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Sports Authority

O’Connell: College championships most difficult to win

| Thursday, April 21, 2016

Editor’s Note: This week, the Sports Authority columnists answer the question, “In which competition is it most difficult to win a championship?”

The prospect of winning a championship in any sport at any level is a daunting one. Particularly in team sports that participate in leagues, so many factors beyond individual ability are counted towards a team’s ability to excel at a championship level that it seems next to impossible to manage it on a consistent basis.

Or does it? One would think that any championship that can be won consistently must not be that difficult to win. But then, this is assuming that teams and players start off on equal footing in the first place. Professional leagues like the NHL and NBA have institutions put into place to encourage parity, and their respective leagues are limited in terms of program membership. The Ravenwood High School basketball team simply cannot participate in the NBA, regardless of its talent level. Professional leagues are meticulously crafted and maintained in order to sustain their dual identities as equal parts sporting competition and entertainment media. Everything is so tightly maintained that parity is a rule rather than an exception.

Such a level of meticulous maintenance does not extend to the college game. I would argue that it is far more difficult to win a championship at the college level than in the pros, regardless of the sport in question.

For the sake of this article, let’s turn our focus to NCAA Division I football.  There exist so many barriers to parity in the college game of football that transitioning from a struggling team to a championship caliber program proves a next-to-impossible task to accomplish.

The first and most obvious barrier that exists is the sheer number of programs at play. Most professional leagues in America hover somewhere around 30 teams or so – and usually about half of those teams end up in postseason play. In Division I FBS football there are a whopping 128 teams eligible to compete for the national championship. Even if all of these teams were on roughly even ground as far as the ability to compete, this would mean an almost impossible level of competition to adhere to and exceed in on a yearly basis.

Further complicating the issue are matters of funding, recruitment, visibility and other program-specific barriers to success. The Chicago Cubs, despite their historic inability to win championships, have never struggled to gain access to elite talent. Every single year there is a player draft in which the Cubs organization is guaranteed the exclusive rights to sign a number of all-world baseball talents to their organization. So it goes for almost every professional sports team.

In college, though, it is very different. There is no official talent pipeline. Schools are left to fend for themselves when it comes to filling their programs with warm bodies, let alone talented players. Teams like Alabama and Michigan and Oklahoma — perennial powerhouses and threats to win the national championship in any given calendar year — rarely struggle with recruiting talent and usually have the pick of the litter when it comes to incoming players. For teams such as these, the lack of an official pipeline of talent la, a professional draft) barely matters at all.

Those teams, however, aren’t where the difficulty emerges. For programs like Akron or Appalachian State, whose recruitment is largely restricted to the regions the schools occupy and even then is limited to the bottom of the talent barrel, long after the likes of the top 25 have had their fill of talented recruits, competing for a national championship is more a pipe dream than a realistic expectation. It is hard enough to get into the top 25, let alone contend for one of the final four spots warranting a trip to the College Football Playoff. They simply can’t be expected to compete with elite programs in terms of talent— or financial, medical and instructional resources, for that matter.

But set all that aside for a moment. What if a program managed to beat the odds? What if a Marshall or a Boise State was to run the table and win every game thrown at them? Even if a team manages to play its season absolutely perfectly, with no errors whatsoever, they are still not likely to be afforded a chance at the title. The system is not constructed in the interest of parity. It’s designed to honor history and to grow the blue-bloods that have sustained college football’s success over the decades.

The football players who win the national college title every year are not the best players on the planet. In that respect, it may be easier to win a college title than a Lombardi Trophy. For all but a select few programs, though, winning a championship isn’t a far-off goal. It’s a virtual impossibility. In my opinion, that makes the NCAA championship uniquely difficult to win.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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