San Diego State Apr 1, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; San Diego State Aztecs guard Matt Bradley (20) shoots the ball as Florida Atlantic Owls guard Brandon Weatherspoon (23) defends during the second half in the semifinals of the Final Four of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego State is playing for the men’s college basketball national championship. What a time to be alive. In the most Bizarro World NCAA Tournament, that’s great for every Division I school that dreams of playing for a title. It’s a cause for celebration for everyone who cherishes March Madness. It also highlights the stark differences between college basketball and college football.

Perhaps the gridiron landscape will be more democratic in the future. But under the current structure, San Diego State would likely not have an opportunity to play for a championship in college football. The NCAA Tournament is a meritocracy in sharp contrast to the bureaucracy College Football Playoff (CFP). One of the reasons we love the tournament is that it doesn’t matter what your strength of schedule is or what conference you’re from. You’re the national champion if you’re good enough and win the games you’re supposed to. No ifs, and, or buts. That’s what sports should be.

College football has its roots in exclusivity. You largely don’t matter if you’re not among the Power Five conferences. There’s no greater recent example than the 2017 University of Central Florida team which went undefeated and yet was denied a chance to play for it all in the CFP. Establishment pundits groused about the Knights’ strength of opponents, ignoring the fact that non-league football schedules are often made years in advance. Plus, it’s not like the SEC is eager to agree to home-and-home series with AAC schools.

Things will improve in 2024 when the CFP expands from a four-team field to 12. Still, there’s no guarantee that multiple schools outside the Power Five conferences will be allowed to participate. Maybe they’ll get in. Maybe they’ll be sent to the Liberty Bowl.

College basketball has its roots in inclusiveness. Every eligible champion from every conference is guaranteed a spot. Small schools have a tougher road to a championship and are usually ousted before the Final Four, but at least they’re included in the Field of 68. They can succeed or fail on their own merit. That’s what makes March Madness special. No one could have predicted that San Diego State and Florida Atlantic would square off for a chance to play for the title. The fact that a school from the Mountain West Conference and a school from Conference USA reached the Final Four highlights the spirit of equal opportunities.

College football apologists will argue that its regular season is the equivalent of a playoff. That every game matters. We know that’s not true. Every game matters as long as you’re a Power Five member, and even within those leagues, the SEC and Big Ten have built-in advantages that the Pac-12, Big 12, and the ACC do not enjoy. The expanded CFP will likely result in more SEC and Big Ten programs in the field. One school from outside the Power Five will get in, but that probably will be it. Tough luck. Here’s your invite to a second-tier bowl game.

College basketball is not perfect. Its regular season, while entertaining, doesn’t hold the same interest as college football. Many people don’t begin to pay attention to the sport until after the Super Bowl. The focus is on March, which is a fabulous time of the year but can also overshadow the regular season. Alabama, Kansas, Purdue, and Houston had great years. They also underperformed in March with none of the No. 1 seeds reaching the Elite Eight.

But don’t feel bad for them. Those schools will likely have more opportunities in the near future. Instead, praise San Diego State. The Aztecs have made the most of a rare opportunity thanks to a sport where everyone has a shot.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.