#262 10.1.2021

Welcome to The GIST’s new Sunday newsletter!

From now on, every Sunday morning we’ll do a deep dive on one important topic in sports. If you have a suggestion on a topic you’d like to learn more about, send it our way!

In the meantime, as you cozy up in your favorite chair (or maybe you’re still in bed...that’s cool, too!) with your morning coffee or tea, The Ohio State University and University of Alabama football players are getting in a few more reps before they play in the biggest game of their lives tomorrow.

  • So to get you in the mood, we’re talking about all things College Football National Championship: how teams qualify, how it came to be and, most importantly, what the heck it’s all for.

Quote of the Day

To win a national championship, you’ve got to be a little lucky.

—Lou Holtz, former football coach, who led the 1988 Notre Dame Fighting Irish to a 12-0 season and a national title. Sounds like more than just luck to us, Lou.

Former Notre Dame football coach, Lou Holtz being lifted up by players

The reason for the season

athletes wearing vote warnock t-shirts
Source: Siandhara Bonnet/The Daily

Officially known as the College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship, the National Championship (much easier) is the ultimate college football game. Think Super Bowl, but for amateur players who aren’t getting paid.

  • It’s the pinnacle of a college football player's career, and more often than not features Heisman Trophy winners and future first-round NFL draft picks.
  • Players like Cincinnati Bengals quarterback (QB) Joe Burrow, former Denver Broncos QB Tim Tebow, Kim Kardashian’s ex former NFL running back (RB) Reggie Bush and Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson are just some of the big names to have won national glory.

The history

Ohio State Football team and fans celebrating on field after win
Source: David Bergman/Sports Illustrated

In case the name has thrown you off, we should mention that it hasn’t always been called the CFP. From 1998 to 2013, the championship was called the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), and it had a few other names before that.

  • The BCS was a confusing jumble that used both polls and mathematical formulas to rank teams and ultimately determine which two would play in the national championship game (as well as the other prestigious bowl games). It was weird.
  • The system was also dripping in controversy...we’re talking enough to warrant its own Wikipedia page. So in 2014, it was out with the BCS and in with the CFP.

The road to greatness

Michigan Football team on field during college football game
Source: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The CFP is an invitational knockout playoff tournament that consists of four teams, two semifinal games and one national championship.

  • The semis are always held around January 1st, the championship game always takes place on a Monday night in early January and all three games are played at neutral sites. Seems simple enough, right?

But here’s where things get tricky. Unlike the NFL, with its 32 teams, even divisions and strategically planned 17-week schedule, the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) is a hot mess:

  • There are 130 teams: 123 teams fall into 10 conferences, each of which has a varying number of teams within it, plus seven “independent” conference-less teams. Interesting.
  • Each team also plays a different number of games, sometimes against opponents that aren’t quite Division I material.

To try and streamline the process and level out the play, the 10 conferences are also (informally) split into two groups: the Power Five and the Group of Five. Anyone else getting major boyband vibes?

  • And don’t be fooled. These groups are not evenly split. The Power Five is made up of the strongest (read: richest) athletic conferences: Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference (SEC).
  • The Group of Five consists of the lower-ranked conferences. Spoiler alert: the National Championship winners and semifinalists have always come from the Power Five.

The selection

Condoleezza Rice taking photo with Stanford University football players on field
Source: Madeline Sides/The Stanford Daily

So how do 130 teams across two groups and 10 conferences dwindle down to just two? Once upon a time, they used a computer (seriously), but now the teams are decided by a 13-member selection committee.

The committee is made up of one athletic director from each of the Power Five’s conferences, as well as football legends, former coaches, players, media members — and at one time, Condoleezza Rice — who are tasked with selecting the four best teams in the entire FBS. No pressure.

  • This year’s committee includes Paola Boivin, the first female journalist and second woman to ever be named to the board, as well as former Penn State star John Urschel, who retired from the NFL to become a mathematician and is quite possibly the smartest football player of all time. #selectionsquadgoals.

The 2021 National Championship

Ohio State football player running to end zone past Alabama football players during college football game
Source: Lance King/Getty Images

Now that we know the background, let’s take a look at the two teams set to battle it out for college football glory tomorrow.

The University of Alabama Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1 in the country, and truly no one is shocked. Led by six-time national champ head coach Nick Saban (who you may recognize from his cameo in The Blind Side), ’Bama went 10-0 in the regular season, won the SEC Conference Championship and beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Rose Bowl (aka the semifinal).

  • They also feature not one but two Heisman Trophy finalists in quarterback (QB) Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who won the title just last week. In a word, these guys are stacked.

THE Ohio State University (emphasis on THE) have had a much stranger road to the playoffs. After dealing with some COVID-19 cancellations (and currently dealing with some more issues), they played just five regular-season games, but won them all pretty convincingly. The selection committee clearly liked what they saw and ranked them third in the show, which was met with some controversy.

  • Despite that, they pummeled the No. 2 Clemson Tigers in the Sugar Bowl (aka the other semifinal), winning 49-28 and beating out future first overall NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence.
  • Although they have QB Justin Fields at the helm, OSU still comes into this game as the underdog, but we’d be very hesitant to bet against them.

Learn more

📗 What to read:

If you’re looking for a super deep dive on all things college football, but also want a fascinating storyline, a wholesome protagonist and a few laughs, you should definitely read Never Settle by ESPN College GameDay reporter Marty Smith. It’s a funny, heartwarming, fascinating real-life tale of the legend that is Marty.

🎥 What to watch:

We couldn’t pick just one. If you want the full college football experience, you need to watch Rudy, Remember the Titans (high school football, but still fun) and We Are Marshall. And fair warning: you’ll need a big ol’ box of Kleenex.

👂 Let us know:

Who do you think is going to win tomorrow’s game? Click here to let us know.

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