Last Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl. The media is portraying this as the first time Philadelphia’s beleaguered franchise has reached the league summit, but that is not true. Before the AFL-NFL merger and the first Super Bowl, the Eagles won the NFL championship in 1948, 1949, and 1960. While the league may have been much smaller in those days, those are still #1 results. In the NBA, most of Bill Russell’s titles were in years when the league had less than 10 teams, but he is still remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. Professional basketball is acutely aware of its history.
On the other hand, pro football forgets the sport existed before the Super Bowl. To most Americans, Joe Namath is more well-known that Johnny Unitas. They both have one Super Bowl victory to their names, but Unitas won multiple championships and was the prototype of the modern quarterback. To Roger Goodell and the rest of the NFL, professional football did not start until 1967.
History and tradition is where college football has a competitive advantage over the professional game. My college team, the University of Texas, claimed their first title in 1963 (though arguably they were first national champions back in 1914 according to the Billingsley Report). My professional team, the Houston Texans, did not exist before 2002. At all major college programs, Saturday afternoons are filled with the weight of traditions going back over a century.
That tradition is what prevents me from considering the University of Central Florida as national champions even though they were the only undefeated team in the FBS. In theory, Georgia would annihilate UCF if they played, but nobody knows that for sure. The UCF Knights may have won such a hypothetical game and be the best team in the nation. But I am not going to count them as national champions this year because of the importance of history to college football.
Outside of the United States, soccer1)Let’s not make this essay too confusing by calling the sport “football”. leagues have an interesting feature of promotion and relegation. For example, the English football league system is a collection of different leagues. The Premier League is on top. Below that is the Championship. Next comes League One then League Two. Eventually, the system goes down far enough to semi-pro regional clubs and local amateur teams. At the end of the season, the top teams in each league are promoted to the next league up. The worst teams in a league are relegated to the league below. In theory given enough time and wins, Enfield Town F.C. of the lowly Isthmian League could ascend to the heights of the Premiership and eventually take on Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
International soccer has a sense of continuity between its seasons. The successes add up until a club becomes a major contender, and sustained losses can ruin a team. This can make games feel more important. A playoff game between two semi-pro clubs fighting for a promotion spot and a bottom-feeder team struggling to hold off relegation have immense stakes to its fans. In comparison, Cleveland Browns fans were almost ironically happy their team went 0-16. They would not feel the same way if their team was getting relegated and could not be seen on national television next year.
For a variety of reasons, promotion/relegation systems do not exist in American sports. The closest we have to this is college football where the reputation of your team year after year has the biggest impact on your success. The best recruits tend to go to the most storied programs. A 5-star high school linebacker is much more likely attend Washington State than Eastern Washington. But your reputation also affects your ranking and ability to compete for a national championship, and that extends beyond a single season.
Look at a team like TCU. They turned a 13-0 season in 2010 as a member of the Mountain West into a spot in the Big East. With more on-the-field success and the Big East collapsing before TCU could officially become a member, the Horned Frogs instead joined the Big 12. Now TCU is in a spot where an undefeated season and a Big 12 championship would guarantee a spot in the college football playoff.
Next year, UCF will start the season with a better poll position than they did at the beginning of this year. If they go undefeated again, they may get a spot in the CFP. Eventually, they may join the ACC and have a much easier road. UCF needs to compound their successes into a chance at the national championship.
This system is not fair. Make no mistake, UCF deserved a shot at the national championship. Yet compared to other sports, titles are not everything in college football. Most fanbases have fonder memories of victories in rivalry games than conference championships. College football is about legacy, not titles, and legacy is much more than the results of a single season.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Let’s not make this essay too confusing by calling the sport “football”.|