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Thursday
Nov092006

Le Playoffs

Le pew.  Oui!

LePew.jpg 

So college football has this problem where people are unsatisfied with how its championship is decided.

Guesssss what?  We don't have a championship.  That's why people always write MNC -- mythical national champion.  We play a bunch of games in the regular season, some teams end up going to bowl games, then afterwards we vote for an honorary champion and start again eight months later.

The beauty of this game, and what distinguishes it from all other celebrated American sports is its regular season.  Add a playoff and poof! there she goes.

Think about college basketball for a moment.  Can many of you honestly remember much from say, any of the Duke/North Carolina games?    How about Kansas and Texas?  Or UCLA and Arizona?  I can't.  But I remember many moments of that Penn State/Northwestern football game last year.  I remember Boston College playing Florida State and I remember Wisconsin and Minnesota.

All were far more obscure, far less important than the basketball games, yet they were memorable. 

Why?

Because the regular season counts for something in college football.  In fact, it's everything.

Our 'championship' is window dressing.  It's important to people, but it's not the force that drives the game.

After 100+ years of play, college football has managed to be a popular sport despite not having its own title quest, no holy grail such as the Stanley Cup.  Don't you think the sport would have done something by now to create a more legitimate and recognized championship other than crowning by polls or BCS if it was really going to help the game?  Shouldn't college football have collapsed by now if its antiquated ways were such bad medicine for its fans?

What we in fact have is a sport with probably the greatest fan loyalty and participation outside of soccer.  We only play 11-14 games a year, with every game of some importance (sans those cynically devised creampuff games).  If you're an Auburn fan, you want to see Ole Miss when they're in town, dammit.  The game's just as much of an event as when you're playing Tennessee or Florida.

The same simply isn't true for the sports some of us seek to model this great game after.  Is there really that much difference for a Minnesota Twins fan to attend a game if the Chicago White Sox are in town for a series or if the Oakland Athletics are in town?  Most of those games will be quickly forgotten.  Same for say, a Chicago Bulls fan.  What's so powerful about a weekday visit from the Atlanta Hawks?  Nothing, really.  It's a casual experience, often at the end of a workday, to be enjoyed like going to the movies.  The vast majority of those games aren't interesting or memorable until the playoffs, rendering the regular season a joke.

Not so for college football.  And the reason is because these games matter.  They matter because there is no playoff, because there are so few games played, because what happens on the field is important and interesting and the players fight so hard for it.

People complain about baseball and basketball players being rich, not caring, mailing it in.  You don't have that in college football.  If guys aren't playing hard, no matter how talented you are, your season is going to be a mess because it's a guarantee your opponent will care and will crush you for your indifference.  It's not simply because the players aren't (allegedly) getting paid.  It's because the sport's status quo makes the regular season worthwhile.

A playoff is an enticement to take it easy, particularly for the very good teams who can afford to not fight back on a bad day knowing one loss won't necessarily kill them.  Imagine if USC had simply given up a few weekends ago against Oregon State, down 33-10.  Imagine their staff simply said eff-it, let's get the starters out, prevent injuries, get out of Dodge.  We would have been robbed of simply one of the finest quarters of football seen from any team all year.  It was a stirring comeback made all the more dramatic as Oregon State stonewalled the Trojans' two-point conversion attempt that would have sent the game into overtime.

We need those games.

They're what set college football apart from the pack and why it draws a lot of fans who have tired of the NBA, of the NHL, of Major League Baseball and yes, even the NFL.  We're different, it's the wedge that makes this game unique and powerful and has helped build its audience.  Why would we fathom such a change that breaks with tradition, that removes some of the incentive for good teams to play hard every minute of every game?  It's insanity and worst of all, it doesn't really solve the 'championship' problem.

A few days ago I brought up the World Series victory by the St. Louis Cardinals.  They were barely a .500 baseball team that snuck into the playoffs, yet caught fire at just the right time and won themselves a title.  It was an embarrassment to baseball's playoff apparatus.  This despite having a best-of-five first round and then best-of-seven subsequent series.  How can college football legitimately crown a champion with just a series of one-and-done games that leave so much up to chance?

College football's way of determining a champion, while imperfect, does a lot better job of crowning a TRUE CHAMPION based on the regular season. Billy Beane in Moneyball talks about the MLB playoffs being a true crapshoot in who wins because there is so much extra noise in the data that suggest that the playoffs are decided more by luck than a superior team blowing out an inferior team.

The 2006 World Series is a good example of this. It's impossible to think that luck had nothing to do with the Tigers playing defense about as well as a last place Little League team. If they would have played like that all season, then there is no way Detroit wins 95-games and beats down New York and Oakland in the process. However, because it happens during 4-games that they lose at the end of the season, somehow erases the other 171 games they played.

Insanity!

Sample size!  You can't possibly project the national mood on any particular issue by asking a handful of people what they think about the war or taxes.  You have to ask hudreds of them, making sure to correct for bias in your question(s) and control for all kinds of variables such as gender, race, income, residence, awareness of the issues etc.

Just the same you cannot reasonably determine the game's best through one game samples.

As I've argued before, most "playoffs" are poorly structured.  They're not designed well enough to ensure the passage of superior ball clubs, instead rewarding whoever is playing the best at that time, whoever is luckiest, etc.  That's all fine and dandy, but it's not much for a championship.  Please don't confuse me with being anti-playoff.  I enjoy the MLB playoffs, the NFL playoffs are fun, so is the NCAA basketball tournament.  However, I don't necessarily see them as championships but rather postseason tournaments.

Because this is college athletics, because it is the game of football (best played only once a week), a well-designed playoff is impossible.  The NFL playoffs are severely flawed despite the league not having the burdens of academic limitations to travel, etc.  It would be insanity to attempt a playoff in a game with far less freedoms and flexibility than the NFL.

Any college football playoff would be a condensed version of the NFL playoffs or NCAA basketball tournament: seeding and one-and-done games until one team is left standing.  Exciting? absolutely.  Conclusive?  Far from.  In other words a playoff won't help us sleep any more soundly at night than the current situation.  Sorry.

"B..b..b.. but we must do something!" you say, "The BCS is a mess".

Absolutely.  The BCS was designed as a compromise, a win-lose, if you will.  It creates a title game of sorts, but it has no real authority beyond the control of the involved parties: the Harris Poll, the USA Today/Coaches poll and the average of several computers.  Look no further than 2003 to see how well that worked out.

We're in this strange era in the game's history where we've got this added... thing... on top of the game.  It's like that fetus attached to the school nurse's head from the TV show South Park.  It's part of us, but it's not really part of us.  I think down the road we'll look back at this time and realize how frivolous (if $$$ lucrative!) the BCS was, and surgically remove it.

What we can do is try to bring the game back to its historic roots, its traditions.  We can seek the gradual elimination of a great many of the more frivolous postseason bowl games.  Let the postseason be a celebration, a reward for particularly strong play instead of something gained with six wins (particularly woeful when three of them are against out-of-conference nobodies).

We can also shelve the BCS and any other postseason construction.

The game used to be about conference titles and a January bowl game, to play in some new, sun-soaked place as a juicy reward for a season of accomplishment.  We can have that again.

And afterwards, when the party's over, we can take an honorary vote, celebrate a remarkable team or two and turn out the lights again until August.

***
Update: more discussion here 

***

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Reader Comments (90)

Wow.
December 27, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
Adrian Peterson can make his choice as he sees fit. I doubt anyone is twisting his arm. Honestly, in all the years I have followed football I have never heard a single player complain about playing in a bowl or playoff game. Perhaps you have.
Football players play to compete. That they end up with a Pro career is just another possible perk.


The whole injury card is a patently ridiculous argument since the NCAA just added a 12th game. How does that decrease chance of injury? Don't you think this is a bit of a hypocritical stance? And how much is that game worth???



My point concerning playoffs is they would be just another supplement to the bowl pie already there. What does the 17 million dollar figure have to do with anything??? Are you stating that if a bowl game was host to a playoff game that it would decrease its payouts??? Frankly, I think that would be a ludicrous thought as advertisers would be lining up for the broadcast. Ever check the Super Bowl adds??


As to the first round in the playoffs at the home field of the higher seed for those 4 games. You merely split the revenues among the participants and their conference affiliations just like regular season games. You can guarantee the broadcast rights would astronomical for such games. Since all the Big 6 would be represented, I fail to see any problem with managing the revenue distribution. Just like the Pre season classics not the big deal you are making this out to be.


Its not a choice between 8 Million and 17 Million it is a choice of probably an additional millions for each conference if not much more.

6 conference champions plus 2 at large the second weekend in December. eliminate the 12 th game, and it becomes NO BIG DEAL and easily implemented.


You did notice that this years UF vs Ohio State game is being played a week later??? HMMMMM? Wonder what that means??? Since you have such injury concerns???

Uh Uh I thought CFB couldn't be played that late into the NEW YEAR!!! Oh well just another myth destroyed.
December 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBill
Playoffs and the bowls can be an easy marriage with hardly any disruption at all and mainly enhancement to the current bowl set up. 4 games the 2nd weekend of December with both the winners and losers going to bowls only enhances Division One football and the current bowl system. There would be no loss of revenue to anyone just additional revenue added.

No bowls are moved and you just have a total of 5 additional games.(one is already in place this season). I do believe that the newly created 12th game should be eliminated. It is quite obvious that its creation has just led to more Western Carolina's against UF's of the world. Meaningless games and assured win against a patsies. Not attractive at all IMHO.
December 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBill
There are a lot of things in your previous two posts, Bill. I only have time to address a few of them at the moment.

First, let me give you some perspective on where I'm coming from so that there are no misconceptions. I have exactly the same personal feelings about the 12th game as I do about playoffs. I think they are exploitative of the football program in general, and of the football players specifically. I question the ethics of paying a kid like Adrian Peterson, who plays in front of more than 82,000 people per home game, the same $50 monthly stipend that is paid to a kid on the golf or tennis teams. Those are my PERSONAL feelings.

Yet, after looking at the financial statements on the Equity in Athletics web site, I understand why the NCAA Board of Directors has chosen to add a 12th game. Plain and simple, damn near every other sport hemorrhages money. So, from a business standpoint, I understand it even though I think it is unethical.

Since we have spoken about Peterson, let's use his school as an example. The Oklahoma Athletic Department reported a profit of just under $200,000 in fiscal 2005-06. This breaks down as follows: the football program reported a $19.9 million PROFIT. All of the other sports programs COMBINED reported a $19.7 million LOSS. I mentioned the golf and tennis teams earlier. Oklahoma University reported that it actually spends more money per participant in men's golf and men's tennis than it does on its football players.

A perusal of the financial statement leads one to believe the value of one home game at OU is approximately $2.8 million in profit. This is double the amount OU takes home from playing in a BCS game for its conference ($17 million / 12 schools in the Big 12 = $1.41 million).

You say the argument of Adrian Peterson's career is "patently ridiculuous" because of the 12th game. I agree the risk of injury exists in a 12th game as much as it does in bowl games or playoffs. Yet, in a sense, you have clarified my point. Extra games, in any form, are exactly what I am vehemently against. After looking at the financial statements, I have concluded there are three things that are "patently ridiculous".

The first is the NCAA Title IX rule that requires all the sports to be treated as equals despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The second is the notion that D1-A football should follow the economic model of all the financial losers for its post-season. OU has twenty sports teams. Imagine if the other nineteen coaches approached Bob Stoops and said, "Hey, Bob. We know your guys made almost $20 million and all of us put together lost almost $20 million. We think you ought to do things our way." Now THAT is patently ridiculous.

The third is that everyone seems to have their hand out wanting more. The other sports program want better facilities. The other coaches want more money. The football coaches shop themselves around on the open market for more money, or they want pay raises. The NCAA Board of Directors created an extra home game to generate more money. The BCS created an extra Bowl game to generate more money. The football programs to support the financial losers at their schools, only to have playoff pushing fans wanting even more games because, well, that's what they want.

Even if your playoff scenario, Bill, is a financial bonanza and "everyone makes money" (I disagree, but I'll go along for the sake of argument), there is one very important party who doesn't make a dime more than they already have: the players.

The OU football program reported revenues of $33.7 million. It is a business, nothing less. There are dozens of businesses in D1-A similar to it.

I can think of no other example in American business where consumers complain so loudly that the end-line producers aren't further exploited for financial gain. And when you ask these consumers why they want to do such a thing, the response equates to, "For the sport of it."



December 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMJ
Bill, I want to correct something I wrote in the previous post.

All of the other sports combined at OU only lost $10.2 million. There appears to be a $9.5 million loss under "revenues/expenses not allocated by gender/sport". An educated guess... this is for capital improvements, such as new facilities.

Nevertheless, the football program is funding these shortfalls.

I didn't want to be accused of fudging numbers.

Happy New Year!
December 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMJ
A sample size of one is better than a sample size of zero.
December 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Frye
MJ,

I do believe we are in agreement on both the exploitive nature, as Division One is currently being run, and lets be sure and make note of the fact that this is without a playoff!! The 12 th game was not clamored for by fans. It was just another dodge against doing the proper thing for Division One. Likewise Title IX is in serious need of an overhall in its implementation.

A 12 game regular season is far too taxing because it leaves little chance for any break in the regular season.

Another problem with Division One even before the 12th game was even considered is the incredibly long layoff between the last regular season game and the bowls. To me a far greater chance of injury is possible with the current set up.

As I have suggested eliminate the 12 th game and give some room for a couple of off weekends for the Division One football player.


Division One needs one less regular season game and a better playing sequence into the bowl games. A first round 8 team playoff would accomplish this with a little over 2 week layoff before the bowls where the 4 winners and losers could still play in the major bowls with little disruption.

While you make points about injury concerns with proper spacing Division One can handle a couple of teams playing a max 15 game schedule which is a bit more evenly spaced.


Listening to Boise St, there were several players that spoke of at least getting a chance to play an Ohio State for all the marbles. That is what is wrong with Division One. Boise State will never get the chance despite going 13-0.
January 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBill
"I do believe we are in agreement on both the exploitive nature, as Division One is currently being run, and lets be sure and make note of the fact that this is without a playoff!! "

Couldn't agree with you more, Bill. My sense is that we would be pouring gasoline on a fire that already is out of control.
January 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMJ
My suggestion is to have a playoff with 8 teams. The first round will include the rose, fiesta, sugar, and orange bowls. The two second round games can both be played in hawaii. The national championship will rotate between pasadena, tempe, new orleans, and miami. Any team that is undefeated gets an automatic bid. The BSC rankings determine the rest of the at-large teams. The seeding would also be determined by the BCS rankings.
January 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterARK
Does anyone but me feel that a 53 day layoff before playing a game is absurd?? Heck! That is over 7 weeks!! Utter insanity!!

Ohio State looked more like Western Carolina than a team that had won 11 games. UF certainly completely demolished them, and this is not trying to diminish that feat, but seriously there is something drastically wrong with this time period between the final game of the season and the championship game. Personally, I think it is extremely dangerous for the players to have such a long layoff and really increases the chance of injury. Didn't Gwinn get injured on the first play?
January 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBill
ESPN's Ivan Maisel weighs in today with a terrific piece you should read here: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/columns/story?columnist=maisel_ivan&id=2734911

Somehow I doubt it's what his bosses were expecting.
January 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSenator Blutarsky
Well I agree with Maisel on the plus one not being an improvement over the currently flawed process used to determine the current mess. Didn't we already have +1 with addition of the 12th game? Gee! that was really special watching almost every team in Division One play an extra game against the "little sisters of the poor".

The reason the BCS sucks is because it is a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.

All "the regular season is important" is just "blather" as an undefeated Boise St proves. Were they the best team in CFB last season? No one will ever know and that is the problem.


Truthfully, I am not so sure the current way CFB determines its National Champion is any better than it was about 50 years ago.

You know?? back when they determined the National Champion on the last game of the regular season?? After that they played 4 major bowl games on New Years day Orange, Rose, Sugar and Cotton. These were rewards for good seasons although the SEC had a lot of control over at least 3 of them. They were not used for deciding National Champions. Heck, the Big Ten had a rotation based on who went last to the Rose Bowl.

Obviously, even then there were problems.

The point that Maisel misses is a REAL PLAYOFF solves all the previous problems of the past. He again does not understand that rivalries and their importance won't change whether it is the BCS Playoff or whatever!!

When FSU played Florida in 1996 and won and much to their surprise had to face UF again?? How important was that final game of the regular season then?

Also, what about Nebraska and Oklahoma getting blown out in their final games of the season?? Yet they still get a free pass to the Championship??

I like the Michigan vs Ohio State point. Tell me again how Michigan drops in the polls without playing a game??? Oh yeh they got stomped by USC so everything works out?? Huh?


A real playoff can work with no disruption to the bowl games.

Even without a Big Ten, Big East, or Pac 10 championship game.


This year the teams would have been as follows:

1. Ohio State top seed
2. Florida #2 seed
3. Boise St #3 seed Perfect does count!!
4. Louisville # 4 seed
5. Michigan # 5 Losing to only #1 by 3 is worth a position
6. Oklahoma #6
7. USC losing #7(2 conference games puts you here.)
8. Wake Forest #8 see USC..


First weekend Dec 13th

Wake Forest at Ohio State

USC at Florida

Oklahoma at Boise st

Michigan at Louisville


Not one to prognosticate but assuming hypothetically

Ohio State, Louisville, Florida ,and Boise State win

You have a pairing of


Boise St and Florida in one New years bowl

Ohio State vs Louisville in another

with the winners playing in Glendale the next weekend


And also

You have Michigan vs USC in the Rose Bowl

And Oklahoma vs Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl


See: little disruption!!! Games are still attractive and interesting. Eliminate the 12th useless regular season game and things are fantastic and meaningful. Regular season and post season are made important.

Whats not to like??


It is time for Division One to leave the "make believe" and join every other level of football with a real playoff to determine its champion. Stop the beauty contest!!!









January 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBill
I know this is a late response and may not ever get noticed, but for posterity two things about the post above:

1. That is a lot of assumption. Why would Boise State win or even be invited? Where is LSU? Wisconsin? How do you determine your seeds?


and, most importantly

2. What is the best posssible outcome? Ohio State versus Florida? Wait, where have I seen that before?

If the NCAA sanctioned the winner of the BCS playoff game as the "National Champion" of Division 1a football would the people claiming they want a playoff because there isn't a true champion be happy?
April 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSteven
Boise st could either be an at large team or perhaps as suggested seeded high due to being undefeated. You are correct there is a lot of assumption in which reality could be completely different.

Seeds are determined by the polls and winning your conference.


Best possible outcome? There is no best possible outcome that is called Why they play the game rather than vote on who goes?


The NCAA will never sanction the BCS as a National champion.

The point is there is so little cross conference play throughout the sport that who really is the best at the end of the season is an impossible question to answer without a playoff. Now you certainly can make a case for who appears to be the best at the end of the regular season but as Ohio State showed the world that didn't mean much in Glendale!!


Just too many inequities with the current system. With the SEC bringing it up it may not be long!! Can't wait!!! How incredibly exciting to actually have both a meaningful regular and post season!! Fantastic!!
April 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBill
The purpose of competition is to determine the winner of first place. That is what a champion is. The purpose of competition is not to sort out the best team. Therefore, arguing that a playoff will not sort out the best team is irrelevant since that is not its purpose. Certainly,a competition's format can be intuitively designed to favor the best team or teams, but it is ultimately up to these teams to take advantage of their superior abilities. Since the best team does not win every game, why would anyone believe competitions were about identifying the best team as if the best team were entitled to be champions?
April 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChad
>>>>>>if you insert say, an 8-game championship, guess what? There are going to be a handful of teams who feel they're good enough to be included. Again, someone's going to be left out, yet another mythical title, particularly when we're relying on a one-and-done format.

There is no fix. There is no fix. There is no fix.
__________________________________________________


Of course, there is a fix. You create a system that allows everyone to control their destiny and that determines all playoff participants and seedings in an objective manner. No one can complain if they are knowingly less successful according to an agreed upon fixed objective standard. The only thing mythical is your idea of what a champion is. Champion and best team are not synonyms and it is ridiculous to defend a system that denies unbeaten teams a shot at a championship because of the limited role luck may play in a playoff. Besides that, luck plays a role in the regular season too. I'm sure every single MNC benefited from luck at some point during their title season.

April 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChad
The more I read the more ridiculous the arguments against a playoff get. I can appreciate that some prefer a regular season which requires all teams to assume an unbeaten season is necessary to play for the all the marbles. CFR does not like that a playoff would be a one and done series of games that are apparently greatly influenced by luck. Yet, the regular season is also a series of one and dones. In fact, the regular season is essentially a 12 round single elimination tournament where luck has more chances to play a role in shaping the national title race including bad luck that denies an unbeaten Auburn its chance and good luck that allows the "best team" (Florida) an opportunity it would not have had if not for UCLA's upset of USC. Ironic that one of the arguments against a playoff is that it doesn't correct for upsets. More ironic is that luck and an upset allowed the "best team" to reveal itself.

Another terrible argument is the Adrian Peterson dilemma. Peterson was injured in a regular season game which had no playoff implications with six regular season games left plus a then potential CCG. Why not shut things down following the loss to Texas and sign with an agent? Futhermore, how "lucky" for the Oklahoma that the Oregon fiasco wasn't a playoff game?

Finally, given that only a handful of teams have won four games versus top 16 competition in a single season, how would any team that wins four consectutive games against such competition be classified as just getting "hot"?

April 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChad
"Naming a champion is the ONLY goal for playoff pushers."


Gee whiz, us playoff pushers are surely red-faced that somebody deduced that our "ONLY" motivation for a playoff is to determine a champion. The shame is unbearable. Seriously, what other reason is there for a playoff? This is like saying that someone who asks for a can opener just wants to open a can. Why even keep score if determining a champion is a bad thing?
April 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChad
Good Comments Chad,

We are on the same page.

I always love the "meaningful regular season argument"??


A very easy answer: slam- dunking the whole argument!

Explain how the following games were meaningful and guess which team went to the MNC??


Colorado 62- Nebraska 36

Kansas St 35 Oklahoma 7

Miami 27 FSU 24


And while were at it since the regular season counts so much FSU 24- UF 21 Hmmm lets play it again??


And lets not leave out Boise St and Auburn's undefeated seasons.. Yeh??? the regular season really is important with the current system??


Ridiculous!!
April 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBill
Thanks Bill. Like I said in a previous post, I can respect that others favor a format with limited or no room for error, but they don't leave it at that. They invent some of the weakest arguments ever for opposing a playoff. Apparently a playoff is bad because it would prevent CFR from remembering details from a game involving two teams that would not have qualified for a playoff anyway. The idea that we remember details from football games better than basketball games is an argument against a football playoff? A playoff is bad because "luck" might enable a team to win? Surely, luck never comes into play during the regular season? A playoff is bad if upsets happen? Of course, upsets never happen during the regular season. A playoff is unfair because the best team may not win but a format that allows no one to control their destiny and ultimately denies some unbeatens any shot at the national title is fair and worth protecting? Best of all (or worst), a playoff is bad because proponents only want one to determine champion?

Stepping back to the best team argument, when did fans decide that the best team is entitled to win anything or that competition is about identifying the best team? How meaningful is college football's regular season and bowl games if CFR ranks an unbeaten Boise State behind a three-loss Oklahoma it beat in the Fiesta Bowl or a one loss Wisconsin behind a four-loss Arkansas it beat as well. An 11-2 Auburn, which beat #1 and #6, is lurking outside the top 15? What is the basis for these rankings? Best to worst team? What value does being better have if a team is objectively less successful? And why is a playoff bad because CFR can remember details from games if CFR doesn't even reward the winning team?
April 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChad

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