Alabama: Champion or best team?

Is Alabama the best team in Division I college football? Or is it merely the national champion. Sounds like kind of a dumb question, doesn't it? The Crimson Tide did win the BCS national championship game last night, beating LSU 21-0. Winning the national championship game generally makes you the national champion. But this is college football, so nothing's that simple. It's been suggested that since LSU had such a strong body of work with a 13-0 regular season, including a victory over Alabama, the Tigers should share the title. Tony Kornheiser advocated this on PTI on Monday, and LSU coach Les Miles made the argument himself after the game.

On the face of it, it's a dumb claim. But the way college football works - and the narrative we in the sports media have created for college football - the argument is somewhat serious.


College football's never been my thing. I grew up in Buffalo in the 1980s and 1990s, where there was no big-time college football (the University at Buffalo didn't go D-I until 1999) and where the NFL is supreme sports overlord. I went to a college without a football team (St. Bonaventure) and go to grad school at a school that is primarily a basketball/lacrosse school (Syracuse). All of this is my way of saying that I'm very much a guest in the world of college football.


In graduate school, definitions are everything. How you define variables in your study, the theories you're working with, the expected outcome, are all critically important. It's why grad school discussions can be so mind-numbing, because people obsess over definitions. It goes beyond mere semantic arguments - how you define something affects how you study it and what you will find.

(An example from my field: How do you define a newspaper? Sound dumb? Maybe it is. But if an online news source is created under a newspaper's name by a staff also writing for print, is it a newspaper or an online source? I digress ... )

Which brings me to the core question: What is the point of a sports season?

Is it to define a champion? Is it to define the best team?

And are they the same thing?

No one would argue that the 2007 New England Patriots weren't the best team that season, going undefeated. But they lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. The Patriots were the best team. The Giants were, and are forever, the champions.

This happens often in sports. The best team throughout the regular season doesn't always win. In fact, most sports are going to great lengths to make sure that doesn't happen. Virtually sport has extended playoffs, with baseball considering more teams.

If sports was about finding "the best team," there would be no playoffs. There would just be a regular season, with the team with the best record being the champion. But we as fans, and as media, love playoffs. The one-and-done nature of the NFL playoffs or the NCAA Tournament. The thrill of a series in baseball or basketball. Overtime playoff hockey. Game 7. We love them because of the drama, the stakes. We love them because we feel like anything can happen. We love them not because the underdog will win, but because the underdog has a chance to win.

Except in college football.

Again, this is an outsider's point of view. But from my outside view, it looks like the narrative of college football is that the season is about finding the best team. There's an obsession with finding the best team, with the champion being the best team that doesn't exist in other sports. That's why you hear the mantra that "every game matters," that college football has the best regular season. Because the narrative isn't about finding the national champion. It's about finding the best team.

Think of it this way: In the other sports, there are set rules, a path to the championship. A team knows it has to win three games, including the Super Bowl; win six games over three weekends; win four best-of-seven series. In college football, there is no set path (aside from apparently winning the SEC).

In other sports, there's no way a losing team would stake a claim to a championship. Bill Belichick would never claim a share of the 2007 NFL title because his Patriots had a better body of work. That's the narrative of pro football - the Super Bowl winner is the champion.

The narrative of college football is different. The goal seems to be to find the best team, rather than a champion.

Which isn't necessarily wrong. But it's a distinction to keep in mind.