Last year, Oregon football was a regular season win away from having the right to play the dominant LSU in the first round of the College Football Playoff. Had they been able to pull out the victory Week One against Auburn or if they could have snuck out of Tempe much later in the season with a W against Arizona State, the selection committee would have absolutely put them in over an Oklahoma team that had not looked particularly impressive in their last few contests. But, neither of those things happened and Oklahoma was massacred in the first round at the hands of Joe Burrow.
Just 4 days after OU’s demise, Oregon lined up to play a Wisconsin team that had found themselves in a similar position to the Ducks. Once competing for a playoff spot, a Rose Bowl bid was a nice result to the season, but was underwhelming in the grand scheme of expectations. What very easily could have resulted in a mediocre performance with players sitting out to protect their futures and the game feeling like a consolation prize ended up being one of the games of the year. Justin Herbert capped off his illustrious career with arguably his best performance, the Ducks defense held the prolific Jonathan Taylor to just 94 yards on 21 carries, and in front of 90,000 people, as the sun set behind the Pasadena hills, Oregon came out on top 28-27.
As I watched Herbert and the rest of his teammates on the stage as they were handed the Rose Bowl trophy, I couldn’t help but think how much better of a feeling that must be than what Jalen Hurts and the rest of the Sooners had been experiencing after their game. Winning an instant classic in front of thousands of green and yellow-clad supporters and going into the long off-season victorious has to be better than sitting in the locker room of Mercedes-Benz Stadium after getting 63 hung up on you and losing a game you really had no business even being a part of, right?
To try and get a more personal perspective, I asked the biggest Oregon fan I know, my best friend Ryan, his opinion on how the Ducks’ season ended. My question to him was “After watching Oregon all last season and seeing them just miss the playoffs but win the Rose Bowl, if you could change it would you rather them have made the playoff and had a shot to win the title or stick with the Rose Bowl championship?” After acknowledging it was a tough question, this is what he had to say:
“I’m very happy to have won the Rose Bowl against a team like Wisconsin, but can’t help to think that if we had a shot in the Playoff we would have been able to take on those teams and at least prove ourselves to everyone that doesn’t pay attention to the PAC-12. I’d have to say a shot at the title because those players deserved being in there. Season was by no means a failure, though.”
Straight from the Duck’s mouth (bill?), at least one fan would have exchanged that night of glory for even just a shot to win a Natty, and I am positive he’s not alone. This is America, dammit. We want titles and championships and parades, anything that could be considered a second place trophy simply isn’t good enough. Still though, I can’t totally convince myself that Oklahoma’s season was more successful than Oregon’s, even with the playoff bid.
Let’s look at the resumés. Oklahoma went 12-2 with losses to a decent Kansas State team and the future champs, LSU. Their best wins were Oklahoma State twice over Baylor, and they ran away with another Big 12 Championship, their fifth in a row. They played in the CFP Semi-Final Peach Bowl and got smoked, and generally did about what was expected of Sooners at this point. Oregon also went 12-2 with the aforementioned losses to Auburn and Arizona State, and their best wins were over Utah and Wisconsin to close out the season. They were also conference champions, winning the PAC-12 for the first time since 2014, and they of course finished the season with a win in the Rose Bowl.
So in total we have two 12-2 conference champions, neither ended up with a national championship, and both felt like they could have done more given the right opportunities. In my mind, that is essentially no difference. Do the Sooners get to hang another banner that says “Playoff Appearance” while the Ducks do not? Yes, but who cares? In the coming years, people will remember Oregon’s season much more fondly than Oklahoma’s, the Ducks will proudly boast to recruits about their postseason success, and we will all move on.
It was Oregon and Oklahoma last season, but there is a situation like this almost every year since the CFP first came into the picture. In 2014, TCU went 11-1 and just missed the playoffs and then destroyed Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, while Florida State limped in and lost to Oregon in the Semi-Final. In 2015 it was a plethora of teams including Stanford and Ohio State who ended their seasons with victories as Michigan State was manhandled by Alabama. 2016 was top-heavy, but 2017 was the year of UCF so we more than made up for it in drama after that. Lastly, in 2018, Notre Dame looked entirely overmatched by Clemson while Ohio State took care of business in the Rose Bowl. Until there is playoff expansion, we will see this result every season, and eventually I can see teams even ducking the Playoff to try and avoid being crushed in the first round in exchange for a more even match-up in a bowl game.
I do not want this piece to come off as me saying that playoff appearances don’t matter and the only important thing in a season is winning your last game no matter the stakes because that is obviously not true. If Oregon had gotten that fourth seed last season, maybe they would play the game of their lives and beat LSU, changing the course of history and playing Clemson for a national championship. There is no way to know that would or wouldn’t happen (probably not, LSU was the team of destiny), but that’s not how the games played out. And given the way things ended up, I’m positive there were a lot more satisfied members of the Oregon community than the Oklahoma community.
There is something to be said for going out on a high note no matter what the situation. Obviously winning a championship is the ideal way to leave, but only one team a year gets to be crowned as the absolute best, so why not shoot for the best chance to win the last game of the year? It’s not the most competitive mindset, but it certainly results in the most teams and athletes finishing their seasons and careers in a successful way, and it has a great impact on legacies.
LeBron James had made the NBA Finals nine straight times before last season, going 3-6 in those opportunities. Despite being arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, nearly every single one of his detractors points at those six losses as the biggest mark against his career. Last season, the Lakers missed the playoffs with LeBron as their head, and no one batted an eye. Despite not playing in the postseason, the King’s legacy didn’t change in the slightest. But if the NBA season eventually resumes and Los Angeles makes it to the Finals and loses, Bron’s argument for GOAT looks worse. In retrospect, losing in the Finals is more detrimental than not making the playoffs. It’s a cruel reality, but that is how athletes are judged on a daily basis. If legacy and the image that is left matters to athletes at all, which it absolutely does, aiming for above average is a more worthwhile endeavor than striving for the best and falling just short.
So, can we fix it? Can we change the very idea of what it means to be successful in athletics? Does it even need fixed? These are all questions that are so subjective we will never have a true answer to them, but one thing we can all do as fans is try to align our own expectations not with what would result in the coolest banner, but what we would happy to look back on and remember as the conclusion for our teams. After all, we never know when we may lose sports entirely.