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This Year's College Football Playoff Is a Sham. Blame ESPN.

No, this game won't finally determine a "true" champion

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Monday night’s matchup between the University of Oregon Ducks and Ohio State Buckeyes is being touted as the first-ever “true” national college football championship. As an Oregon grad and lifelong sports geek, I’ll be in Dallas for kickoff, caressing a set of imaginary rosary beads on every snap and staking my emotional well being for the next eight months (when the 2015 football season begins) on the outcome of the game. 

For Oregon fans, the game is the culmination of a long, arduous, and unlikely quest. For many of us, that quest began with the inglorious 1983 "Toilet Bowl," a 0-0 tie in a battle of downtroddens, against rival Oregon State in miserable weather. From there, the Ducks somehow waddled toward respectability, moving through the bowl system’s humbler tiers, a journey that included three stops in El Paso and some apparently necessary dishonor called the Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl (1992, we lost to Wake Forest), four Rose Bowl appearances (2-2 record) and a gut-wrenching defeat at the hands of the Auburn Tigers in the 2011 national championship game.

I’ve had family deaths that hurt less than some of those losses. 

So believe me when I say that I don’t just want the mighty and noble and pure and righteous Ducks to prevail over the morally bankrupt sewage-sucking hellspawn of Ohio State. I need them to win. This game might not decide the fate of the universe in a battle between the everlasting forces of good and evil—after all, Alabama has already been eliminated. But a victory will be enough to confirm that justice can sometimes prevail in this world and in some fundamental way lighten the metaphysical load on the residents of a state that have never known what it’s like to call their guys football champions since we started keeping track of such distinctions in 1869.  

Yet even if Oregon does manage to win this game, I know that this quest for validation will remain unfulfilled. Even as that as-yet imaginary confetti is falling and I’m doing the Chris Christie bump with my old college dorm mate Brian Brink inside the suddenly cozy confines of AT&T Stadium, I’ll know in a dark and rarely visited corner of my heart that this bought, sold, and half-scripted championship won’t be completely legit. 

I’ll know this because of J.A. Adande and Tim Cowlishaw.

Back on December 8, just a day or two after the four competitors in the first-ever Division I College Football Playoff National Championship had been selected, Adande— an ESPN regular and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times—did something fans almost never see anyone do on the network: he spoke candidly and honestly about college football. 

Appearing on “Around the Horn,” ESPN’s weekday round-table talk show, Adande was asked to explain how the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs had been shut out of the “final four” playoff field in the last week of the regular season. Despite having been ranked third by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee the week before, and completing its season with a 55-3 waxing of Iowa State, TCU had been cast out of college football’s inner sanctum, its place taken by the Big Ten Conference champion Ohio State Buckeyes.

“Is Ohio State a bigger brand? Is it a better TV product? Yes,” Adande said. “Let’s not forget this is a television show.”

This unexpected jolt of honesty on ESPN nearly brought normally unflappable “Around the Horn” host Tony Reali out of his chair.

“But hold on one second, J.A.,” Reali said. “You said this is a television show. So you think that should play into this? Market size? Or general interest in a particular region of the country?” 

“I think it’d be foolish to think that it doesn’t play a part, in the fact that Ohio State is a big brand and their fans are going to travel well to the games and attract TV ratings.” 

A few weeks later on the same show, panelist Tim Cowlishaw (also a columnist, for the Dallas Morning News) broke the fourth wall again when explaining the embarrassing 0-3 bowl record amassed by the year’s highest-ranked SEC teams with this nugget of Texas truthfulness.

“Here’s the thing," he said. "Other than these little non-conference games you play in September, we’re just guessing when teams play conference games what those mean. And we assume these great SEC West teams are just beating up on each other. Maybe they weren’t that great to begin with.” 

 “Timmy, your TCU Horned Frogs, how should they be feeling right now?” Reali asked. 

“Like they’re the number two team in the nation in a few days, when all this is done.” 

“Why not number one?” countered Reali.

Why not number one, indeed? 

For those of us who have spent the past 10 years reading the ESPN tea leaves to figure out which teams would be granted the privilege of playing the champion of the Southeast Conference for the college football national title, those exchanges on “Around the Horn” were a revelation. 

College football fans just aren’t used to this sort of forthright commentary from the entity that, through the brute force of economics, can bend virtually every important detail of the college football narrative to bolster its massive financial investment. That vision, as all fans know, has for more than a decade revolved unrelentingly around the putative supremacy of the Southeast Conference football, home to Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU—who combined won every national championship between 2006 and 2012. In 2008, ESPN dumped an ungodly $2.25 billion into a 15-year deal for the rights to televise SEC football games. The network extended that deal by 10 years in 2013 for an undisclosed sum. In 2014 it launched its very own SEC Network. 

To safeguard maximum return on its unprecedented investment in college athletics, ESPN has spent the last decade doing its best to bully the country into believing that the SEC basically invented college football and that only the stupid and uninformed (more on this in a sec) could possibly believe otherwise. In November, Awful Announcing brilliantly deconstructed the way ESPN built its championship narrative around the conference by allotting the staggering preponderance of its agenda-setting “College GameDay” airtime to the SEC. Using a stopwatch during a three-hour telecast, Scott Bryant found ESPN devoted 1:02:08 to SEC coverage, while giving just 15:59 to the next most-covered conference (Big Ten), 10:57 to the Pac-12 and just 43 seconds to the ACC.

And yet, statistical evidence puts the lie to the very idea that the SEC ever was measurably better than other major conferences. In 2012, I worked up a chart showing how since the dawn of the BCS era in 1998, the SEC’s win-loss record against teams from other major conferences hovers right around about .500. Revised statistics produced over the past two seasons confirm the trend.  

This hasn’t stopped the national sports media, dominated by ESPN, from pushing perhaps the greatest sham ever perpetrated on the American sporting public by anointing “experts” (sportswriters, coaches, the newly convened Selection Committee, which includes that beloved old gridiron pundit and Iraq War architect Condoleezza Rice, just in case we needed to be reminded how corrupt and political this whole process has gotten) to judge the relative merits of teams whose games they don’t attend and sometimes don’t even watch. To burnish its biased narrative with the sheen of integrity, ESPN trots out a squadron of “experts” and “analysts” drawn from a paid stable who proclaim the network’s omniscience and belittle anyone who doesn’t follow the script by dismissing them as a member of the “tinfoil hat brigade.”

You think Olympic ice skating judging is crooked? Imagine if they didn’t even force the Bulgarian judge to watch the performances before casting her vote. That’s not essentially what college football and its ESPN overlord does to pick its top teams—it’s exactly what they do.

This season, ESPN’s lust for SEC gold led to perhaps the most absurd manipulation ever witnessed in college football when the traditionally second-tier SEC teams Mississippi State and Ole Miss spent a glorious week in October ranked first and second in the country, during which ESPN went on an extended Dixiegasm about good ol’ downhome smashmouth ass-whoopin’ football.

Long-suffering fans in the Magnolia State might have been forgiven for buying whole hog into the fantasy, but no serious football observer outside the solipsistic ESPN/SEC echo chamber assumed for a Starksville second that either the Bulldogs or Rebels were even close to being the best teams in the country, or that either would end up playing for the national title. The Mississippi State/Ole Miss storyline was an interesting little mid-season subplot devised to generate drama and boost TV ratings and nothing more. 

Sure enough, after the December selection of the four playoff teams (Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State) and the commencement of bowl season, ESPN’s hopeful narrative of SEC dominance unraveled. TCU walloped Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, 42-3. Mississippi State actually showed up to the Orange Bowl, but nonetheless lost to Georgia Tech. The vaunted SEC West went 2-5 in bowl games.

ESPN and SEC apologists got to work plugging holes in their leaky ship by pompously deriding their critics. ESPN “College GameDay” host Chris Fowler had set the template for those efforts earlier in the season with an extended bully pulpit rant that dismissed fans who dared suggest ESPN’s mega-billion-dollar investment in the SEC created a bias as “stupid” and “uninformed.”

Writing on January 5 on ESPN’s SEC blog, Edward Aschoff valiantly attempted to keep the myth intact.

“For so long, the SEC was ahead of the pack because of its coaches and its ability to continuously reel in the nation’s top high school talent,” he wrote. “That is still very true … but other conferences are catching up in both areas.”

Catching up? Beating most of the conference's ranked teams is "catching up"? I wonder how the Horned Frogs of TCU felt about "catching up" to the SEC after they’d humiliated Ole Miss on the New Year’s Eve?

The ghost of that 2014 Horned Frogs team is already hanging over the championship stadium in Dallas, forever destined to wander the football ether in some sort of Selection Committee purgatory. Would Oregon or Ohio State beat TCU in a head-to-head matchup? I believe they would, just as TCU fans believe their team would prevail. But in the end, like Tim Cowlishaw said, we’re all just guessing.

The fact that TCU got screwed means Duck fans can’t have the complete and unassailable victory they deserve. That pisses me off.  It should piss off Ohio State fans, too.

That’s why it’s important not to be shouted down by shills, to continue beating the drum about the way college football has ceded its credibility to ESPN, a network owned by the Walt Disney Company, not coincidentally the most successful spinner of dreams and fables in world history.

It’s true that this year’s playoff system, which gives four teams a shot at the title, is an improvement over the BCS system that granted just two teams the right to play for the game’s biggest prize. If we were playing under last year’s rules, Alabama would kick the shit out of Florida State in the championship game on Monday and we’d still be living in a world with yet another bogus SEC champion, dominated by a simpleton narrative extolling Alabama and its head coach Nick Saban as the Second Coming.

Even so, even with this improvement, I can’t help feeling that the more control ESPN gets over this thing—the worldwide cheater holds broadcast rights to 38 of this year’s 39 bowl games—the more it resembles a show like “Survivor” than it does an honest athletic competition.

Both shows start each season by narrowing down a veritable nation of potential challengers to 16 or so telegenic candidates. As various competitions ensue, the old the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend pathos feed a storyline in which participants are voted out of the competition one by one, week after week. While the results might not be entirely rigged, producers of both shows manipulate the weekly narrative to construct plotlines that sway public perception of personalities and falsely heighten the drama in service of the ratings beast. Boston Rob vs. Russell Hantz! Mississippi State vs. Ole Miss!

It’s a terrific show. It’s addictive. It assumes an embarrassing level of significance among fans. No matter who wins on Monday, that’s going to be the real tragedy of the night—millions of people investing their hearts in a storyline in which everyone has somehow agreed to give up a little piece of reality, to get played while others play.