Elusive football titles. And Slippery Rock

Here’s the loophole in Alabama’s claim to the national college football title: The University of Central Florida.

This is not to diminish Alabama’s rollicking overtime victory over Georgia in the designated championship game. It is not a call for an expanded playoff system. Nor is it an assertion—impossible to make—that Central Florida would have beaten either Alabama or Georgia. It simply is an understanding that Central Florida, excluded from the four-team playoff by the 13-member committee of athletic directors, former coaches (and one journalist), is entitled to its national championship argument.

Central Florida, unlike Alabama and Georgia, never lost a game this season. Of the 137 schools in the NCAA’s top football division, only Central Florida was undefeated. Furthermore, among Central Florida’s 13 victims was Auburn, which previously defeated both Alabama and Georgia.

Central Florida’s situation is a far cry from the tenuous Slippery Rock Theory of No. 1-ness evoked in 1936. That year, divergent polls knighted Pitt (8-1-1) and Minnesota (7-1) co-national champs, but a Slippery Rock student had an if-then logic to his 6-3 team’s right to the title: Slippery Rock beat Westminster, which beat West Virginia Wesleyan, which beat Duquesne, which beat Pitt, which beat Notre Dame, which beat Northwestern, which beat Minnesota.

In 2008, once-beaten Florida defeated once-beaten Oklahoma in the championship game. (That was six years before the current four-team playoff format, but the title participants were just as subjectively determined.) Salon columnist King Kaufman posited that Tulane—which won two games that season—was the real national champion because Tulane beat Louisiana Monroe, which beat Troy, which beat Middle Tennessee, which beat Maryland, which beat Wake Forest, which beat Ole Miss, which not only beat Florida but also Texas Tech which, in turn, beat Oklahoma.

Such a calculus would have elevated my alma mater, the University of Missouri, to the national title in both 2006 and 2007. In ’06, Missouri was 8-5. But Ohio State lost the designated title game to Florida, and Florida lost to Auburn, which lost to Georgia, which lost to Vanderbilt, which lost to Ole Miss, which lost to Missouri. I rest my case. The next season, LSU defeated Ohio State in the championship tilt, but LSU earlier had lost to two teams, Kentucky and Arkansas, while Missouri lost to only one team that season, Oklahoma (though that happened twice). Furthermore, Missouri dominated Arkansas in its bowl game.

But, OK, fuzzy math and partisan methodology aside, it is fair to note that these championships are not settled entirely on the playing field. It can be debated that Alabama, in losing its final regular-season game to Auburn and failing to advance to its own conference championship game, never should have been admitted to the playoffs in the first place over six conference winners, including Central Florida.

Nobody is likely to contend that Central Florida’s league, the American Athletic Conference, is on a par with Alabama’s Southeastern Conference, but so what? Central Florida demonstrated its worthiness by conquering SEC-division champ Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Central Florida coach Scott Frost called the selection committee’s modest No. 12 ranking prior to conference title games a “conscious effort” to insure his team would be excluded from the playoffs.

It’s the same thing that happened to Boise State in 2006, when Boise State was unbeaten but ranked a humble 9th because it didn’t come from a so-called “power conference.” In that season’s Fiesta Bowl, Boise State upset power-conference member Oklahoma, but that was as close as it was going to get to the Florida-Ohio State championship match-up between once-beaten teams.

Frost, who has improved his chances of a playoff berth by ascending to a higher conference as Nebraska’s new head coach, had a point. There is an asymmetrical attention in these matters to the big-name schools and richer leagues, and folks in my profession—sports journalism—too often feed that narrative.

Definitive statements and established reputations rule. On the Sports On Earth website, Mike Lupica proclaimed Alabama’s Nick Saban “the best college coach of all time….there never has been a better coach in college football than he is, as far back as you want to go.” Which seems a bit over the top when one considers that there were 774 college head coaches, on various levels, in 2017. (And that doesn’t count two-year schools.) Throw in the fact that college football has been played for 148 years, and to anoint one fellow the best of all time sounds mighty presumptuous.

Here’s another school of thought, prompted by the news of Carmen Cozza’s death the week of the Alabama-Georgia buildup. Cozza, who was 87, had been Yale’s coach for 32 seasons and, if greatness is winning, Cozza certainly qualified as among the best. His Yale teams averaged fewer than four losses per year and, during one stretch in the late 1970s, Yale was Ivy League champion seven of eight years.

But, because Ivy League schools opted in 1945 not to participate in post-season play—based on the quaint egghead reasoning that colleges should prioritize education over football—Cozza’s teams never had any hope of playing for a national championship. And so what?

Days before Cozza’s final game at Yale in 1996, against annual rival Harvard, I sat with him in his New Haven, Conn., office as he mulled What It All Meant.

“I think,” he said then, “that anyone in this business has aspirations of being in the Rose Bowl. But I know people who took jobs like that. They are friends and I’ve seen what happened to them. So I’m saying to myself, ‘Be thankful for what you have.’”

More than once, Cozza had had been contacted about taking higher-profile jobs but found himself wondering “if I’d be as happy as I was at Yale. I’d certainly have liked to have players bigger and faster sometimes. But nobody coached as many doctors and lawyers as I have, as many leaders. I always couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning.

“The game is for the young men. It’s not for fund-raising for the university. It’s not for putting schools on the map. I don’t think an institution should ever use an athlete to promote its well-being. If we’re not doing what’s in the best interest of the student, we’re not being educators.”

That same week, Harvard’s coach, Tim Murphy, told me, “If you take the two ends of the spectrum—Vince Lombardi’s ‘winning is the only thing’ and Grantland Rice’s ‘it’s how you play the game’—I think Carm is somewhere in the middle. And me, too.”

And me, too. Congratulations to Alabama. Congratulations to (sort-of) national champion Central Florida. Don’t get carried away.

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