Posted: 8:00 a.m. Wednesday, July 31, 2013
By Will Shelton
The single greatest threat to the beauty that is college football is not the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit. It's not the on-campus collegiate model that threatens to be undone by online education, it's not over-saturation in the age of social media and conference-run networks, it's not even the increasingly poor judgment of the NCAA.
The single greatest threat to the beauty that is college football is a sixteen team playoff.
Greed will be the why. A sixteen team playoff will be the how. And together, they would forever change the thing that makes you and me live and die every single Saturday: the need to be perfect.
I keep coming back to this argument because college football's demand for perfection doesn't just make it unique from every other major sport. It is the thing that makes it better than every other major sport. And if we allow the phrase, "That's okay, we'll still make the playoffs," to enter our vocabulary, we will have damaged a beautiful thing which is currently at the peak of its powers.
Remember how you felt on the Third Saturday in September from 1995-1997? When the Vols lost to Florida in each of those years, you felt like the season was over, and you weren't being dramatic. It was an accurate statement, in terms of Tennessee's championship potential, in 1995 and 1996. You felt the way those two people look in the picture at the top of the page, which was taken late in the Florida game last season. Because all of a sudden, everything was circling the drain. And you knew it. In our sport there's no such thing as, "We'll get 'em next week." You'll need to wait until next year.
Here's the strange thing though: all those years losing to Florida, the season being over didn't mean you stopped watching. It means you started watching your game, then started watching Florida's games. Every week. Cheering against Florida was almost as much fun as cheering for the Vols.
I was driving from southwest Virginia into Knoxville for the South Carolina game in 2007 when this happened. My phone blew up immediately, not just because it was cool, but because of what it meant for Tennessee: if the Dawgs prevailed, the Vols were back in the driver's seat in the SEC East.
There have been many moments like this over the years. Florida losses to LSU and Georgia in 1997. UCLA's loss to Miami in December 1998 set off a caravan of car horns down I-75 en route to the SEC Championship Game. Campus erupted when Minnesota beat #2 Penn State in November 1999, opening the door for the Vols in the BCS.
The game demands the Olympic-level perfection of gymnasts and figure skaters - one mistake so costly, one triumph so celebrated - and yet when it goes up in flames you end up watching even more.
I'm all for a four team playoff and think an eight team playoff is as good as it can possibly get. But if this dance goes to sixteen because the dollars say so, we will lose the need for perfection, and we will lose the breathless urgency that comes with our game and our opponents' games. If you allow a 9-3 team to entertain a national championship, you damage the game.
It's not that all other sports are bad. They all have their things. I really like that baseball is there for you every single day. There are many others on this blog who will speak of all the things that make soccer beautiful (although even if you strip away all the other things I don't like about it and the things I don't fully understand, the presence of draws will always run contrary to the idea of perfection).
Baseball plays 162 games and 33% of its teams make the playoffs. The NBA plays 82 and 53% get in. College basketball has an outstanding postseason format, and at 68 teams it doesn't ruin the regular season because, as we've learned the last two years, you still have to be pretty good to get in.
And the NFL is great. It is. I wish the Titans didn't play 24 hours after the Vols so I had more of my emotional energies to give to them. I give plenty of time and energy to my fantasy league. And hey, it's football. The parity is incredible and only 37.5% of its teams make the playoffs. You only get 16 opportunities.
In our game you get 12 opportunities. College football is played on 3.2% of the days in a given year, and next year 3.3% of our teams will make the playoffs. Other sports will tell you every game matters. Only in college football is it true. It's not rocket science: college football is the best game going because in college football, wins and losses mean more, period.
Don't let greed ruin the very thing that makes our game special. Even this fall for Tennessee, we will only get a dozen opportunities. This game is great because it demands you make the most of them, and give your all for Tennessee.