It is that time of year in the United States: the final weekend of the college football regular season. Conference championship games will be played throughout the day on Saturday. On Sunday, just before the NFL games begin, the four-team College Football Playoff field will be announced.
Here is the very simple primer for the playoff: Ohio State and LSU are in, period, even if they lose on Saturday. Georgia must beat LSU to get in. Clemson probably needs to beat Virginia to be in. The defending national champions are likely out with a loss, due to the weakness of their league, the Atlantic Coast Conference.
LSU, Ohio State, and Clemson are all favored to win, though. They are all expected to make the playoff. This leaves one spot. This is where most of the intrigue lies.
Utah of the Pac-12 (improbably alive after an early-season loss to USC — I have to admit that my September declaration of Pac-12 doom was not accurate) and the Big 12 champion, Oklahoma or Baylor, have created the final big debate of the 2019 season.
The Utes, Sooners and Bears are all 11-1. If Utah wins the Pac-12 Championship Game against Oregon to finish 12-1, there will be a debate on Sunday, since the Oklahoma-Baylor winner of the Big 12 Championship Game will obviously finish 12-1 as well.
Everyone in the United States who follows college football has an opinion on the debates attached to Utah, Oklahoma and Baylor. One debate: Who SHOULD get into the playoff? Another debate: Who WILL get into the playoff?
College football is a wonderful sport on the field. The actual product can be ugly to watch, but it is almost always interesting in some way. The sport is a lot less dull than professional sports and their punch-the-time-clock energy. College football is so much more absurd on the field; that is one of its charms, an idea I hope I have conveyed this season with sufficient clarity.
The problem with college football: Its absurdities carry into the off-field realm, and the playoff debate which will ensue if Utah beats Oregon is near the top of the list.
The annual playoff debate is a lot like the Democratic Party presidential primary we have here in the United States. Without trying to dive too deeply into the matter, the simple reality of the 2020 Democratic Primary is that whereas a white woman was the prominent center-left or centrist candidate in 2016 (Hillary Clinton), a white woman is now much more to the left in 2020 (Elizabeth Warren).
Two of the white men in the top tier of candidates are now favored by the party establishment (Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg). There was no white male favored by the establishment in 2016. Bernie Sanders? He is consistent, which makes him hard to shoehorn into this discussion.
Many of the Democrats who — in 2016 — said that a woman was needed in the White House are now promoting white men. The problem is not that they are promoting Biden or Buttigieg, of course. The problem is that they argued for the candidate’s gender four years ago but have conveniently tossed that aside.
It is an old and familiar part of politics: Argue for X in one election cycle, then argue for the opposite of X — or the opponent of X — in the next cycle if it suits your purposes and beliefs.
The right way to engage in politics is to argue the issues well, winning a debate on the merits of your position, not on sidebar issues such as gender or ethnicity. Politics all too often devolves into a food fight about the sideshows, not the central substance of a campaign.
Vote for a woman? What if the woman’s policies are bad?
Vote for a minority candidate? What if the minority candidate’s policies aren’t good for minorities, as was the case with Kamala Harris, whose tenure as California Attorney General did not help minorities or low-income people on many levels?
We so often get the food-fight debate instead of a substantive debate in American politics.
So it also is with college football — it happens every year, and the Utah-Oklahoma-Baylor debate is no exception.
If Utah beats Oregon, get ready for these arguments on Saturday night and Sunday morning:
The Utah argument: We have the higher margin of victory in a comparison with the Big 12 champion (Oklahoma or Baylor).
The Oklahoma argument: We beat Baylor twice. Where are Utah’s top-25 wins? Utah lost to a third-string quarterback, Matt Fink of USC.
The Baylor argument: We beat Oklahoma. That’s better than any Utah win, including Oregon. Oregon lost to Arizona State. Sorry.
The Utah response: Zach Moss, our star running back, was out against USC when we lost.
The Oklahoma response: Kansas State, the team we lost to, finished 8-4, the same as USC, Utah’s one loss.
The Baylor response: Utah beat only one Pac-12 team which had a winning record in conference play this season.
The point to make here is not that one side’s arguments are inherently better or worse. These are all reasonable points. The point to emphasize is that if the various teams inhabited the other’s position, the fans of each team would conveniently adopt the other arguments.
In other words, it’s not as though Utah fans have a specific worldview of how rankings should go. In previous seasons, Oklahoma was a team which had a big margin of victory. This is not a criticism of fans, mind you; it is merely a reflection of how vague and unscientific the playoff selection process is. Fans are FORCED to argue whatever is convenient for their team. Fans are pushed into corners, pressured to make bad arguments.
LSU 46, Alabama 41: explosive offense, great QBs, what a game!
Baylor 9, TCU 9 (end of regulation); inept offenses, the players are bad!
LSU 9, Alabama 6 (OT) what great defenses, big boy football, SEC!
Baylor 61, TCU 58: they don’t play any defense!#checkthenarrative
— Frogs O' War (@FrogsOWar) November 10, 2019
My favorite one comes from the 2014 season, when playoff contenders TCU and Baylor played a 61-58 game. Fans of other playoff contenders said to me throughout that season, “You can’t play a 61-58 game and make the playoff,” as though it was a rule in a rule book which existed somewhere.
Had Alabama beaten Auburn last week — in a game the Crimson Tide lost, 48-45 — Baylor fans might have told Alabama fans, “You can’t win a game 55-48 and make the playoff.” As though it was in a rule book somewhere.
I think you get the point.
Get ready for a food fight as opposed to a substantive College Football Playoff debate.
Utah and Oklahoma shouldn’t be decided by a debate team. It should be decided on the field.