Is it easier or harder for a head coach to win a national championship in college football now than it was years ago? College football analyst Kirk Herbstreit stated he believe it was easier today for a head coach to win a national championship because of the college football playoff which gives more teams an opportunity to win the national championship.
If we were still using the old poll system, Alabama would not have played for the national championship in January of 2018 and Nick Saban would not had the opportunity to win his sixth national title. Think about that. Alabama would have been on the outside looking in on the national championship picture and would not have played for a national championship but instead just played in a bowl game.
A school that didn’t even win its division, let alone play for a conference championship, won the national championship. That would have never happened in the pre-BCS, pre-playoff era. National championships were harder to come by because of reduced opportunities, poll politics and bowl affiliations.
In today’s current format, all you need to do is finish in the top four and you have a shot at a national championship. In the past, before the playoff system and the BCS, a team could be ranked #2 and not had a shot at a national title if the #1-ranked team had a conference-affiliated tie-in to a bowl game or for that matter, if the #2-ranked team did as well. The #2-ranked team had to hope the #1-ranked team lost as they seldom met in a bowl game to decide the national championship.
For example, years ago, if Alabama was #2 and USC was #1, USC would have faced the Big 10 Conference representative in the Rose Bowl as the Rose Bowl had automatic tie-ins to the PAC-8, 10 or 12 and the Big 10 conferences. Therefore, if USC won, Alabama could not prove on the field head-to-head versus USC who the real national champion was.
A counter argument is teams now play more games and therefore have additional opportunity to lose those games, but you can win a national championship today without winning your division or even playing in your conference championship game. Alabama did it in 2017. Ohio State made the four-team playoff in 2016 without winning the Eastern division of the Big 10 conference.
Florida State finished ranked fifth or higher in the final football polls for an incredible 14 seasons in a row (1987-2000) and it leads one to wonder, how many final fours would Florida State been in under Bobby Bowden? Let’s look at the years Florida State would have been in a four-team college football playoff.
Florida State won a national title in 1993 and 1999 and it would be difficult for anyone to deny that Florida State wasn’t the best team in the country those years. In addition, the Seminoles remarkably had three other opportunities to play for the national championship in bowl games in 1996, 1998 and 2000 for what amounted to appearing in five national championship games in eight seasons. However, Florida State came up short on the field of play those three years so we can rule out those years as possibly ending with a national championship.
To recap those seasons, Florida State was undefeated at 11-0 and ranked #1 at the end of the 1996 regular season and faced #3-ranked Florida in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl. The Gators turned the tables on the Seminoles and captured the national title winning 52-20. The Seminoles finished the season ranked third.
In 1998, Florida State was ranked #2 and faced #1 Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship and the Volunteers prevailed 23-16. The Seminoles finished with an 11-2 record and ended the season ranked third in the final AP poll.
Two years later it was another number one versus number two battle for the Seminoles as Florida State again was ranked #2 and squared off against the #1 team in the country, this time the Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma won 13-2 over Florida State and the 11-1 Seminoles finished fifth in the season-ending poll.
What about the other years Florida State finished in the top four of the final regular season poll and did not have an opportunity to play for the national championship?
In 1979, Florida State was ranked fourth after the final regular season poll behind Alabama, USC and Ohio State. The Seminoles would lose in the Orange Bowl 24-7 to number-five ranked Oklahoma 24-7 so winning the national championship via a four-team playoff would have been unlikely.
The following year, 1980, Florida State was ranked second before the bowl games behind Georgia, with Pitt ranked third and Oklahoma fourth. With only a one-point loss to Miami (10-9) earlier in the season and despite beating then number four-ranked Pitt 36-22, Florida State lost 18-17 in the Orange Bowl again to Oklahoma. Florida State would finish the year with a 10-2 record and ranked fifth.
Perhaps the most likely year Florida State would have benefited from a college football playoff was 1987. At the end of the regular season, the top four ranked teams in the country were: Oklahoma, Miami, Florida State and Syracuse. The only loss the Seminoles suffered was a one-point loss to Miami 26-25. Florida State would go on to defeat fifth-ranked Nebraska 31-28 in the Fiesta Bowl and finish the season 11-1 and ranked #2 behind only Miami. How would Florida State have fared in a rematch against Miami? No doubt Bowden and the Seminoles wish they had that opportunity.
At the end of the regular season in 1988, the top four teams in the country were: Notre Dame, Miami, West Virginia and Florida State. The 1988 season saw Florida State finish the season ranked third after defeating seventh-ranked Auburn 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl. The Seminoles finished with an 11-1 record with the one loss coming in Week One to Miami 31-0. Notre Dame and Miami were, in all likelihood, the two best teams in the country in 1988, therefore, a realist would not think the Seminoles would have fared well in a playoff.
In 1992, the top four teams in the final regular season poll were: Miami, Alabama, Florida State and Texas A&M. Again, the only loss that season for Florida State was against the Hurricanes in Miami by a 19-16 score. Florida State defeated 11th-ranked Nebraska 27-14 in the Orange Bowl to finish the season 11-1 and ranked second in the final poll. Alabama beat favored Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship.
At the end of the 1997 regular season, the four highest-ranked teams were: Michigan, Nebraska, Tennessee and Florida State. The only loss the Seminoles suffered was a 32-29 defeat in Gainesville to the Florida Gators. The Seminoles defeated ninth-ranked Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl 31-14 and finished the season third in the final poll.
One could state that Bowden’s impressive 22-10-1 record in bowl games bolsters the argument that he could have likely won more than the two national titles under the old poll system and in a college football playoff format but that’s mitigated by the three-national championship bowl game losses.
The best chance may well have been in 1987 for Florida State and legendary coach Bobby Bowden for another national championship in a four-team playoff format like today. If only it existed then.
John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog: https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/.