Unless this weekend's LSU-Alabama game is a big blowout, we're going to have a debate over the following month about whether the two teams should have a rematch in the national championship game. I want to set a few things straight before all that goes into overdrive.
First, just because one team beats another team, it doesn't mean the winner is the better team overall. It doesn't even mean the winner was the better of the two teams on that day. My favorite example to illustrate this point is the 2007 Boston College-Virginia Tech game.
For the first 56 minutes, Virginia Tech was clearly the better team. You could see that fact from watching the game, but just about any stat category you want to use—points, yards, yards per rush, yards per pass, third down conversions, etc.—backed it up. The Hokies had only a 10-0 lead, but it felt like much more than that as the game winded down.
With BC pinned to its own eight yard line and only 4:16 to go, both teams changed their strategies entirely. VT went with a prevent defense, while BC began calling aggressive passing plays on every down. Matt Ryan also would begin completing passes at a 60% clip for the rest of the game, which was far higher than his then-43% completion percentage on the day. Those facts, combined with a well-executed onside kick, allowed BC to score two touchdowns in those final four minutes to win 14-10. The Legend of Matty Ice was born.
What happened in those final four minutes had absolutely nothing to do with what went on during the first 56 minutes of the game. VT was clearly the better team for 93% of this contest. Anyone who watched the game should have come to the conclusion that Tech was the better team, and most of the stats still ended up in the Hokies' favor.
In the end, Virginia Tech was the better team no matter how you prefer to measure it. VT beat BC in their ACC title game rematch by a more convincing 30-16 score. It didn't lose to a mediocre team like BC did to Maryland that year. It finished higher than BC in both polls despite the two having identical 11-3 records, and it finished well ahead of BC in the overall FEI and S&P+ ratings from Football Outsiders.
In short, the outcome of a game can tell you nothing about who is better. But let's simplify this a bit, because the ACC of the past decade has tended to be chaotic anyway. Can we have a definitive national champion even if the national title game winner ends up 1-1 against the team it beat there?
To borrow the president's last campaign slogan: Yes. We. Can. Just look at the one time when we did have a national title game rematch.
In 1996, Florida State beat Florida 24-21 in Tallahassee in the regular season game. Florida then beat Florida State 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl rematch. No one then or now argues that you can't decide who was the better team between them. In fact while Florida was a unanimous No. 1 after the game, FSU even fell to third behind Ohio State in both polls. Choosing who is better among two teams that were 1-1 against each other is not necessarily an unsolvable conundrum. Relatively recent history illustrates that fact perfectly.
Let's simplify this even further though.
If the score of a game always indicated the better team overall, we wouldn't have the term "upset". If the score of a game always tells us everything we need to know, no one would talk about games that were either closer or not as close as the score indicates. If mere records were enough to parse the differences between various teams, no one would have argued that 12-0 in the SEC is different than 12-0 in the WAC during any phase of the great Boise State debates.
We know all of this stuff instinctively, but it seems to go out the window in the presence of the word "rematch". That's why I propose we not use that term, but instead use "best" and "most deserving". That dichotomy is what every year's BCS championship game debate really boils down to anyway.
Do we want the best two teams playing, or the most deserving two teams playing? Sometimes it's the same two teams either way, but not always. Even those in favor of Florida playing for the title in 2006 admitted that, through the end of the regular season, Michigan had looked like the better team between the two. When the Gators' name flashed on the screen opposite of Ohio State's in that year's BCS selection show, "most deserving" won out. It has continued to win ever since.
Debating on whether there should be a rematch is fruitless. It's a red herring. Decide on whether you want to see the best two teams or the most deserving two teams, and then argue over who they are. We won't know who those teams will be until the end of the regular season, and of course there will probably be some ambiguity there.
Ruling out a second round of LSU-Alabama and calling for a second round of LSU-Alabama are on equal footing right now. Doing either makes no sense at present, and that condition could continue past the end of Saturday's game.