The NCAAF Regular Season Matters More Than the Postseason, And That's Okay

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We, as fans, are not used to settling for less than championships.  This is especially the case when it comes to football in Pittsburgh.  For the Pittsburgh Steelers it is Super Bowl or bust.  Even now with how consistently the Penguins are elite, the goal is the Stanley Cup.  Even the Pirates…well, it’s a good thing they play their games when the weather is the best and we are looking for outdoor activities (I’m a Pirate season ticket holder so I kid through the pain).

However, college football is truly its own sort of animal.  It simply cannot be National Championship or bust for 99% of the programs.  That would lead to definite disappointment, without a shot at hope, for over a hundred programs and millions of fans around the country.  Instead, College Football has the most exciting regular season of any sport, in my opinion, leading all the way up to the extremely exciting conference championships.  Unfortunately, after that, the postseason, including bowl games, are sort of bland and boring.

This leads to other goals for programs like Pitt.  They care more about 10 win regular seasons and conference championships.  Even accolades like Heisman finalists and Biletnikoff award winners that can further recruiting are more tangible goals than a National Championship for the Panthers.

The narrative around the sport this past weekend was that this is some sort of problem in college football that needs to be fixed.  Something must be done to the playoff system, or recruiting, or NIL, that fixes the NCAAF postseason which has become rather uninteresting for most of the country.  However, instead of seeing this enhanced importance of the regular season as a flaw in college football, it is time to just recognize, and accept, the reasons why this is the case.

Abundance of Eligible Programs

In college football there are 130 schools eligible for the National Championship when the season starts.  There used to really only be 65 (the Power 5’s), until this year when Cincinnati broke that glass ceiling for the Non-Power 5’s.  With 130 eligible programs, only four are selected to the postseason.  So 3% of the eligible FBS schools and no more than 6% of the eligible Power 5 schools will make the postseason.

Compare that to the other sports we love.  This season, close to 44% of the NFL teams we watch will make the postseason.  In the MLB, 40% of teams make the postseason, the NHL is 50%, and in the NBA, a whopping 53.3% of eligible teams make the postseason. 

The only other American sport that really even comes close to having that percentage of eligible teams miss the postseason is college basketball.  There are currently 351 Division 1 college basketball programs in the country, but 68 of them make the March Madness NCAA tournament at the end of the year.  So that is still a little over 19% of the eligible teams landing a spot in the postseason. 

This factor alone makes college football extremely unique.  It is impossible to determine who is the best team in the nation when only 3% of the eligible programs reach the College Football Playoff.  This factor also makes individual games so much more meaningful than any other sport. 

The Kansas City Chiefs can lose three games at the beginning of the season and still easily end up the best team in the AFC.  However, had Alabama lost three games, they wouldn’t have sniffed the Top 10 to end the season.  It makes it much more difficult for a college football team to have a bad game, and a stretch of two bad games is a death sentence for a playoff hopeful college football team.

Also, this many teams competing at the same level, even just in the Power 5, creates such a gap between the best and the worst.  The gap between Georgia and Vanderbilt is light years larger than the gap between the Houston Astros and the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It may not feel that way sometimes, but it's true.  Just imagine the gap between Georgia and the lowest ranking FBS team.  It can't be quantified.

Very Little Conference Crossover

Another factor that leans in the direction of the regular season is that college football has the least crossover.  You will never hear at the end of a baseball season that the Boston Red Sox did not deserve their World Series because they barely played the National League Central.  Nor will you hear as often that the Pittsburgh Penguins would have performed much worse in the Western Pacific division.  It comes up from time to time, but not nearly at the magnitude that it does in college football.

As a Pitt fan I heard a thousand times this season that, “Pitt would have been 7-5 at best playing in the Big Ten.”  Maybe.  Perhaps Pitt’s offense would have been shut down by Ohio State, Penn State, and Iowa.  However, the Panthers looked awfully good against a stout Clemson defense full of 5-stars.  The point is, we don’t know. 

There is not enough crossover to truly know how other teams would perform against the other conferences.  Also, coaches recruit to a particular style of play that may be more competitive in their own conference than it would be in another.  

We will truly never know how Pitt would have performed in the Big Ten or in the SEC because they didn’t have to.  They won the conference that was set in front of them, and that is the most we could ask from them.  Anything else is just speculation. 

So even if the playoff system were expanded to twelve, or the Power 5’s dropped their FCS buy games for another cross-conference matchup, the perfect system does not exist.  This doesn’t mean that college football is a worse product overall than the other largely watched sports.  It’s just different in the sense that the regular season and conference titles mean more for 90% of the country than the postseason does.  Fans have adapted to this idea over time.  It’s time for the national media to do the same.

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