College Football Sheds Cinderella Complex, Starting Tonight

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When you’re watching Oregon and Ohio State vie tonight for the first legitimately determined national college football championship, count the number of times you think about Alabama. While you’re at it, note the number of times the announcers mention the Crimson Tide with a palpable sense of longing.

Admit it: There’s a part of you that wanted Alabama in the title game. Nick Saban & Co. were the odds-on favorites, the top-ranked team in the country, and somehow we are disappointed they won’t be playing Oregon for the whole ball of wax.

There’s a name for this peculiar dynamic. It’s called the Cinderella Complex.

There are certain sports where, when push comes to shove, fans (and media) are loath to see the favorites get beat. It’s a very strange thing, the Cinderella Complex. College basketball, for example, does not labor under this psychic burden. When Butler faced Duke and UConn in consecutive national championship games a few years back, we all rooted for the underdog. We loved the fact that Butler had come so far — and had a chance to unseat the sport’s elite overlords. By the same token, if Kentucky should get knocked out of the tournament early this March, few tears will be shed. Indeed, everyone but UK fans will welcome it.

But college football — still so new to the playoff format — is different. We want the two “best” teams to face each other in a winner-take-all title game.

Why?

Well, I think it comes back to how sports determine the word “best”.

I first came across this triumphalist dynamic in the golf world, where the idea of a “great tournament” depends on having the “best” players — Phil, or Tiger, or Rory — in contention and ultimately holding the big check. This especially applies to major championships. If some “nobody” should win a major (as can often happen in golf), it feels like a letdown. It feels as though the optimum title confrontation has eluded us.

That’s the same nagging feeling we’ve had all this week, knowing that everyone’s no. 1 team, Alabama, would not be playing for the title tonight. I’m not casting aspersions here: I feel it, too.

There’s no definitive explanation for the Cinderella Complex, but the college football playoff has, I think, inched us closer to understanding.

Part of what animates college football fandom is the prevalence of opinion. Without a playoff, we depended for decades on polls to determine the top 10, the top 20 teams in the nation. We depended on polls to frame the narrative and, ultimately, to crown our national champions. But polls are just an agglomeration of opinions. Intrinsically, the opinion of some AP writer is no more valid than my opinion, or yours, or those of Alabamans or Oregonians.

But we want Alabama in the title game to prove that we weren’t mistaken in ranking them tops all year long. We want Alabama in the game to prove we were right.

Tonight’s game will determine a true national champion for the first time — because it’s the first time the winner will be meted out on the field, where opinions don’t matter.

We still have the polls, but they are fading in relevance. When the field expands to 8 teams or 16 teams (as it inevitably will), these opinion-based polls will fade even further.

Look at what’s happened in college basketball. There remain plenty of polls that rank the various top 20 or 25 teams in the nation. But they are meaningless — because all that matters is how far you make it in the NCAA Tournament, and whether you win it. Yes, it matters if you are ranked 65th and don’t make the tournament field. But every odds-on favorite to win the national title is in the field — guaranteed. It doesn’t matter what their preseason ranking was, what their mid-season ranking was. It doesn’t matter what their tournament seed was.

When you settle things on the field, opinion goes out the window.

I think this indifference to opinion, to conventional wisdom, is what frees college basketball from the peculiarities of the Cinderella Complex. Golf, which makes such a big deal of World Rankings and the imprimatur of having already won a major championship, is still in its thrall. College football starts the process of getting out from under it, tonight.

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