I have written a lot of things, expressed a lot of opinions, and have touched upon some controversial topics.
But nothing that I have ever written is as controversial (or as likely to have my sanity questioned) than the following sentence:
I think a college football playoff is an absolutely horrible idea that would irreparably damage the game.
That puts me in a serious minority among college football fans (I saw a 2007 Gallup poll that said 85% favored a playoff of some fashion). But I don’t care. You all are wrong. And I am right. Let me prove it to you…
Why do the fans (and media) want a playoff?
It boils down to two key reasons:
- The belief that the championship should be decided “on the field”. Currently, the national championship game is determined through the BCS rankings – a much-maligned formula currently containing two human polls and six computer polls. There is much criticism over the subjectivity and fairness of the polls, as well as the belief that deserving teams do not get the proper opportunity to play for the title.
- The success of the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness is a huge event, and grows in popularity each year due to brackets and Cinderella teams. Millions of people fill out brackets to predict the tournament – even people who have not watched a single college basketball game all season – making it a national event. Once the tournament starts, the opening rounds provide wall-to-wall games, last second dramatics, and can-you-believe-that upsets. Playoff supporters believe a college football playoff could be just as good – if not better.
As for the media, well, I hate to toss out conspiracy theories, but…the networks would stand to make a pretty penny broadcasting a playoff game – likely much more than would come from some of the middle and lower tier bowl games now being played. Let’s just say that a playoff would be very good for the network that has the broadcast rights.
Yes, there are plenty of other reasons the playoff proponents will give you, and that is where we are heading next. We’re going to take a look at some of the key arguments and I’ll show you why they are weak, hollow, and not a good reason to changes.
Let’s start with one of the reasons I mentioned above:
March Madness is a huge success – why can’t football be the same?
This is (hopefully) a very obvious statement: football and basketball are completely separate games with completely separate scheduling requirements. March Madness is popular mainly because of the opening rounds – that amazing Thursday through Sunday run of 48 games – where teams play Thursday and Saturday or Friday and Sunday. That just won’t work for football, where more than 48 hours of recovery time is needed.
And here is the thing the playoff folks don’t talk about: for the casual to average college basketball fan, how many games are critical, make-or-break, must-watch match-ups? And of those, how many occur before the tournament or conference championships? The answer: very, very few. A #1 vs. #2 match-up in basketball in January might be fun to watch, but it has little to no impact on the tournament. A #1 vs. #2 match-up in football in September usually has a huge impact on the season.
Why is that? Because basketball’s regular season is largely irrelevant. Sure, you’ll (likely) have an easier road to the Final Four as a 1 seed instead of a 10 seed, but as George Mason can tell you, that isn’t always the case. The truth is, for most “name” schools, finishing with 20+ wins and .500 in conference will usually get you in the dance. Nobody wants to see two 6-6 football teams playing in a bowl, but watching a 20-12 team in March is a good argument for a playoff?
Football and basketball are two completely different sports. What works for one does not work for the other. This leads us to the other key argument:
The current BCS system is not fair, and does not allow for the champion to be decided “on the field”.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room – the BCS. I will freely concede that the current BCS formula is not a flawless system. There are bugs, weaknesses, and inherent biases in the BCS. But guess what? A playoff scenario created that is free of bugs, weaknesses and inherent biases has yet to be created (but I’m working on it).
To me, this issue of “fairness” and deciding a champion “on the field” really encompasses a number of topics including:
- Integrity of the regular season
- Some deserving school always gets left out
- Inclusiveness for all teams
- How the teams are seeded
Integrity of the regular season. I touched on this above, but it is worth mentioning again. The regular season in college football matters more than any other sport, including the NFL, where 8-8 can get you wildcard slot and a shot at the Super Bowl.
For their games this year, ESPN used the slogan “Every Game Matters”, which has been the source of a lot of derision from the pro-playoff forces given the LSU-Alabama rematch in the championship game. But if the slogan is not 100% correct, it should at the very least be the standard the game shoots for. And for the most part, that is achieved.
Look: I get that every game does not really matter – as a Nebraska season ticket holder since 1993, I’ve seen my fair share of blowouts and games against FCS schools, but that misses the point. How can you reward Oklahoma State with a shot at the national championship if they cannot beat Iowa State?
One more: It’s the final week of the regular season – which game featuring the sport’s top team would you rather watch: #1 LSU vs. #3 Arkansas with major championship implications? Or the 14-1 Green Bay Packers versus the 10-5 Detroit Lions, which has such little impact on the NFL playoffs that Aaron Rodgers didn’t even play? Me too.
Some deserving school always gets left out. The old cliché is the backup quarterback is the fan’s favorite player. Similarly, the favorite team of the fans is whoever ends up #3 in the final BCS rankings. This team is always “robbed” by the evil computers and ignorant voters. Analysts, writers, and fans place the #2 team under the microscope and look at their warts while putting the #3 team up on a pedestal. Boise State, Utah, Auburn, USC, and others have all been poster children for BCS neglect. This year, 11-1 Oklahoma State wears the #3 crown, and their merits against #2 Alabama have been debated endlessly.
In the eyes of the playoff proponent, this is solved with a 4, 8, or 16 team playoff. And yes, while Okie State now gets their “chance” to “earn it on the field”* all that is really being done is shifting the team being “slighted” to the #5, #9, or #17 team.
*I love it when folks say that a playoff would allow a team like Oklahoma State to “earn it on the field”, instead of having their fate decided by computers, voters, and decimal points. Apparently, OSU’s 37-31 loss to Iowa State was played somewhere other than “on the field”. Having been to Ames, Iowa for football games I can assume you: they do have a field there, and I’m 99% certain the ISU-OSU game was played on this field..
Win your game or don’t complain.
Look: with a BCS-type formula pairing up 1 vs 2, there is rarely a scenario in which more than three teams have a truly legitimate claim to a spot in the title game. That is because usually there are very few undefeated or quality one-loss schools at the end of the regular season.
If you create an 8 team playoff, suddenly the pool of available teams becomes much greater. You’ve already exhausted all of the undefeated teams and all of the one-loss teams, so now you need to find the best of the two-loss teams. Now there are a dozen two-loss teams touting their case to be included. So to be fair (and to get more TV revenue) we expand the playoff to 16 teams. With the larger bracket to fill, we’ve given all of the two-loss teams their shot, but now we need a three-loss team to fill the bracket, which opens the door to another dozen teams. And so it goes until every 7-5 with an upset win thinks they deserve a shot at the title.
Think that is a bunch of hyperbole? Look at this season: prior to the bowls there was one undefeated team and five more with one loss. So for an 8 team bracket, you’d have to find the two best two-loss teams, out of nine contenders. Include all of the two-loss teams, and you have to pick the best 3-loss team from a pool of another dozen teams.
I read once that the biggest problem with the BCS is that it is impossible to get three teams onto one field.
Inclusiveness for all teams. Playoff proponents like to make a case for the schools from the non-BCS conferences who have undefeated or one-loss seasons – such as Boise State, TCU, Utah, and Houston. Fans love these underdogs putting together Cinderella seasons, and think they should have a true shot at a championship.
For the most part, I agree (assuming they play a schedule comparable to the so-called “big boys”). Of course, most of these people are pretty quiet on if the champions of the other lesser conferences (such as Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, Arkansas State, or Ohio) should also get a shot – especially if it is at the expense of somebody more “deserving” like Stanford or Alabama.
How the teams are seeded. Okay, so we’ve determined how many teams are in our playoff (and how many teams are left out).
Now tell me: how are the teams seeded?
Computer rankings? Arguably this is the fairest method. We can sit back and let a collection of computer polls (based on a number of different criteria) figure it out. Of course, coaches and fans distrust (if not fear) computer polls – especially when they don’t know how they work.
Human polls? Forget it. The best human polls (the AP and the Coaches) have serious, unfixable flaws, including:
- Regional biases. Coaches and media on the east coast are not watching the west coast games. They are looking at scores, and maybe, highlights on ESPN. Although it is tough to prove, one can easily presume that a coach or writer in, say, SEC country will favor SEC teams and look down their nose at, say Pac 12 or MWC teams.
- Historical biases. Let’s say over the first four weeks of the season, Alabama and Alabama-Birmingham play identical schedules and both win all of their games, but UAB wins each game by 14 points more than Alabama did. Who is going to be ranked higher? Yep – the Crimson Tide, because they are a nationally known and respected power with a rich tradition of football success.
- Lazy voters. I’ve already mentioned the coach or writer who votes based upon ESPN highlights (or the ESPN ticker). In the past, coaches have been caught having their assistants (or other staff members) place the ballot on their behalf. I’m going to call any writer lazy, but when they’re faced with dual deadlines – their story for the Sunday paper and getting their ballot submitted, which is going to win?
- No consistent criteria. It used to be that a team would never, ever drop in the polls if they won – no matter how sloppy they played, narrowly they won, or for not covering the Vegas spread. Nowadays, voters “penalize” teams for any number of perceived on-field wrongdoings by dropping them on their ballot. For some voters, they keep the same ballot and only move teams down after a loss. For others, every week is a beauty pageant. A team could be ranked #4 one week and #8 the next, even though they didn’t lose – other teams just played better. For my money, this is equally as frustrating as trying to figure out what it takes to succeed in the computer rankings.
- Lack of respect for head-to-head victories. You see the same argument every year. Team A is ranked ahead of Team B, even though Team B defeated Team A. The challenge here is after a while, there is a large interweaving mesh of this team lost to that team, who lost to this team…And on a related note:
- Early losses matter less than late losses. Planning to lose a game? If you lose in September, you have several weeks to move back up. Lose in November, there isn’t much time.
- Politicking. We’re all familiar with the scene: a team wins a big game and their coach or star player uses the postgame interview to beg for votes. I don’t think this practice started with Scott Frost’s “at least a share” speech after the 1998 Orange Bowl, but that is the most notable (and successful) example that comes to my Cornhusker brain.
Human polls are a great conversation starter, but the AP and Coaches polls are not the answer.
And don’t get me started on how bad the Harris Poll is.
A BCS-type compilation of human and computer polls? Tell me, if you can’t trust the BCS to get the top two teams how can you trust it to get the top 8? What happens when the difference between #8 and #9 is hundredths of a point? Or when #9 beat #8 head-to-head? Exactly.
An NCAA selection committee? The week between Selection Sunday and the first round of the NCAA (hoops) tournament is spent arguing over which teams were robbed out of an at-large spot – and that is for the #64 position. It is a whole different argument at #8 vs. #9. Seeding for the basketball tournament is usually more about creating intriguing matchups and minimizing travel than it is about putting the top teams in true order.
Yes, the BCS is not fair. But that unfairness really has more to do with the components in the BCS (especially the human polls) than with the lack of teams vying for the championship.
Not to be lost in discussion is the financial bottom line.
A playoff will bring in even more money than the current BCS system.
The numbers vary, but I have seen it estimated that a college football playoff could bring in $600 million more than what is made under the BCS.
That is serious money and could greatly impact a lot of schools. Libraries could be built. Academic research conducted. Talented new faculty members hired. Scholarships for women, minorities, and athletes playing non-revenue sports.
If we’re lucky, that extra money might go to pay the scholarships for the women’s swimming team or to keep the wrestling team around for another year. But let’s face it: the odds are good that money will stay with the football program. Maybe they build an indoor practice facility, renovate the locker room, or give big raises to the coaches, but the bulk of the money will stay with the people who brought it in.
Think about all of the corruption and scandal we’ve seen in college football in the past few years? The scandals at Ohio State, Miami, Penn State, Auburn, USC, etc. all have a common thread – the desire to win (or at least stay in a job with a 7-figure paycheck) trumping ethics, morals, and basic common sense. Do you really, honestly think that the number of scandals (or the number of people trying to cheat) will go down if you dangle an extra $600 million in front of the coaches, players, and school administrators?
Extra profit just means extra reason (and motivation) for corruption.
Nobody wants to see the LSU-Alabama rematch.
Whether or not I concede this point depends entirely upon how you’re arguing it.
If you’re saying that the Nov. 5 game – which featured 15 total points, 8 punts, 4 turnovers, and more defense than an entire Big XII season – was so boring that nobody wants to watch it again, you’re wrong. I’m guessing that if LSU-Alabama I had been a wild, back-and-forth 48-45, triple OT shootout, the only objections to a rematch would be coming from Oklahoma State’s fans.
If you’re saying that Alabama already had their shot at #1 LSU and lost – at home – and therefore should not get another shot…well, at least you’re making a valid point. Unfortunately, as we’ve discussed, Bama has the best credentials of any other team in the nation, so they earned the right to the rematch.
Plus, how many of you would tune in for the rematch if that is what a playoff bracket produced? Exactly.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am a traditionalist who enjoys and appreciates the bowl season. I agree with you, there are too many bowls, involving too many 6-6 teams. But the bowls can actually be good for college football. In my opinion, the bowls have benefits:
- Bowl reward the players. At the majority of schools, football is the cash cow, often funding the rest of the athletic department. At every company I’ve worked for, the top producers get a year-end bonus. Why shouldn’t the players get to spend a week somewhere warm as a reward?
- Bowls keep teams from mailing it in. With a 8 or 16 team playoff, a team with 3 or 4 losses would be out of playoff contention early. But dangle a potential bowl bid (or the ability to spend the week in San Diego instead of Shreveport) in front of a team, and they might just play a little harder.
- Bowls allow mid-level teams a chance to improve before the next year. Making a bowl game gives teams an extra 2-3 weeks of practice, which can be a major benefit for teams looking to improve.
I know that I’m fighting a losing battle here. I fully expect there to be a playoff of some sort within 10 years.
And when that happens, I hope they don’t ruin the game I love.
* * *
This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed college football’s post-season….Read more about:
- How the Bama-LSU rematch was an example of the BCS getting it right
- How the BCS could be tweaked to work even better
- How to build the perfect 4-team playoff
- A radical plan to blow up the conferences to create a 16-team playoff
And feel free to let me know how right (or wrong) I am in the comments.