Visit the Magic Kingdom at Orlando's Walt Disney World this very afternoon, and you can still take in an attraction called the "Carousel of Progress," one originally designed by Walt Disney himself for the 1964 New York World's Fair.
The concept is the same as it was 48 years ago: the audience sits in a darkened theater in front of a revolving "carousel" stage, on which an animatronic father guides it through six scenes illustrating the 20th-century technological advances that have made his family's life better. The washing machine begets the radio which begets the dishwasher which begets the flatscreen high-definition television. And if Disney was alive and a football fan, it's not difficult to imagine him remaking the "Carousel of Progress" to do the same for college football.
Here's the father in, say, 1912 celebrating the advent of the forward pass and the excitement of a "bowl game." Here he is in the 1950s complaining that his favorite Southwest Conference team was left out of the bowl picture despite finishing second with its dynamic split-T offense, and that the national championship voting takes place after the bowls. Here he is in 1997 griping that Michigan and Nebraska couldn't have just played each other rather than splitting the national title, but at least now there's as many as 9 or 10 games televised every Saturday. And finally, there he is just this past January* as LSU and Alabama kick off, wondering why college football just couldn't have the Tigers and Tide play Oklahoma State and Stanford in a plus-one.
After Thursday's announcement from the BCS and the 11 FBS commissioners, though, it's time to update that final scene. It's finally happened: we have a playoff. A playoff. Four teams will be divided into two games, and the winners will play each other for the national championship. No, we don't know much more beyond that, but no matter. College football's Carousel of Progress has taken another turn.
And make no mistake: April 26, 2012, the day college football got that playoff, will go down as a date of progress. There are sensible, immediate complaints to be leveled against a four-team playoff, sure--that there's still no consensus on how to rank or select those top-four teams, that the regular season is now just that smidge less important, that the No. 5 team will simply complain as loudly and longly as the No. 3 team used to. These are not wrong.
But not wrong or not, those complaints are nothing compared to the complaints from Auburn in 2004, now likely to become the only team from the SEC-Big Ten-Pac-12-Big 12-ACC quintet** to go undefeated in the BCS era and not be afforded a chance to play for the national title. They're nothing compared to 2000 Miami, who had the same record as BCS No. 2 Florida State, beat the Seminoles head-to-head, and was still relegated to No. 3.
They're nothing compared to 2001 Oregon, the 2003 split title, your favorite two-loss team from 2007, 2008 Texas or USC, any number of TCU or Utah or Boise State teams that finished undefeated, or, yes, 2011 Oklahoma State. Alabama may have retrospectively quieted the debate over the No. 2 slot in New Orleans, but it was still the Cowboys that finished the 2011 season with the same record in a deeper conference they actually won. No rational fan can argue that only one of the Cowboys and Tide deserved a shot at the national title last year; if ever two teams both did, those did. But the system said college football could only pick one.
Now, after just two more seasons, that system is dead. The new one will at some point run into a 2007- or 2008-style campaign with more than four deserving teams, and that will be ... difficult. But it's not often a college football season generates more than four teams that, to borrow Phil Steele's term, need to have their shot at a national title. As the list above shows, though, generating more than two equally deserving teams happens every bit as often as it doesn't.
That's why college football should have thrown a giant collective party Thursday: whatever downside a four-team playoff might have remains vastly, vastly outweighed by the upside of ensuring the injustices of 2000, 2001, 2004, 2008, and 2011 never happen again. Ask any college football team (and nearly every college football fan) which scene from the sport's Carousel of Progress they'd like to live in, and they're going to tell you the one set in 2014 that the BCS and commissioners started building Thursday.
But just as the Disney version glosses over the many problems of advancing technology -- pollution from the family's third car, loneliness from Facebook, etc. -- so those in charge of college football may want to pull the bolts and wiring out of our Carousel of Progress before it turns any further. We can celebrate "4 > 2" without worrying about the drawbacks. But what if we keep going--is 8 really greater than 4 considering the potential impact on the regular season? Would we look at 12 or 16 if we got to 8? If the money from these tournaments hastens another FBS split, can that be pulled off without sacrificing the NCAA Tournament we (and millions of other college athletics fans) currently know and love?
Those concerns are serious enough that if it makes sense to throw a party for Thursday, we wouldn't make it an annual celebration just yet. The future as imagined by the eternal optimist Disney was one of a technological utopia, every need accounted for, every worry made baseless, every frown turned upside-down. That's a pipe dream, and imagining a future that untroubled for college football is one that's even, well, pipe-ier.
But that shouldn't obscure the fact that progress in the sport -- as it has for the past century -- has once again marched on. Things aren't perfect, but they're far better than they were. For now, that's enough.
*Also, the father is Highlander.
**They would be the only BCS team, period, if not for 2009 Cincinnati, who we could get further behind if they hadn't been annihilated by Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
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