fit to place a 1-loss, at-large Crimson Tide outfit in the bracket instead of a 2-loss, conference-champion Ohio State team.

These last two instances show the growing influence that basketball (and other sports) has had on the football playoff. I know that the NCAA hoops bracket isn't perfect. As has been said before, this tournament does not field all of the best teams ranked from 1-68. It does, though, provide multiple ways of entry and chances to increase the likelihood of said entry through resume building. Basketball recognized this over forty years ago, when they allowed at-large teams to join conference champs in the tournament. It took until 2016, but it seems that the same thing can happen now on the gridiron.

The regular season still matters in all sports. Not all teams get into the most meaningful of postseasons. The basketball tourney only let eight teams in when it began in 1939. Yes, that number has ballooned to 68, but that's still less than 20% of the pool of 350-ish teams that are eligible. Regular season performance and success still carries enormous weight. Now, I guess we can really apply that in college football, as well. Can't wait to see what inspiration hoops brings next.

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