How Would a National Champ That Didn't Win Its Division Be Received in the Playoff Era?

In this week's #DearAndy mailbag, a guide to talking to your kids about the latest all-SEC national championship game, a look at how much trouble Jim Harbaugh will be in if Michigan doesn't win big in 2018 and the future of conference realignment.
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The national title game is set, and your children have questions…

From Josh: We live in Florida, and my seven-year-old son’s daycare teachers are Georgia and Alabama fans. Yesterday on the way to school he says to me “Dad, how can Alabama be the national champion when they weren’t the SEC champion?” I mean ... he’s not wrong. 

Josh, college football has always been the one sport that encourages everyone to live their own truth. UCF is about to throw a parade for a national title that only the Knights will recognize. Golf Digest crowned Auburn the 2004 national champ. Alabama claims a national title for the 1941 season. That year, the Crimson Tide got shut out by Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.

If Alabama beats Georgia on Monday and your son doesn’t want to recognize the Tide as the national champs, that’s his prerogative. Perhaps he’ll join UCF in recognizing the 13–0 Knights, who got shut out of the playoff because they played a lackluster regular-season schedule. (In part because of the relative strength of the American Athletic Conference, in part because few Power 5 teams want to pay UCF to come to their stadium and possibly beat them.) You may want to ask the tyke if he would have recognized Ohio State as the national champ last season had the Buckeyes not gotten shut out in the Fiesta Bowl but instead beaten Clemson and Alabama. I’m finding these arguments tend to center more on conference affiliation than any actual concern about a team that didn’t win its division winning the national title.

The rest of us will go ahead and recognize the Alabama-Georgia winner as the national champ, because the schools agreed upon a system for determining a national champion, and this is the result. But thanks for writing in, because as soon as Mack Wilson returned that interception for a touchdown in Monday’s Sugar Bowl, I knew I was going to have to answer a “How do I explain an all-SEC national title game to my children” question.

From Bob: Does playoff expansion or another round of conference realignment happen first? I’m probably in the minority of UCF fans but I hope the latter (assuming we’re involved).

Those two things may happen rather close to one another. A few weeks ago, I laid out the reasons why I don’t think the playoff format will change during this first 12-year media rights deal, but all bets are off when it expires following the 2026 season. We don’t know who is going to be paying to broadcast the playoff at that point, and we don’t know how many of the current conference commissioners will remain in place. The previous generation of college sports leaders was greased by the bowls for years, but the members of the next generation of leaders have made big money for most of their careers. Free golf and free cruises simply don’t mean as much to them. That group may realize the bowls are unnecessary and kick them out of the playoff process—which would pave the way for expansion.

As for realignment, the next likely moves would come around the time the media rights deals expire for some of the Power 5 leagues. The ACC and SEC are locked in for more than a decade, so don’t expect much there. But the Big Ten’s deals with Fox and ESPN run through June 2023. The Pac-12’s deals run through June 2024. The Big 12’s deals run through June 2025. If leagues are going to expand—or implode—that’s the time period where moves would happen. The question at that point will be how expansion candidates are evaluated. The last round was governed by how many new television households a school could bring into the conference footprint. But with so many people cutting the cord, cable subscriber fees might not be the key driver in the next round. Most likely, leagues will seek name brands that strengthen the overall offering.

Would UCF be such a name brand? If the Knights keep winning, it’s quite possible. UCF is a relatively young school with a massive enrollment. Under president John Hitt, the community there has done a wonderful job changing UCF’s reputation from commuter school to destination university. If it can sustain gridiron success, it can promise a large alumni base by 2040 that is heavily engaged in UCF football. That might be attractive to a conference looking to make a 40-year decision. But at this point, it’s too soon to tell whether anyone will expand because we don’t yet know which entities will be paying the freight to buy broadcast rights and fund these leagues.

From Andy: Michigan fans seem to have gone from annoyed to outright mad after the Outback Bowl. Is it fair to label 2018 a “win-or-else season” when there are road trips to South Bend, East Lansing and Columbus, and Wisconsin and Penn State come to Ann Arbor?

Jim Harbaugh’s honeymoon period is definitely over, but I wouldn’t go so far as to label next season win-or-else. Let’s take a realistic look at what happened this season. The Wolverines replaced 18 starters—11 of whom got drafted—and wound up on their third quarterback and still won eight games. Purdue was the only team Michigan beat that ended the season with a winning record, but this was not a terrible Wolverines team even though the circumstances seemed to be conspiring to make it one.

If Harbaugh can get the quarterback situation figured out—and the result of that competition could depend on whether the NCAA lets Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson play instead of sitting out 2018—then Michigan should be loaded next season. Rashan Gary will be one of the nation’s best pass rushers. Devin Bush will still be tackling everyone in sight. The receiving corps should be dynamic. But here’s the problem: Ohio State will still be great. Penn State loses Saquon Barkley, but it brings back Trace McSorley, and James Franklin’s recruiting hasn’t dropped off a bit. Michigan State looks poised to have its best team since it won the Big Ten in 2015. Wisconsin could be even better next year. Oh, and the Wolverines open at Notre Dame.

This next team could be Harbaugh’s best team, but it also may face the toughest schedule of the Harbaugh era. It’s not win-or-else, but by the end of 2018, the Wolverines should know exactly what they have in Harbaugh.

From Gene: Which super power would you rather have: The ability to fly or the ability to eat and drink anything and not gain weight?

I definitely want the ability to eat or drink anything and not gain weight. Imagine being able to eat this 32-ounce bone-in prime rib from Galliano in New Orleans and still look like an underwear model. That’s the dream.

From @AuburnElvis: My in-laws served collards and black-eyed peas Monday, claiming it’s tradition to eat this flavorless food on New Year’s Day. I countered most Americans eat DELICIOUS food like wings, nachos, and pigs-in-blankets on NYD while watching bowl games. Have you ever heard of such blasphemy?

My in-laws observe the black-eyed peas tradition. I hadn’t heard about a collard greens tradition, but I’m fully on board for that. Your question troubles me, though.

That you consider collards and black-eyed peas bland suggests to me that the cooks in your orbit don’t know how to prepare those particular dishes. Have your friends and family never heard of fatback? Ham hocks? Properly prepared collard greens or black-eyed peas should make a vegan want to vomit. They are not bland in any way, shape or form.

Also, they’re side dishes. Eat them alongside your wings and make the in-laws happy.