The Rim Encircling the Goalpost

In America, it's a secular New Year across the board. The calendar is changing on our lives, our relationships, and our sports. But it also offers time to reflect on what we've learned over the last 365 days and longer.

I'm here on this intro to 2024 to write something on the current college basketball season. Purdue is looking for redemption after last year's early exit. UConn is trying to become the first repeat champ in about 15 years. A team from the west continues an effort to break the championship drought. These are all worthy storylines that will play out over the next three months (and that we'll keep following). However, I want to just appreciate college basketball as a whole. In specific, I want to explain its greatness in comparison to the "big brother" that is college football.

A little over a year ago, I wrote something on how the gridiron programs were ultimately steering the direction of their parquet-residing compatriots. The recent realignment effects begin to take root in a few months. Thing is, though, at the highest level of collegiate athletics, a bit of the hoop philosophy has slowly crept its way into the pigskin psyche, as well. I know that philosophy is more of a shared concept at lower divisions. It's only now that the top rung will open itself up to that shared interest.

On Monday, I watched the College Football Semifinals. Both games featured drama that lasted until the final plays of each contest. But, in all of the frivolity, something was missing. Some people believe that Florida State lost their right to agonize over their playoff snub after getting the brakes beat off of them in the Orange Bowl. The cries of that game's victor, Georgia, only grew louder after this weekend's 63-3 result. To me, each program should still have a gripe. Actually, I think it should extend to Oregon and Ohio State, as well.

In most years of the CFP, there weren't enough contenders to create the true example for expansion. It's ironic, though, that the final year before said expansion takes place is the best season to have that expansion start immediately. Yes, I know that politics and pride got in the way of the 12-team tournament happening in 2023. That still doesn't mean this change was too slow to happen.

Basketball found this out over its long tenure under NCAA stewardship. The first eight-team tournament conducted in 1939 would kickstart incremental growth spurts over the next 45 years. This culminated with the first 64-team event in 1985. Over the years, regionals were born, multiple conference members would be allowed, and smaller leagues would be recognized. The bad news of it all is that the number of annual champions would remain at one. The good news is that more teams had the opportunity to chase that elusive dream of a national title.

Although football has been around longer than hoops, it's taken a much longer time for the NCAA's Division I tier to stretch toward this point. As a concept, the "bowl game" has been around for more than 100 years. After the Rose Bowl got the eventual craze going, the fleet of similar contests began to expand in the 1930s. That steady growth hasn't stopped to this very day. Problem is, although access to these exhibitions continued to grow, the opportunity to win a true national championship didn't blossom with it. The bowls were meant to be one-offs with winners claiming an isolated title.

Even in the face of lifting a trophy, I don't think it compares to a tourney run you get in the basketball tournament. Before 1998, there were few football instances where the top two teams would match up in a bowl game and play for a true championship. Heck, before the beginning of the 1970s, bowls didn't even figure into the national title picture. The Bowl Championship Series answered a few of the issues, getting No. 1 and No. 2 on the same field. The Playoff opened things up more, but still had an ultra-exclusive trait that never felt right (to me, at least).

Regarding memorable postseasons of past years, you likely don't know who won the Motor City, Holiday, Mayo, or Sugar Bowls over the last few years. However, you'll likely have some idea of the tourney runs by VCU, George Mason, Butler, Kemba Walker-led UConn, Danny Manning-led Kansas, and more (no matter if you remember the exact season). It's the mix of smaller upstart and blue blood stalwart that football hasn't truly experienced. By this time next year, that will shift.

As the football landscape re-forms regarding a greater concentration of power-broker programs, there are already concerns that the 12-team bracket will be dominated by Big Ten and SEC teams. Even with the anxiety, I welcome the expansion to access. It won't be as broad as basketball provides, and I don't think it will ever get to that point. But that aspect is a long time coming. And hey, in my mind, maybe the expanded football playoff can someday close the gap of excitement I feel for the best event on the annual sports calendar (in my humble opinion).

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