Defining a “National Champion”

The first part to defining a “national champion” is easy: national refers to this nation, the USA, and therefore only US schools are eligible. Or, at least until the NCAA admits Canadian schools. But for the moment, it’s about US universities only.

The second part is tricky, because “champion” can be defined in several different ways. Here are a few I could find:

  • Dictionary.com: “anything that takes first place in competition”
  • Wikipedia: “one who has repeatedly come out first among contestants in challenges (especially the winner of a tournament or other competition) or other test”
  • Popular Use: The best team of a particular sports league in a given year, as in, “The Bears were the 1985 NFL Champions.”

By Dictionary.com’s definition, every game has a champion because one team takes first place in the game while another takes a loss. Wikipedia’s definition is more exclusive since it requires repeated first place finishes, so that eliminates 1-loss FIU, for instance, from being a champion. However, while it’s not specific on how many first place finishes define a champion, it singles out tournament winners especially as being champions. The popular use definition is the most specific, and it is commonly the one used when talking about national champions for college football.

How Many National Champions?

The standard assumption is that there can’t be more than one national champion, which is why people say things like “In 2003, there was a split national title” rather than “In 2003, there were two national champions.”

It’s all semantics, but it’s an important distinction. The NCAA’s website provides “a year-by-year history of Division I-A football national champions as determined by the BCS championship game and… polling organizations.” Since the NCAA maintains that I-A football “do[es] not participate in the NCAA Division I Football Championship,” it doesn’t care how many champions are named every year.

The BCS does care about the number of champions however, stating that it “was established to determine the national champion for college football,” (emphasis mine), not a champion for college football. This fact proves that at the very least the 6 BCS auto-bid conferences and their members, Notre Dame, and the 4 BCS bowls care about having one and only one champion as those were the institutions that created the BCS.

Now, some like Kyle T. King of Dawg Sports argue that college football doesn’t necessarily need a champion, and that’s fine. However, I’ll eat my hat (and it’s pretty nasty; ask my girlfriend) if like-minded people aren’t few and far between. Way too many people invest way too much time in determining/arguing over who is the best team for many people to be of the belief that naming a champion is superfluous. Plus, universities, investors, and advertisers have invested billions of dollars in the BCS, a construct designed to determine one and only one champion. I will not spend any more time on the concept of college football not needing a champion because it’s a fringe view at best.

The existence of the BCS to determine a champion also proves that the powers that be of college football believe that the regular season is not enough to determine a champion. Due to imbalanced scheduling and differing strengths of conferences, I wholeheartedly agree. The regular season alone is insufficient for choosing a champion.

Determining Who Is Best

Does a champion by definition indicate the best team? Go back to the definitions for a sec, I’ll wait…

Notice how only the popular use definition includes the requirement of a team being “best?” All that is required by the established definitions is first place finishes, not being the best.

Some people define the “best” as having won the most games in the most impressive fashion. Other define the best team as having the best group of players. When you get down to it though, there’s a dizzying array of shades of gray when it comes to determining the best team over the course of a season.

What do you do with Oregon? The Ducks looked like world beaters with Dennis Dixon at quarterback, but as soon as he went down, the team lost it’s heart and went into the tank on both sides of the ball. Which is the real Oregon? And when you’re picking who’s best, will you consider the Ducks with Dixon and the Ducks without Dixon to be the same team when they clearly were not?

What do you do with Hawaii? No one finished first in games more often than the Warriors did. Perhaps the games were not as challenging as others’ games, but no team fits the “champion” definition more than Hawaii does.

What do you do with Georgia? Once Mark Richt was forced by injury to quit being stubborn and play Knowshown Moreno, the Bulldogs became one of the better offensive teams in the country. Around the same time, Richt loosened up and changed his attitude and as a result the defense played better too. Which Georgia team do you count when you’re picking who’s best, the Moreno-less, fire-less team that lost to South Carolina and was blown out by Tennessee, or the team that had Moreno playing and had proper motivation that finished the season strong? Or do you count them as the same team when they clearly were not?

How about the Boston College at Virginia Tech game? For 57 minutes, VT dominated and ended up leading 10-0 over a clearly overmatched BC team. Then, for some inexplicable reason, VT switched to a prevent defense that allowed Matt Ryan to throw two TD passes to give BC a 14-10 victory. Now, which team was better? Having watched most of the game, I can tell you that VT was the better team that day, with the Hokies playing better than the Eagles for 57 of the 60 minutes. However, BC’s 3 good minutes allowed it to finish in first place for the contest. Was the best team the champion? Simply put, no.

The point is, it’s nearly impossible to choose which team is best in a season because of how many variables there are involved. Injuries and differences in schedule strength especially make comparison difficult, not to mention strange outcomes like the BC-VT game that hide what’s really going on. Picking who’s “best” is a fool’s errand.

What’s all this mean?

If picking one “best” team is a fool’s errand, what should picking the two “best” teams for a national championship game be called? Well, I’ll leave that as an exercise for you, dear reader. Some people would say that picking the two best teams is called the BCS, but actually, it’s not.

You see, the BCS says in reference to all 5 of its games that it “has become a showcase for the sport, matching the best teams at the end of the season.” That statement is a tacit confession that it can’t determine the best team, only the best teams. Yeah, it’s semantics like before, but again, this is important.

College football’s current post season is not about finding the best team, only determining a champion. Any proposed playoff system would do the same exact same thing – determine a champion, not the best team – because it’s impossible to even precisely define what makes a team best.

And, don’t forget, a post season is required for determining a champion for the reasons stated prior, so judging teams solely on the regular season isn’t enough.

The more precise definition of “champion” requires repeatedly coming up first, especially in a tournament. Because of that fact, it stands to reason that a tournament, which requires repeated first place finishes, is a better champion-finding system than a one-shot national championship game it since that requires only one first place finish. That’s really all there is to it.

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