College Football Playoffs–Be Careful What You Wish For!
The period between the announcement of the bowl matchups and the crowning of the national championship is the season for many to clamor that college football is a failure and will be until there is a playoff. ‘Tis the season for media personalities to jump on the populist bandwagon and complain about the evil BCS system. The easy argument is that it is absurd that college football is the only sport without a playoff–and the NCAA has one at every other level of football. But be careful what you wish for sports fans. While a playoff may seem like an overdue necessity, the current college football system is simply awesome. The Confidential thinks that football fans need to appreciate the beauty of the system, rather than looking for the few ways that it is imperfect.
As an initial matter, the current system WORKS! The BCS system is designed to ensure that the #1 team plays the #2 team. Well, it has always done that, right? If you are excluded, it is because your team is ranked #3. Maybe it should have been #2… but it was not deemed to be.
Yeah, there is often debate about who is #1 and who is #2, but isn’t that always the case? If there was a 4-team playoff, the fifth place team would be excluded as the greatest injustice in the history of injustices every year. Just think about this year… who would the 4 teams be? LSU, Alabama, Stanford, and Oklahoma State. Stanford and Alabama did not even win their conference division, much less win their conference championship. And what about 2008, where there were FIVE undefeated teams. Who are you leaving out?
What about an 8-team playoff. If 4 is hard, try figuring out 8. If you went by BCS standings, you would have LSU, Alabama, Okie State, Stanford, Oregon, Arkansas, Boise State, and Kansas State. That’s right, no teams from the ACC or Big 10. How do you leave out Wisconsin, the Big 10 champ at an impressive 11-2 record? And so on. Is it the major conference champions that qualify? So a 7-5 Louisville or 7-6 UCLA would qualify just for winning their conference title, even though there are teams with much better records in their conference and, of course, outside their conference. The deeper you go in a playoff pool, the smaller the difference is between candidates. Is Michigan really worse than Kansas State? Are you sure? Really sure? 8 teams is just not enough.
Perhaps you think that they should have a 16-team playoff, just like the other divisions. Now you are adding four weeks to the season. The FCS playoffs have started and are already down to 8 teams. Actually, the FCS uses 20 teams and started Thanksgiving weekend. For a team like Albany, their 11-game regular season schedule ended on November 19th and they were eliminated before December. They did not have a bye week. There are no conference championship games. Albany finished the regular season 8-3, but still qualified in a playoff for the right to go 8-4. Is that what people want? 8-3 playoff teams? Of course, in the round of 16, the top seeds all advanced to the next round anyway. Despite giving the 8 teams the opportunity to pull an upset, none did. This is not surprising, given that they just played a whole season to determine who the cream of the crop was. All a 16-team playoff does is water down the regular season. Having a bunch of 3-loss teams qualify does nothing more than render some regular season losses irrelevant. You can still lose 1 or 2 more and make the playoffs, after all.
In contrast, the BCS system always pits #1 against #2. Occasionally, the debate between #2 and #3 is such that a winning #3 might get some votes that belong to the winning #2. But no matter who is crowned the champion, it is based on the performance of work from day 1 to the last day of the season. Even if you vehemently disagree as to who is #1 or #2, those are still great teams.
But, you say, the playoffs are the only way to settle a champion. Says who? Look at basketball. 3 weeks of games and you get a national champion. However, look at last year! The 9th place team in the Big East, UConn, won the national championship. Quick… name UConn’s regular season losses. I bet you cannot even name how many they had. They lost 9. Even though they lost 9 times, they were still deemed the best team–the National Champion. How can that be? The Cinderella stories of North Carolina State and Villanova were great, but nobody REALLY thinks that those schools were the best in the land.
Perhaps you are of the mind that the National Champion simply refers to the team that wins the post-season tournament, not the “best team.” Whoever wins it all deserves praise. But college football does not stop there. College football sets out to crown a National Champion AND determine who the best team is. In basketball, you play for 4 months to whittle the field down from 300+ to 68. Of those 68, roughly 20 of them are not truly among the top 68 teams. Even so , that leaves 48 that likely are the best 48 (especially if ignore that coach of the 12-loss team on the radio show circuit the morning after the bracket is announced and his team was #49). You do all that, only to discard it and play a tournament.
Is the regular season just a practice for the Big Dance? Nobody EVER says that about college football. Lose to Iowa State in week 10, and it could keep you out of the national championship. Perhaps you think that it is not fair to penalize a team who loses. Well, every March, we penalize 67 teams for losing. It’s a single-elimination tournament where every loss ends the season. #1 seed? Better beat Northern Iowa. #3 seed? Better beat Belmont. And so on.
In football, the loss in September or November may or may not end your season from a national championship perspective, but it likely will. At the very least, you lose control over your own destiny. In college football, every September game is basically just like a first-round game of the Big Dance. You have to win to stay alive. Every October game is like a Round of 32 game. Every November game narrows down to Sweet 16, Elite 8, and Final Four. And, by the time the BCS bids are announced, you are down to 2.
But the football system makes up for it with bowl games for many. Ask Pitt and Syracuse whether their weekend matchup of 5-6 teams mattered. The winner got a bowl game, the loser went home. Ask West Virginia whether its game against USF–a win that got them into the Orange Bowl–mattered. It did. And we know that West Virginia was watching Cincinnati beat UConn with glee. Three regular season games in the worst BCS conference and they all mattered greatly. If there was a 16-team playoff, would those games have mattered at all? How many college basketball games in February matter? Sure, for seeding. A few bubble teams clashing to see which 10-loss team qualifies to be a 12th seed. But merely days before the bracket is announced, those games largely do not matter. Even in the worst conference, the worst team in that conference can win its conference championship and get a ticket to the Big Dance. And notice how exciting those conference championship games are? That television is compelling. Because the games matter. Elimination games matter.
And that is why the current football system is simply awesome! Every game is an elimination game, from September to December. Lose once, you are no longer controlling your national championship destiny. Lose twice, you are done. Lose three times, and your conference championship hopes dim. Lose four times, you are looking at a mid-level bowl. Lose five times, now you are looking at a late December bowl. Lose six times? You’ll be playing in mid-December. Lose seven times? There is no post-season (except for UCLA). Every weeks costs something measurable.
The NFL has a playoff system. Yes, the NFL allows 12 of its 32 teams to make the playoffs. The NFL is, like college basketball, more of a marathon than a sprint. You can lose an NFL game in September, another in October, another in November, and another in December, and yet still finish 12-4. No 12-4 team has been excluded from the playoffs. Quite the contrary, there have been late season NFL games that are so unimportant that teams rest their stars. You don’t see that in college football under the current system. You might if there was a playoff. Is that desirable? Meaningless games at the end of the season? Of course, unlike many other sports, Football is always single elimination. The better team does not always win. The 2010 Super Bowl was won by a #6 seed. A college football playoff would do nothing more than weaken the import of that September win over your best OOC opponent. A college football playoff would render that November win over your rival secondary. Those games are mere tuneups for the playoff.
The day that college football goes to a playoff is the day that your team no longer has to try to win every game. If a 10-2 team can make the playoffs, that’s all that teams need to strive to obtain. Sure, a team will always want to go undefeated, but the pressure to do so will no longer be there. At that point, college football will cease to be what it has been for all these decades. All the Confidential can say is be careful what you wish for–sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.