Four-team playoff in Division I football still a joke

Although the opponent was the same as last year, the stakes were lower, supposedly, for the University of Wisconsin in this year’s bowl game.

The Badgers had knocked off the University of Miami on the Hurricanes’ home turf last year, winning the Orange Bowl 34-24 to finish with an impressive 13-1 record.

This time around the venue was the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in New York, where the Badgers again met Miami and this time demolished the Hurricanes 35-3. Wisconsin’s win in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl was just as meaningful — and, as it pertained to a national title, meaningless — as last year’s win at the Orange Bowl.

In the national championship hunt, Wisconsin wasn’t going anywhere this year, not with a 7-5 record in the regular season. There were 12-1 teams that weren’t going anywhere in the national-title hunt, either, thanks to the NCAA’s four-team, micro-playoff charade.

It’s considered bad form to cheer others’ misfortune, but it was hard not to love the clunker of a national championship game between Clemson and Alabama.

It wasn’t the sight of Alabama getting slaughtered that brightened the picture for a lot of football fans, although that part didn’t hurt. The Crimson Tide are the New England Patriots of college football.

The encouraging side of the finale was the anticlimax, the zero-drama value of a 44-16 rout. Anything to reflect poorly on the “tournament” was welcomed.

Clemson went undefeated and deserved the national title as it’s decided in the current format. As far as the Tigers’ being head and shoulders over the rest of the field, though, they beat Texas A&M by just two points, and won at home by four over a Syracuse team that lost to Notre Dame by 33.

Controversies over who got left out of the “tournament” should involve the teams ranked around ninth or 10th, not fifth or sixth. There is no way to positively assert that Ohio State or LSU, for example, couldn’t have taken down Clemson given the chance.

Those schools instead played a glorified nonconference game dressed up as something special. The allegedly prestigious Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl had as much to say about a national champion as the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl did.

Gratifying as the Badgers’ second straight win over Miami was, it could be argued that Wisconsin-Whitewater had an even more exciting postseason, despite the Warhawks’ year ending with a loss.

Whitewater, a Division III school, won three games in the 32-team tournament before losing in the semifinals to eventual champion Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Warhawks, who have won the Division III title six times, finished 13-1, the same record compiled by the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers team that didn’t get invited to the championship “tournament.”

Notice that both teams played 14 games, the difference being that the Badgers, and other Division I bowl teams on the outside looking in, practiced and watched film for a month preparing for one opponent. Whitewater and the other playoff teams in every other division of NCAA football spent the same amount of time competing in a legitimate national-championship tourney.

Put too fine a point on the importance of a college football tournament, and soon you’re in “why the universe?” territory. In the grand scheme, it’s not that big of a deal.

If you’re going to have a football season that determines an overall champion at the end, don’t masquerade a four-team bracket as a playoff. It’s a members-only invitational that is as incomplete as an overthrown forward pass.

The NCAA needs to expand its postseason field to eight teams, at a minimum, lest they continue to peddle an overrated pageant — which this year produced one semi-close game and two blowouts.

Tournament officials rhapsodize about how in the final analysis it all works out because the champion is being decided on the field.

Only, it doesn’t all work out with only four teams involved. With too many questions left unanswered, the Division I “tournament” was sorely lacking, as usual.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@newmedia-wi.com.