Big Time College Football Programs Do Not Play Each Other Very Often

Ohio State has been playing football for 111 years. Georgia has been playing for 119 years. They did not face each other until 1993, and they have not faced each other one time since then.

Guess who was the quarterback for Ohio State in that game?

Kirk Herbstreit, who will be calling the Georgia-Ohio State playoff game for ESPN on Saturday night.

I saw that tweet above and it got me thinking: how many other big time College Football programs have only met a handful of times, or maybe haven’t even met at all?

Because while we know there are lots of big rivalries where the teams have played one another sometimes over 100 times, there are a lot of heavyweight programs that have never faced off.

LSU and Michigan, for example, have never met head-to-head.

Clemson has never played Michigan, Oregon, Texas, Utah or Wisconsin.

Florida State and Texas have never played.

Alabama and Oregon have never played.

And that’s really one of the major defects of the college football framework: the sport is so fragmented and parochial that we rarely get to see the best teams in the sport face off with one another head-to-head.

This is what we’re really missing out on when the big time programs play cupcake games, after all. When Alabama plays the Citadel as its 4th non-conference game, that could be a game where they play Oregon, or Oklahoma.

But there’s a very good reason that these big time programs would rather play the Middle Tennessees and Charleston Southerns of the world than square off against another heavyweight: because there’s no real incentive to do so.

Think about it from a program like Bama or Ohio State’s point of view: why would they schedule a tough non-conference game when they know they’re in the playoff no matter what if they finish with zero or one losses? There’s no upside, only downside.

Look at Ohio State last year: they hosted Oregon in week 2, lost the game, and then had no margin for error the rest of the way. They got their second loss of the season to Michigan, and they were out of the playoff at that point. They were done because they had two losses.

Had Ohio State just scheduled a G5 team like, say, Eastern Michigan or something, instead of Oregon, then they would have been undefeated going into the Michigan game, and maybe losing to Michigan wouldn’t have killed their playoff chances.

So let’s take a look at how many times the most prominent programs have actually played one another. There were some matchups that I didn’t include, like obviously conference rivalries, and postseason rivalries that have been prominent in recent years (like Bama vs. Clemson, Clemson vs. Ohio State).

Texas and Florida last played back in 1940. Obviously with Texas joining the SEC (probably in 2024 now, it’s looking like) they will start seeing each other a lot more. But you think about how great these programs were in the 2000s and they never once faced off head-to-head.

I still hate the fact that we never got to see a Pete Carroll USC team face off against an SEC powerhouse back in the 2000s.

Such is the nature of our wonderful yet in many ways ass-backwards sport of college football, which did not have a proper method for determining a National Champion until about 1998, and even then, it was still horribly broken.

In 2024, the sport will finally adopt a 12-team playoff system with automatic bids for conference champions. With automatic bids for winning your conference, we should see teams start to schedule more blockbuster non-conference games, as there really isn’t a downside to doing so: if Michigan goes down to Baton Rouge and beats LSU early in the season, that significantly bolsters their resume for an at-large bid to the playoff should Michigan fail to win the Big Ten’s automatic bid. If Michigan loses the game to LSU, however, it doesn’t affect Michigan’s chances of winning the Big Ten and securing an automatic bid. So really there’s only upside to scheduling these games. Getting a big non-conference win can almost act as an insurance policy to give you the inside track for an at-large bid should you fail to win your conference.

2024 will mark the beginning of a totally new era for college football, one that brings the sport into the 21st century, or to be quite honest, the 20th century when you compare it to every other major American sport.

College basketball has had some form of the tournament since 1939, although it began with just 8 teams. By 1953 it featured 22 teams, and by 1985 it expanded out to the 64 team format.

The NFL adopted an 8 team playoff with the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, and expanded over the years and now sits at 14 teams.

The NBA’s playoffs have been at 16 teams since 1984, but keep in mind the NBA only had 22 teams up until 1988.

It took college football until 2014 to implement even a 4-team playoff. That is how far behind the times the sport is.

For most of the Poll Era in college football (since 1936), there was not a tried and true method for determining an undisputed National Champion.

From 1960-1997, there were only 12 seasons in which #1 played #2 in a bowl game at the end of the season. The sport was a mess, and it wasn’t until 1992 that a system that forced the top two teams to play one another in a bowl game was implemented.

Prior to 1992, when the Bowl Coalition system was introduced, the National Championship was decided simply by whether or not the team that was ranked #1 in the polls won its bowl game, regardless of who it actually played in that bowl game.

Just to illustrate how ridiculous the system was prior to 1992, BYU won the National Championship in 1984 despite the fact that they capped off their undefeated season with a 24-17 win in the Holiday Bowl over an unranked Michigan team that went 6-5. BYU was crowned the National Champion despite not even playing a ranked team in their bowl game.

In 1978, Alabama was named National Champion after beating #1 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl 14-7. Alabama was #2 in the game, and they beat #1, so you would think that that was a fair, legitimate and unimpeachable National Title, right?

Well, no, because it turns out that Alabama lost to the team that was #3 in the polls at the end of the year, USC, by a score of 24-14 at a game that was played in Birmingham, Alabama. However, because USC lost a couple of weeks after beating Alabama, they dropped down in the rankings below Alabama, and were never actually able to overtake Alabama in the polls over the remaining seven weeks of the regular season. In November of 1978, USC beat #19 Washington, they beat #14 UCLA, and they beat #8 Notre Dame, but it still wasn’t enough to jump Alabama in the polls. It should have been USC playing Penn State in the Sugar Bowl for the National Championship, but instead it was Alabama, and Alabama won the game to earn the crown of AP National Champion. USC beat #5 Michigan 17-10 in the Rose Bowl to earn the Coaches’ Poll/UPI National Title.

But it was a split Championship, which nobody wants. And how can you say that Alabama deserved to split the National Championship with USC when USC had already gone down to Alabama and beaten the Crimson Tide by 10 points?

1978 Alabama was a great team, but the fact is they lost to USC head to head. The only way Alabama should have been considered for a National Title was if they got a rematch with USC and won. But that didn’t happen.

If we go even further back into the past, the college football system for determining National Champions gets even uglier.

Did you know that, for the AP Poll until 1968 and for the UPI/Coaches Poll up until 1974, the final polls were released BEFORE the bowl games were played? In 1960, Minnesota was named consensus National Champion despite losing the second to last game of the regular season to Purdue, and then losing in the Rose Bowl to Washington.

That’s what I mean about college football being ass-backwards in so many ways.

In 1973, Alabama was awarded the Coaches Poll (UPI) National Championship even though they lost to #3 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The final coaches poll ranking of the season was released before the bowl game. Notre Dame was still awarded the National Championship by the AP Poll, but the fact remains that they were deprived a unanimous National Championship that year simply because the UPI/Coaches Poll, ridiculously, did not factor bowl games into its final rankings.

1970 Texas and 1970 Ohio State are not real National Champions, either: they lost their bowl games. Same with 1964 Alabama and 1965 Michigan State.

Alabama still to this day claims the 1964, 1973 and 1978 National Championships even though they didn’t rightfully deserve to be crowned National Champions in any of those three years.

What really provided the impetus for a move towards some sort of system to organize the postseason bowls, and make sure the best teams in the country faced off against one another, was the fact that college football produced four national champions in just two seasons, in 1990 and 1991.

In 1990, Georgia Tech went 11-0-1 won the Coaches Poll National Championship unanimously despite the fact that they went into bowl season ranked #2 and only had to play #19 Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl. Georgia Tech won the game 45-21, but being declared National Champions after beating the 19th ranked team in the Citrus Bowl? What the heck is that?

Meanwhile, Colorado was awarded the AP National Championship after going 11-1-1 against a schedule that featured 8 teams that were ranked at the time they played Colorado. The Buffs tied Tennessee, who finished #8 that year, in the first game of the season, played at a neutral site in Anaheim. They went on the road two weeks later and lost 23-22 to Illinois, a team that went on to win a share of the Big Ten Championship. Colorado then beat a Texas team that finished ranked 10th in Austin, and beat a Washington team that finished ranked #5 in Boulder. They beat #22 Oklahoma, and #3 Nebraska later in the season, won the Big Eight Conference (predecessor to the Big 12), and then beat #5 Notre Dame 10-9 in the Orange Bowl to close out the season.

Colorado went into that bowl game against Notre Dame ranked #1 and won the game, so they were awarded the National Championship by the AP Poll. But Georgia Tech jumped Colorado for #1 in the Coaches Poll after the bowl games for some reason, even though Colorado had beaten Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, while Georgia Tech had beaten Nebraska (a team Colorado had already beaten) in the Citrus Bowl.

My guess is that the Coaches Poll rewarded Georgia Tech for having zero losses while Colorado had one loss, but Colorado played, in my view, a much tougher schedule. They played an SEC team, a Big Ten team, a Pac 10 team, their Big Eight conference schedule, and then Notre Dame. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, faced a non-conference schedule that featured a South Carolina squad that finished 6-5, and rival Georgia who went 4-7 that year. GT did score a big 41-38 win over a Virginia team that was ranked #1 in the nation at the time, but that UVA team also lost 4 of its final 5 games.

But while it seems likely that Colorado was the more deserving team (and they were named National Champions by AP, FWAA, NFF and USA-CNN), there was no recourse for them. The Coaches Poll gave their National Title crown to Georgia Tech, and so that season ended with a split National Championship. There’s no way to change it.

Miami and Washington were named National Champions after the 1991 season, but they didn’t have the opportunity to face off head-to-head. Miami was ranked #1 and played #10 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, winning 22-0, while #2 Washington went to the Rose Bowl and beat #4 Michigan 34-14.

And that was that. Miami and Washington split the 1991 National Championship because they both won their bowl games. There was no way to have them play to figure out who was actually better.

After 1991, with two straight years of split National Championships, it was clearly time for something to change, which is thus why the Bowl Coalition was established for the 1992 season.

However, even after the implementation of the Bowl Coalition system, and then the Bowl Alliance system which supplanted it in 1995, there were still three years where the system failed to pit #1 and #2 against one another at the end of the season for the National Championship (1994, 1996, 1997).

In 1994, the National Championship was #1 Nebraska vs. #3 Miami (Nebraska won). But what happened to #2? Well, that year it was 11-0 Penn State, but as they were part of the Big Ten, they were contractually obligated to go play in the Rose Bowl. Prior to the BCS system in 1998, there were no ifs, ands or buts about it: the Big Ten Champion played the Pac 10 Champion in the Rose Bowl every single year without exception. So Penn State, instead of playing Nebraska for the National Championship, played #12 Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Penn State won the game 38-20, and as a reward they were named National Champions by some obscure pollsters, but the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll both named Nebraska as the National Champion. So basically Penn State got screwed out of a chance to play for a National Championship due to television rights.

The first two years of the Bowl Coalition system, 1992 and 1993, succeeded in pitting #1 vs. #2. In 1992, #2 Alabama took down #1 Miami in the Sugar Bowl to win the National Title, and in 1993, #1 Florida State defeated #2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to secure their first National Championship ever. But in the third year of the Bowl Coalition, 1994, the system failed for the simple reason that it could not include Penn State in the National Championship. It technically wasn’t the Bowl Coalition system’s fault, it was the fact that the Rose Bowl would not release the Big Ten Champion from its contract with the Tournament of Roses and ABC, which had television rights for the Rose Bowl game. But still, the Bowl Coalition system was inherently flawed in that it could never include the Big Ten or Pac 10 Champion.

Additionally, in 1993, there was a dispute between the two major polls at the very top. In the Coaches’ Poll, Nebraska was #1, West Virginia was #2, and Florida State was #3. But in the AP Poll, Florida State was #1, Nebraska was #2, and West Virginia was #3. I don’t know exactly how they did it, but the Bowl Coalition decided to use the AP Poll over the Coaches Poll to select Florida State and Nebraska to play for the National Championship, leaving West Virginia out. This wasn’t a problem inherent to the Bowl Coalition system, per se, as the real problem wasn’t that the polls were different, but that only two teams got to play for the National Championship. In other words, only a 4-team playoff would’ve solved the problem in 1993 regardless of the fact that the polls had the top three teams ranked in different orders. But the fact is that just a year into the Bowl Coalition era, it was clear to everyone that it was not a long-term solution.

In 1995, the Bowl Coalition system was scrapped for a new system called the Bowl Alliance, but after reading about it I must confess I don’t really know the difference between the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance. They seem like the same system to me, because they both had the same inherent flaw: they could not supersede the Big Ten and the Pac 10’s contract with the Rose Bowl. The Bowl Alliance system couldn’t include the Big Ten or Pac 10 champions, same as the Bowl Coalition. (And come on: the words Coalition and Alliance themselves are synonyms.)

The Bowl Alliance was only around from 1995-1997, and what really put the nail in the coffin was the split National Championship in 1997. Michigan was ranked #1 in the nation in both polls that year, while Nebraska was ranked #2 and Tennessee was #3. But Michigan had to go play in the Rose Bowl, where they beat #8 Washington State, the Pac 10 Champion, and were crowned National Champions. But Nebraska went to the Orange Bowl and pounded #3 Tennessee 42-17, and they were also named National Champions.

The possibility of a split National Championship also existed in 1996, when #1 Florida State was playing against #3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, which was the Bowl Alliance’s National Championship game, while #2 Arizona State was playing against #4 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. If Arizona State won the Rose Bowl, then it would ensure that the National Championship game would be split. However, Ohio State beat Arizona State in the Rose Bowl, and then Florida defeated Florida State in the Sugar Bowl 52-20, resulting in Florida being crowned unanimous National Champions. (Poor Florida State: the National Championship game was actually a rematch of their regular season rivalry game with Florida, played in the final week of the regular season on November 30, which Florida State won 24-21 at Doak. But they lost the rematch on January 2. We might get a similar situation this year with Ohio State and Michigan…?)

Bottom line, after the 1997 split National Championship, it was impossible to deny that the college football postseason system was broken. The big wigs in charge of College Football came together and devised a new system, called the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS, that would always pit #1 and #2 against one another in the National Championship game. What made the BCS different from the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance was that the BCS would be able to include the Big Ten and Pac 10 Champion in the National Championship Game. I don’t know how they were able to convince the Tournament of Roses and its television partner, ABC, to get on board–my guess would be money–but they did it. In 1998, we finally got a system that ensured that #1 and #2 would face off at the end of the year for the National Championship.

Of course, the BCS system did nothing to account for the fact that the idea of subjective team rankings determining the National Championship is fundamentally flawed. They take #1 and #2 and have them play, right?

Well, sometimes the #2 team wins, right?

Doesn’t this kind of disprove the polls altogether then, if it turns out the #2 team is better than the #1 team?

Because if the pollsters had it wrong, and #2 was actually better than #1, then who is to say that #3 might not be better than #2? Or maybe #3 is better than #2 and #1.

Why did they just assume it was impossible for them to be wrong about teams ranked outside of the top 2? They basically were saying, “Okay, it’s possible that #2 is better than #1, but it’s not possible that #3 is better than #2 or #1.”

Yet that assumption was not only ridiculous in theory, it was ridiculous in practice as well.

I mean, you saw it in 1996: #3 Florida beat #1 Florida State 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl to win the National Championship. That right there disproved the whole idea that only #1 and #2 should get a chance to play for the National Title.

In 1985, #3 Oklahoma beat #1 Penn State 25-10 to win the National Championship.

In 1983, #5 Miami beat #1 Nebraska to win the National Championship. Granted, Miami needed some help with the teams ahead of them losing. But they still proved that the rankings were very much subject to error, and that it was possible for the rankings to be so far off the mark that the #5 team was actually better than the #1 team.

The arbitrary cut-off of only including #1 and #2, which was the foundation of the entire system for determining a college football National Champion between 1992-2014, was an inherently ridiculous premise altogether.

The difference between the BCS and the Bowl Alliance/Coalition systems was that sometimes, albeit due to bugs in the system rather than features, the Bowl Alliance/Coalition systems would give a team ranked outside the top-2 a chance to win the National Championship.

So in many ways, the BCS system, while it was undeniably more successful at achieving its goal–getting #1 and #2 to face off in a bowl game–you could easily argue that more than anything, the BCS simply represented a doubling-down on a bad idea. In other words, yes, the BCS was able to arrange a postseason system in which #1 and #2 always faced off, but the idea that only #1 and #2 should get a chance to play for the National Championship was inherently idiotic. So was the BCS actually better than the Bowl Alliance/Coalition system?

Not if your goal was to figure out the best team in the country.

And that’s what I believe the architects of the BCS system fundamentally misunderstood. They believed that if they devised a system that ensured #1 and #2 would play at the end of the season, then that would result in the crowning of a legitimate and unquestioned National Champion.

But in reality, just because you have a system in which #1 and #2 play at the end of the season, that does not mean your system is actually effective at figuring out which team is truly the best in the nation each season.

Because the rankings might be wrong.

It’s like if you do a taste test between two restaurants, and determine that whichever one wins the taste test is the best restaurant in town. Well, what if you were being too restrictive? What if there’s another restaurant out there that’s better than both?

That’s the problem with the BCS system. It assumed that there was no chance whatsoever that a team ranked outside of the top-2 could be better than the teams ranked #1 and #2, which we all know today is a ridiculous assumption.

But here’s the problem, and here’s why this is all relevant today in 2022: our current system, while it may seem on a superficial level to be much different than the BCS system, in reality isn’t that much different.

All it did was expand the BCS from 2 teams to 4 teams.

They still rely on subjective rankings to determine the four participants in the playoff, and of course there are only four teams. It’s entirely possible that a team ranked outside the top-4 could be the best in the country.

This is why the 12-team playoff is so badly needed. College football has really never had a legitimate system for determining an unimpeachable National Champion. Even with the 4-team playoff, there have been snubs that I thought had a real chance to win the whole thing (2015 Ohio State, 2017 Auburn, 2018 Georgia).

But one of the real benefits of the playoff expansion, which people aren’t really talking about but will realize very soon, is that the new system will incentivize big-time non-conference matchups.

So many of these powerhouse programs rarely ever play against one another. We often don’t think about the fact that Alabama and Oregon have never played, for example. That’s just not acceptable in my view. There is no good reason that Ohio State and Georgia have only played one time, ever.

We want to see the best teams facing off against one another on a regular basis; it should not be a once-in-a-generation thing to see Ohio State and Georgia square off.

Now that we’re moving to the 12-team playoff, we’re going to see a lot more heavyweight matchups, which is great for the sport.

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