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Political Philosophy: So who really is the national champion?

John McColgan writes from his home in Joseph.

Published on January 24, 2018 1:39PM

Pop quiz: What unconventional opinion do Wesley Colley, Scott Frost, Rick Scott and John McColgan have in common?

Before you venture a guess, let me hazard one: You probably have no idea who most of those people are. Right? Good, score one point for me.

In fact, as I write this column, I take some delight in the notion that at this very moment, I might be the only person in the universe who knows who all four of them are, let alone what singular belief we hold in common.

Okay, time’s up. What all the aforementioned gentlemen, myself included, share is that we believe the University of Central Florida deserves to be recognized as the 2017 College Football National Champion.

Using both my ESP and my ESPN, I assume that if you are even a casual fan of college football, you are now saying to yourself, “What is he talking about? Alabama won the National Championship in the game against Georgia, after beating Clemson to get there on New Year’s Day.” Kindly score one more point for me for my guess.

Before I begin to decipher the mysteries of this curious football column, let me turn back the clock 20 years to review how national champions have traditionally been crowned in college football.

Prior to 1998, champions were determined by national polls completed by college coaches or by news outlets such as the Associated Press and USA Today. While there was usually a champion by consensus, sometimes there were split decisions among the judges.

So beginning in 1998 and continuing through 2013, the Bowl Championship Series was employed to determine in a head-to-head contest, which of the nation’s two front-runners would emerge as the national champion.

While polls were still used to winnow the field down to two teams, computer analytics were also introduced by mathematicians and scientists in an effort to reduce the element of human bias in the decision-making.

One of the contributors from the scientific community was astrophysicist Wesley N. Colley from the University of Alabama (in Huntsville, not Tuskaloosa). In 2001, he developed a rating system based primarily on wins and losses while also factoring in strength of schedule, but with no reliance on considerations such as margin of victory or conference membership or region of the country.

His computer model, known as the Colley Matrix, continues to rate all NCAA Division 1 football teams, with weekly updates based on the records of all teams.

Whether human polls or computer models, there was still considerable debate over whether the top two teams were being correctly chosen each year to compete in the BCS title game. In 2011, for instance, I argued in a Chieftain column that Oklahoma State should have been one of the teams in the title game instead of Alabama, but an all SEC championship game between LSU and Alabama was what many disgruntled college football fans had to settle for.

Demands for a playoff system, along with support for it from a popular President Obama, eventually swayed the college football powers to develop a four-team playoff, which we have seen employed since 2014. A seven member committee now chooses which teams emerge as the final four, and most years, most fans seemed to agree that the committee probably got their selection just about right.

But not this year. Following Alabama’s loss to Auburn in the rivalry game known as the Ironbowl, previously undefeated Alabama dropped from 1 to 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, while 2-loss Auburn vaulted past undefeated Wisconsin and UCF all the way to a No. 2 ranking, right behind 1-loss Clemson.

The committee appeared to be practically falling over itself to insure that there would be at least one SEC team in the final four, and the expectation was that Auburn, which had already beaten Georgia, would do so again in the SEC Championship game.

But when Georgia won that game, the rankings of 1-loss conference winners Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia were all set at 1, 2 and 3, and most observers expected the winner of the Big 10 championship (either Wisconsin or Ohio State) to emerge at the 4 spot.

But when 2-loss Ohio State beat Wisconsin, the door was left open to allow a third place SEC team, Alabama, back into the playoff picture in the No. 4 ranking. Meanwhile a still undefeated American Athletic Conference Champion, UCF, was largely ignored by the committee, posting a final ranking of No. 12.

But some surprising things happened in the bowl games this year. The vaunted SEC finished with an unimpressive bowl season record of 5-6, despite Georgia and Alabama closing out the playoff championship game. Meanwhile the underrated Big 10 kicked butt and took names, finishing their bowl season with a remarkable 7-1 record. And even the lowly AAC posted a better bowl record than the SEC, finishing their games at 4-3.

But most significantly, in the Peach Bowl, UCF beat Auburn, thereby capping their season as the nation’s only undefeated Division 1 team, and beating the one team – Auburn – who had already beaten both the teams, Alabama and Georgia, that ended up in the title game.

So the very next day, UCF coach Scott Frost began proclaiming proudly to anyone who would listen that his undefeated team had been shafted by the playoff committee. The university president followed Frost’s lead, and a banner was unfurled over their stadium proclaiming UCF as the national champion.

The university even agreed to pay all coaches and assistants national championship bonuses. A block party and a parade were held in downtown Orlando, and the UCF student body celebrated at Disney World.

On Jan. 8, the same day that Alabama beat Georgia in the national title game, the Florida state legislature recognized UCF as the college football National Champion. Gov. Rick Scott signed the proclamation into law.

On Jan. 9, the Colley Matrix system released final rankings for the 2017 season, vindicating UCF by listing them as No. 1 and Alabama as No. 2. All of us fans who love rooting for underdogs can celebrate UCF’s spotless season, while also hoping that it might lead college football’s governing honchos to give more credit to smaller conferences and to expand their playoff berths to eight teams.

Let the Knights roll back the Tide!

John McColgan writes from his home in Joseph.


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