The Club Problem

College Football’s caste system is only getting stronger

By Nathan Smith

Alabama. Clemson. Notre Dame. Oklahoma.

That’s the playoff that the selection committee gave us: four teams littered with NFL talent, three teams with undefeated records, two legitimate Heisman candidates. During the five-year history of the four-team playoff, this might have been the least controversial bunch presented to the public. While Alabama and Clemson will be heavy favorites, all of the teams seemed like legitimate claimants to the throne.

There was only one certainty: no team would raise the trophy this year that hasn’t done so before. This will keep alive a 22-year streak keeping final glory in the hands of the powerful, wealthy and prestigious. This is the defining feature of college football—a permanent aristocracy.

It all feels very zeitgeisty. Since the end of the Clinton years, income inequality has taken center stage in our political discourse. Politicians have built national followings railing against elites who, they allege, hoard all the gains of economic growth and shoulder no responsibility for their own failings or misdeeds.

While the Senate’s confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh produced a dozen viral clips and memes, recall the nominee’s evidence that his youthful partying couldn’t have been out of control.

“I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.”

Senator Mazie Hirono responded, “I’m insulted as a Georgetown graduate.”

Nothing could make the populist argument more: two of the most powerful people in the country, decades removed from their studies, name-checking their prestigious alma maters.

The schools aren’t a part of the argument. The schools are the argument.

Yale is Yale.

The promise of the BCS system, implemented for the 1998 season, was to make college football less subjective. For decades, champions were selected by opinion polls, the two biggest being conducted by the media in the AP Poll and fellow coaches in the AFCA Poll. The result was decidedly anticlimactic and often confusing. In 1997, the old system produced what was supposed to be the last of its kind: a split decision between two programs—Michigan and Nebraska—who hadn’t played each other in over a decade.

There was a certain appeal, then and now, to having the championship be decided on the field. Perhaps there was some envy of the hype of the NCAA Basketball Tournament and the finality of the Super Bowl. But the move to the BCS marked a distinct closing of the gates of the elites.

In the old system’s penultimate year, Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators won their first National Championship. It marked a quick rise out of relative obscurity, coinciding with the hiring of Spurrier six years earlier. In today’s world, Gainsville is a destination job, but it’s rarely mentioned how new that tradition is.

In fact, the twenty years that preceded the BCS were marked by quick rises and first time Champions. During that period, the AP crowned eight first-time champions: Georgia, Clemson, Penn State, Miami, BYU, Colorado, Florida State, and Florida. Georgia Tech and Washington also received their first championships at the hands of the Coaches.

The landscape was changing rapidly at the end of the millennium. USC, Texas, Alabama and Notre Dame were all in long fallow periods. The center of the sport had moved from the industrial Midwest to the Southeast, specifically Florida.

So, like all oligarchs, plutocrats, and aristocrats in history, the system found a way to cement gains, mitigate losses, and keep the unwashed masses at bay. Nobody has joined the club in two decades.

The Supreme Court that Kavanaugh enters is similarly elite. All eight of his fellow justices attended Yale Law School, or its chief rival, Harvard. In fact, there hasn’t been a justice admitted to the court that hasn’t gone to one of those two schools since 1981, when Ronald Reagan (the last non-Ivy League President) nominated Sandra Day O’Connor.

Kavanaugh got into Yale Law School. He made sure to tell us that. It creates a circular, self-sustaining logic: Kavanaugh deserves to be on the Supreme Court because he went to the best law school and Yale is the best law school because Brett Kavanaugh went there.

The key to both the BCS system and the current playoff format is the careful selection of who has the opportunity to play for the trophy. There is no dissenting opinion anymore. The National Champion has to be one of the two or later four teams selected.

In this era, there hasn’t been a single champion crowned who hadn’t won the award under the previous system. The selection model, whether by computers or the opaque playoff selection committee, has virtually denied all applications to the club.

There are 27 schools that have won the championship either through the AP or Coaches Poll since 1945, when the AFCA first appeared. To  be fair, they are not all currently treated as royalty. BYU is not affiliated with P5 conference, and thus cannot enjoy full membership in the club. Oklahoma State, Maryland, Minnesota, Syracuse and Pitt all won championships early and then receded into decades of mediocrity. That leaves 20 teams in this unique club.

Club members accounted for 30 of 32 participants in the BCS Championship Game. As of this week, they will account for 19 of 20 participants in the playoff. They account for l5 percent of FBS teams, and have been given 94 percent of chances to win it all.

Between 110 non-club members, there have only been two schools who’ve even being allowed a spot at the table: Virginia Tech in 2000 and Oregon in 2010 and 2014. Even those inclusions were accidental. Each of those teams finished their respective seasons undefeated in a power conference, without an undefeated club members to take precedence.

How often would you expect the in-crowd to be selected over the out-crowd when both have an equal amount of losses? How often would you expect the club to sneak a team in with more losses than a non-club contender? Since the start of the BCS, these two instances have happened a combined 48 times, averaging more than twice a year. There has never been an example of the club losing a spot to a peasant school with the same or worse record.

If this was random, it would be the equivalent of a coin coming up heads 48 straight times.

There is a potential quibble with every team on the list. Half played in what are now call G5 conferences, with Boise State accounting for six instances on its own. But the bias doesn’t end when strength of schedule improves. TCU found itself on a short end of the stick four times as a member of various non-power conferences, but even after its elevation to the Big 12, it was excluded yet again in 2014.

For all his anti-elite bluster, President Trump has shown an enormous preference for Supreme Court nominees with Harvard or Yale degrees. There have been reports that he sees it as a prerequisite. During both selection processes the perceived runner-up has come from a slightly less elite program: Thomas Hardiman from Georgetown and Amy Coney Barrett from Notre Dame.

Even before sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh surfaced, it was frequently argued that Barrett, as an anti-abortion woman, was the more politically savvy pick. This argument grew in popularity up to the moment Kavanaugh was confirmed, when it became moot. Kavanaugh’s brand appeal won out.

Trump, to be fair, along with his four immediate predecessors has something in common with the playoff selection committee: They can’t resist a pedigree.

After all, Yale is Yale.

The usual culprits for college football’s aristocracy are money and recruiting. It’s only reasonable, say the defenders of the club, that Alabama has won it all 5 of the last 9 years. They have the best recruiting classes, best coaches, the most money. This is a meritocracy, and Alabama has earned its place.

If this logic were to track, we should see similar results in college basketball, where the best recruits and money also tends to swarm to traditional powerhouses. Yet, under the weight of a 64-team tournament, those types of advantages seem to diminish dramatically.

Since the first BCS season, the NCAA tournament has produced four first-time champions: UConn in 1999, Maryland in 2002, Syracuse in 2003 and Florida in 2006. A further eight teams have had the opportunity to win their first title, falling short in the final.

Currently, there is no real analog to Alabama football in the college basketball world. Duke and Kentucky tend to split the top-rated recruits in any given year, but they have only four championships between them over this 20-year time frame. UConn has won the most titles, but is currently in disarray, having lost in the last round of conference realignment and parted acrimoniously with Kevin Ollie, the coach of its most recent tournament run.

 In football, take a look one division lower, to the FCS/Division 1AA, and you will see nine programs winning their first championship over this period, even with North Dakota State’s six championships in the past decade.

In professional football, the path to glory has opened up considerably since 1998. The first 32 Super Bowls were split between 11 franchises, with six franchises representing a super-majority of champions. The last 20 have been split among 12, with only the New England Patriots winning more than two.

During this period, seven franchises won their first Super Bowl. Four more teams made their first appearance but lost.

As power in all of its rivals diversifies, college football continues to silently consolidate.

Despite his assurance that his admission to Yale Law was a sign of grit and brilliance, Kavanaugh came to represent the epitome of privilege to many Americans, the majority of whom opposed his confirmation. His declaration that he got in by himself, with no connections, seemed immediately dubious for the son of powerful lobbyist, the grandson of a Yale graduate, and an alum of nationally elite prep school and Yale itself as an undergrad.

Furthermore, it stood out how many sins had been indulged to get him there. Even though Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations had never been public, Kavanaugh admitted, in a deliberately misleading way, to underage drinking. He was also cited for participating in a bar fight, which he allegedly started by throwing ice in a stranger’s face. It isn’t particularly a novel idea that such behavior could have derailed the life of a less wealthy, less connected, and less white person.

But mistakes only matter when you’re not a member of the club.

Opportunity is so vanishingly small in college football, with gatekeepers showing such bias toward established power, that we’ve seen hardly any change in the hierarchy in 20 years. The gap between the club and everyone else just continues to grow.

The most popular refrain is that this system is necessary because “it makes the season matter.” This is so oft repeated that it’s accepted even by fans of non-club schools. The complete statement should be, “it makes the season matter for the have-nots.” They are the ones of whom perfection is demanded. One loss from an upstart is a blessed rational for exclusion.

What’s striking is how easily the standard disappears once it applies to a blue blood. Kansas State lost the Big 12 championship game in 1998, so it was denied a chance in the first BCS matchup. But when the Wildcats beat Oklahoma in the same setting five years later, it was not enough to keep the Sooners out of the title game. In 2011, instead of one-loss teams at Stanford and Oklahoma State, the system rewarded Alabama with a rematch against LSU, to whom they had fallen weeks earlier.

The quirky rules that kept Texas Tech out of the Big 12 Championship in 2008 were used to discredit any claim to a shot at glory. However, the inability to win one’s conference division had stopped mattering in 2017, when Alabama got an invite. It is reasonable to expect that this prerequisite will reappear, the next time a have-not comes close.

Two of Alabama’s championship trophies arrived in circumstances that can, would, and have disqualified a less storied program. The Crimson Tide’s unparalleled run could only exist in a world that forgave its sins and condemned all others.

After all, Alabama is Alabama.

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