College football certainly doesn't make things easy for sports dilettantes. It has 120 teams (the NFL only 32). Its culture varies by region, its style of play by team. (The NFL is relatively uniform). To get much out of it, one must watch from Week 1, not merely from Week 1 of a playoff. And its season culminates not in a playoff but in a smorgasbord of bowl games.
But as those who follow it closely best understand, these very qualities are what make college football the richest, most-satisfying, and - yes - best-designed, of American sports.
The key to college football's brilliant design is that no one really designed it. It's a bottom-up sport, not a top-down one. Its postseason grew out of Tocquevillian civil associations, like the Pasadena Tournament of Roses. Later, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was formed to give the sport a national championship game. The BCS has greatly enhanced the sport, but it has built upon an organic foundation that has developed across the decades, rather than tearing things down and building anew.
However, those who implemented the BCS couldn't have anticipated its effect on college football's already extraordinary regular season. In the past, fans in the South or Midwest didn't particularly care whether Oregon beat Oregon State, and fans in the Midwest or West didn't much care whether Auburn beat Alabama. Under the BCS, that has changed profoundly, as fans of teams in one region are now glued to games in other regions. As Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times writes, the BCS has "transformed the sport from a Saturday afternoon cookout to a national obsession."
What other sports' regular season could justly be characterized as a "national obsession"? The NFL regular season is widely watched, to be sure, but with the same intensity? Good NFL teams' starters often don't even play in their final game or two. And is anyone obsessed with the four months of quasi-exhibition games that predate college basketball's season-ending tournament?
Let's quickly recap this splendid college football season. Oregon overcame a 21-3 deficit to beat Stanford in a game that - as was clear by season's end - decided which of those teams would play for the national championship. At Alabama, Auburn rallied from a 24-0 deficit to win 28-27 and eventually join the Ducks in the title game. And Nevada rebounded from a 24-7 deficit to upset Boise State in overtime, knocking the Broncos from the ranks of the unbeaten and ending their Cinderella run. If college football had a playoff, these dramatic games would merely have tweaked teams' playoff seedings.
Undefeated TCU became the first team from a non-major conference to play in the Rose Bowl since, well, ever - beating the Big Ten's bruising Wisconsin Badgers, 21-19, to claim a title that the Horned Frogs' players will carry with them for the rest of their lives: "Rose Bowl champions." The game marked the seventh time in seven years that a team from a lesser-known conference has played in one of the major bowls (now called "BCS bowls.") To put that into perspective, prior to the BCS no such team had played in such a bowl since Air Force played in the 1971 Sugar Bowl.
In impressive performances, Alabama dominated Big Ten co-champion Michigan State, 49-7, in the Capital One Bowl, and Stanford dominated Atlantic Coast Conference champion Virginia Tech, 40-12, in the Orange Bowl. Then, in the BCS National Championship Game, undefeated Auburn (which had beaten Alabama) beat previously undefeated Oregon (which had beaten Stanford), 22-19, on a field goal on the season's final play.
With the best regular season in all of sports, a championship game that's more - not less - likely to feature the two best teams, and a full slate of colorful bowl games attended by participating teams' real fans (who have enough advanced notice to plan such trips over the holidays), college football is nearly perfect. The sport may confound the casual fan, but those who love it increasingly recognize the truth of this claim: This is college football's golden age.