Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On the Desirability of College Football Playoffs

Today, officially, we entered what is both the most exciting and most nauseating portion of the college football schedule. BCS standings are out, the races to the conference championships are in full swing, and the schedule is analyzed incessantly for scenarios that would put this or that team into the title game. Why nauseating? Because this also is the season for a never-ending stream of whining from pundits, columnists, and anybody with an opinion and a major media credential about the P-word. Playoffs. This year, Dan Wetzel at Yahoo! kicks us off with the usual wah wah wah about the BCS and Big Ten.

Since it's that time of the year, I'll get this post out of the way early. Strap in. We may be here a while. This may even be a two-parter. Or a many-parter depending on what kind of mood I'm in after I read the latest anti-BCS invective.

So here is the official stance of this blog: I have never been, am not now, and will never be in favor of a playoff to determine the national champion of the highest level of NCAA college football.

Whether you call it Division I-A or the FBS, I don't want a playoff for it. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm all in favor of the status quo; there are holes in the current system, and they ought to be fixed. But a playoff? No. Never. Let's discuss.

First, we will pick off the sick and weak, in order to make the herd stronger. The arguments often brought up against a playoff that don't, in my mind, hold water:

- A playoff would interfere with academics by overlapping two semesters. Pshaw. Basketball takes a break for final exams in December, and overlaps two semesters or trimesters or whatever a school has. Besides, spring practice and conditioning often has the same bothersome effect.

- The season would have to be extended unacceptably long. Nonsense, there are plenty of bye weeks.

These are stupid arguments. We'll stipulate to this and move on. Here are the real arguments.

- Fans will only make one pilgrimage a year. This is here to squash any mealy-mouthed notions of "we can integrate the bowl system into a playoff." People who say this generally propose that bowls like the Sun Bowl or C****s S****s Bowl host the early rounds, followed by the Gator Bowl and Peach Bowl in later rounds, and then the current BCS bowls get the semis and championship game. Listen. Fans of schools like Michigan and Ohio State are not going to travel from El Paso to Jacksonville to New Orleans to Pasadena to see their team. They will make one trip. Just look at the ACCCG last year. Boston College sent like four fans to the game. Why? They were waiting for the bowl game. And sure enough, BC went to the C****s S****s Bowl against another Northern team and that bowl had its best attendance since 1995, when it was known as the C******t Bowl and was in January for the '94 season. A playoff can only be done one of two ways: at home stadiums, or at neutral sites. Neutral sites are unworkable.

- If the system can't reliably select two teams, neither can it reliably select four, six, or eight. Or any number of playoff teams you like. Look, a bad system is a bad system. If the BCS is so good at getting it wrong, the same system will not work for choosing playoff teams - and that means any system involving the polls and/or computers is equally worthless as playoff proponents claim the BCS currently is. I can only laugh when playoff proponents, in order to show us what a brilliant system they've devised, use the BCS standings to pick the teams. Any playoff would need to completely reinvent the wheel and fix the selection process before it gained any credibility.

- Expanding the number of teams playing for the title also expands the number of teams who would feel robbed. "We need a playoff because Auburn!" The 2004 season is the rallying cry of the playoff crowd, when Auburn, USC, and Oklahoma all finished undefeated, and the latter two teams played for the title. Somebody was going to feel jobbed here, and that's probably understandable. So let's have a four team playoff! Oklahoma, USC, Auburn and......??? Gosh, Utah and Boise State were both also undefeated. We can't pick one and screw the other, that would defeat the purpose. Let's make it six teams. All the undefeateds get a shot. But - uh-oh - Texas, Louisville, and Cal all had one loss each. So, eight teams! Great! Until you realize that this would be the only national title tournament in which winning your conference means nothing, as the ACC, Big Ten, and Big East are shut out.

This argument waters down as the playoffs get larger and larger. By the time you get to the three-loss teams and the weaker two-loss teams, it's easy to say, "Shut up, you're pretty clearly not national-title caliber." But, the larger the playoff, the easier it is to get in and the more watered-down the regular season becomes.

- "Playing it out on the field" is a false fantasy. Sure, if Nebraska and Michigan could have met in 1997, it would have been a nice tidy end to the season. Unfortunately there is no such thing as a nice tidy solution that works every year. If the playoff is too small, it falls victim to the same problem as the BCS: teams will be left out. If the playoff is too big, it renders the regular season practically useless because you can stumble - twice even - and still win. This - and this is the kicker - too big and too small change every season. The BCS worked wonderfully in 2005 and gave us USC-Texas. It left one team out in the cold in 2004. It was a different kind of mess last year. It sorta worked in 2006. Playoff proponents seem to think all would be solved with a playoff. It would not. We'd just have different arguments.

- "Some conferences are tougher than others and beat each other up on the way to the title game, thus taking themselves out of contention." This is the Tommy Blubberville fallacy. Shut up, Tommy. Some conferences (ACC, Big 12, SEC) have title games, others (Pac-10, Big Ten, Big East) do not. These title games are said to be landmines for contending teams. For example, Alabama will likely have to get past the East Division champ, otherwise an undefeated Penn State will slide into the title game. This cuts both ways, of course. If Alabama beats, say, Florida, they then have a clear and fresh-in-the-minds argument for inclusion over PSU.

But I haven't even gotten yet to the silliness of this argument. Playoff proponents argue that a playoff would produce a "true" national champion because the winner would have defeated several very good teams on the way. Then they claim the SEC and other championship-game-holding conferences are handicapped because they have to play a very good team on the way. Look, if you want your national champion to have to "earn it" in a playoff, don't complain about them having to do the same in a conference championship game. It is not the Big Ten's fault that three other conferences are shameless money-grubbers, for that is the root of the presence of the conference championship game in the first place.

- A few games will turn into many games, and quickly. Some playoff proponents like the idea of a four-team or a six-team playoff, but agree that the regular season is too good to mess with much, and grow queasy at the thought of a larger 12 or 16 team ordeal. These people should not kid themselves: Four and six will grow into eight and twelve and sixteen. Basketball wasn't satisfied with 8, nor 16, nor 32, nor 48, nor even 64 for heaven's sake. It stands at 65 and some say it should be expanded again. Money will make this happen. Four teams will not stay four teams for very long. That is a rock solid guarantee.

- The college football regular season is the single best regular season in all of sports anywhere in the world. Why mess with it? Do you care what happens if North Carolina, on a Saturday afternoon in February, is 23-2 and down by 6 points in the middle of the second half to 9-16 Miami and their #1 seed in jeopardy? The hell you do. Will you tune in on November 15 if it's the third quarter and Alabama is losing to Mississippi State? You bet your ass you will. And you'll root for somebody. You'll root for Miss State if you're a Big Ten fan. You'll root for Alabama to pull it out if you can't stand the thought of a third straight Big Ten team representing in the title game. Were you watching Pitt and West Virginia last year? What about Mizzou and Oklahoma? Would you have tuned in if the Tigers and Sooners had already locked up playoff spots?

In short, I'll consider it a dark day indeed when a playoff is instituted. I want to see the BCS tweaked. More on this sooner or later - probably sooner. But I want to see it, ultimately, kept.

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