At a little after 6:00 p.m. ET on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament will tip off its Final Four, officially marking the beginning of the end of college basketball season in 2013-14.
Two-hundred seventy-one days later, on the first evening of 2015, a foursome of hitherto unknown college football teams will kickoff two separate games in Pasadena, Calif., and New Orleans, respectively, officially marking the beginning of the College Football Playoff era with the first ever national semifinals.
Not much other than time and location deviates the scope of these events, which serve as the respective denouements of the two most popular collegiate sports in America. With the banishment of the BCS, football and basketball now officially use the same tourney to crown a champion from its last four remaining teams.
Arguing that one will be better than the other is not an objective exercise. If you strongly prefer football to basketball, of course the CFP will be better than the Final Four; if you strongly prefer basketball to football, of course you would figure the opposite. This is completely and totally fine.
I, personally and subjectively, would choose the CFP over the Final Four 100 times out of 100, despite being, in my own judgement, an equal fan of both sports. And I would do so for a number of reasons.
First is something neither sport can control: novelty. There's a newness to the CFP that will exist in surplus next season and is likely not to dissipate for the resulting decade. The first iteration of a new thing is rarely the highest in quality—time is needed to iron out the folds—but it's routinely the highest in intrigue.
Even the in-season tedium, the debates about merit, the needless speculation, the diatribes against the selection committee will be interesting because they've never been done before. All of it will be awesome, even the parts that aren't awesome.
All of it will be so unseen.
But it's not just Year 1 of the CFP that will be worth watching. It will be every year. The one-game elimination system suits football better than it does basketball. In the earlier rounds of the NCAA tournament, we forgive the flukiness in exchange for upsets and, arguably, the most fun weekend in American sports. We stare blindly at the elephant in the room.
But by the time the Final Four rolls around, it is impossible not to realize—and not to acknowledge—the flaws of a one-game elimination basketball format. Especially, with the ultimate equalizer, the three-point line, sitting barely longer than it does in high school, 40 minutes does not seem an adequate sample to resolve which team is best. It seems like a series of three games (or more) would be needed.
Football is by no means a fluke-free sport. One tipped pass, one unlucky bounce of the ball, one love-blind ref throwing phantom pass interference flags is enough to make the team that played better lose the game. I would contend this happens with less frequency in football than it does in basketball, however, and would thus lead to a more satisfying conclusion. We'll feel safer the system got it right.
Here is but one more important point.
There is no way to know when, or how often, but at some point one of the national semifinals or the national championship will come down to overtime. College overtime. The best kind of overtime there is.
Imagine watching the tensest, most heartrending format of do-or-die athletics take place in a Final Four football game; picture the stakes of a two-point conversion with the fate of a season on the line. We saw how awesome such a moment could be in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl—and that game was comparatively meaningless:
We have forced ourselves to care about the "other" BCS bowls these past 16 years, and for the most part it has worked. We care. But in the back of our minds, there has always been the sound of a nagging little voice, reminding us that nothing but the one big game matters; that every other bowl is just a glorified NIT.
Slowly but surely, we have added two games to the subset of ones that truly matter. It might not be long before we add a couple more. If we were willing to pretend these BCS bowls mattered when they didn't, how much drama will there be once they actually do?
More than the basketball Final Four? You betcha. The NCAA tournament is shaped backward, crescendoing two weekends before its conclusion. Unless you are a fan of one of the teams or a warlock whose bracket is still alive, the Final Four feels more like the epilogue than the climax of the story.
The CFP will never share such a feeling.
Follow Brian Leigh on TwitterL @BLeighDAT
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