How legitimate will a spring national championship be?
College football has a bizarre history with crowning national champions. Up until 1950, there were so many different selectors of the “national champion” that often multiple teams were recognized as winning a title. From 1920-23, there were 21 teams that finished undefeated and picked as the national champion by the various outlets and mathematicians, who for whatever reason had the authority to do so.
When college football went to a two-poll system in 1950 (AP and Coaches, though it wasn’t called that until years later), it got a little better, but it still made little sense. Since 1954, the NCAA officially recognized multiple national champions 16 times, with the last time being 2003 (LSU and USC). In 1964 and 1970, it recognized 3 national champions. In what sport are there 3 champs? If the NBA recognized multiple champions each season, LeBron would have 9 rings.
You know college football has a flawed past when there is a vote on a national champion — and that vote often took place before postseason play.
The point of that brief history lesson is that no sport has made more of a mess in crowning its champion. And that brings us to the complicated situation of 2020, when we finally have a system in the College Football Playoff that brings us 1 champion each season.
But there are 3 Power 5 conferences playing in the fall and 2 that have postponed their seasons until the spring. Assuming this season actually gets played as constructed, how will history look back on this season? Will history repeat itself and there be 2 national champions, 1 in the fall and 1 in the spring?
Unfortunately for the Big Ten and Pac-12, the answer should be no. A resounding no, in fact. Sorry, Ohio State, Penn State and Oregon — that ship has sailed. A spring season will not be legitimate without the SEC, ACC and Big 12. Not when your conferences decided against playing during the original season.
There hasn’t been any indication from Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren on what a spring season would look like — much less a spring postseason. If it’s just the Big Ten and Pac-12 playing in the spring, the best spring team would be equivalent of being Rose Bowl champions. There’s certainly prestige in that, but it’s not possible to hold college football’s highest honor — not even with an undefeated spring season.
If the SEC, ACC and Big 12 wind up following the Big Ten and Pac-12 into the spring, which certainly could happen, then that’s a much different conversation, and there would be the opportunity for a legitimate national championship.
Why are the SEC, ACC and Big 12 so important? Well, you don’t need me to remind you how dominant the SEC has been since 2003. Any season that doesn’t include them wouldn’t be a true championship. Clemson’s ascension into perennial title contenders under Dabo Swinney means you need them too, especially with Trevor Lawrence still playing.
The biggest question to me is whether a fall season that doesn’t include Ohio State, Penn State and Oregon can feature a legitimate national champion? Unfortunately for the Big Ten and the Pac-12, that answer is yes. It’s partly because those leagues voluntarily bowed out. It’s also because of the way those other leagues have dominated postseason play.
The chart below shows, starting in 1998, how the conferences stack up against each other in terms of national titles, national runner-up finishes and Playoff appearances (since 2014).
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As some like @RedditCFB have so lovingly put it, the Big Ten has been missing in action quite frequently.
If the Big Ten sits out Fall 2020, a National Championship without the most historic power conference will be suspect. They've been in every title game since the BCS started except in '20, '19, '18, '17, '16, '14, '13, '12, '11, '10, '09, '06, '05, '04, '02, '01, '00, & '99.
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) August 10, 2020
The Big Ten has struggled on a national stage in recent years, aside from Ohio State’s national title in 2014. That also represents the B1G’s most recent Playoff victory. That’s what made the blown lead to Clemson in the CFP semifinals in 2019 and the postponed 2020 season so difficult to stomach for the Buckeyes and the rest of the league.
The College Football Playoff is proceeding as if it will have a national champion in the fall.
“We don’t know right now what the season will bring, but as a committee, we are ready to use the protocol and the expertise of the 13 people who have been charged with selecting the teams,” Iowa athletic director and committee chairman Gary Barta said in a news release.
“The committee’s task is to rank the teams based on what happens on the field. This week gave us a great chance to catch up with the familiar faces and welcome our three new members to the process. If the board and management committee say we are having a CFP, we will be ready.”
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby wasn’t quite as sure.
“I think it’s OK to ask the logical question whether (a champion crowned in either semester) is an actual champion,” Bowlsby said to CBS.
Since Ohio State was a popular national champion pick and has a loaded roster, any season without it would definitely be a little tainted. Maybe it will be viewed like 2008, when the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl after Tom Brady’s season-ending injury. Did the champion have the toughest road possible? No. But does it still count? You bet.
The Big Ten is hoping that the SEC, ACC and Big 12 move their seasons to the spring, and until they do, a national title is off the table.