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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)

What happened under the BCS system:
In 2006, #1 11-0 Ohio State played #2 11-0 Michigan for a #1 ranking and the right to go to the NCG. In the 100 plus games played by these rivals, this was the biggest one. It was a hard fought classic in which the Buckeyes repeatedly pulled out to a double digit lead and the Wolverines aided by a 3-0 turnover margin kept cutting back to striking distance. Michigan scored to pull with 3 with 2 minutes remaining and OSU hung on by their finger nails with a long run on 3rd and 2 to run out the clock in front of the largest crowd ever in Ohio State Stadium.

What would have happened under the playoff system:
In 2006 #1, 11-0 Ohio State played #2 11-0 Michigan with nothing on the line. (Win or lose both were in the play-offs) Heisman trophy candidate Troy Smith started for OSU and was pulled after 1 play with the rest of the starters. Michigan All-American Chad Henne and the rest of Michigan first team didn't make the trip to Columbus. (only an idiot would risk injury to the starters in a meaningless game) No one above the 3rd team appeared for the remainder of the game. Ohio State set a new record with zero punts in the game, even when 4th and 38 on their own 2 because they only had one punter and weren't going to risk him. No one remembers the final score the press box was empty and the crowd of 200 was mainly family members of little used seniors for both teams.

I happen to be an Ohio State fan, so that's the game that occured to me. I'm sure that fans from other teams and other regions focus on other crucial late season "make or break" games.

Strange as it may seem to the gambling bosses and Mr. Obama, I'm not really thrilled about going to scenerio #2

The other problem with a play off is that, it cannot be based on the BCS format. It would be an antitrust violation. Currently, with 5 BCS games, they can buy off the non-BCS and the 2nd place conference teams with a BCS berth. But in a playoff any team in the top 8 without a playoff spot is going to be an instant and successful lawsuit under antitrust. So the Big East and the ACC are things of the past.
April 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRon
It is good to know that there are others out there that are against a playoff in College Football. I thought I might have been the only one!

The entire debate is very simple (at least to me). And those who get frustrated and angry, simply don't understand what is really going on.

1) Its all about maintaining the regular season. Just as you said in your article, the regular season is so important in College Football. It would be gone once a playoff is instituted (see College Baseball and / or Basketball).

2) A playoff and the BCS/Bowls are two different things (and they operate totally differently). Those who confuse the two and think they are somehow interchangeable are simply mistaken.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe that the two can exist at the same time and both be effective. For example, the AP has a Top 25 in College Basketball, but no one really pays attention to it because there is a playoff. In any sport, only one can really be effective (even if they both exist).

However, a Top 25 (whether a human or computer poll) determines who is the "best" team (by either an objective or subjective standard), while a playoff determines a "tournament champion" (for lack of a better term). Again, look at College Basketball: What do you get from the NCAA Tournament? You get a tournament champ! You get the team that had the best tournament run. This is not always the "best team" of the year (and yet, sometimes it is). However, just because you have a playoff system, doesnt guarantee that the "best team" will win the "tournament/playoff." I think the 2008 Super Bowl is another perfect example. The Giants defeated the New England Patriots. The minute the Giants won that game, the debate over which team was really better "began!" It did NOT "end" after they "settled it on the field." However, the Giants are the undisputed "Champions" (as far as the playoff system is concerned, however, were they really the "best team?").

Look at Boise State's win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. I think Boise State was the best team that day, and they won that game fair-and-square and are the rightful champs of that bowl game. However, if that was a first round playoff game, I think you could easily make the argument that the "best" team was knocked out in a major upset!

At the end of the day, no matter what system you use (playoff, plus-one, 8 or 16 team, etc.) you will only EVER have a "tournament champion." It will be just like basketball where even though you have a winner, you will ALSO always have a DEBATE.

A playoff doesnt solve the debate problem at all.

On the other side of this coin, the BCS doesn't necessarily solve the debate either. However, it doesn't really claim too. It only claims to force the No. 1 and 2 ranked teams from its poll to play each other at seasons end. However, there are other polls (such as the AP) which are reputable and have been around for years, that may have a totally different opinion on which the "best" team is. The AP (or whomever) has every right to crown the national champion via their own poll or system. Do all these polls carry the same amount of weight? No, but that is a different discussion.

The discussion here is the "outcome" that is produced. And a playoff doesnt automatically (or ever) solve the debate.

Every few years, a team is so dominant that it will run through a playoff system and win the whole thing with very little trouble (ex: 2009 UNC Basketball team). However, that UNC team would have been national champs under the poll system as well. So the playoff really made no difference. Yet, I guess it "could have." Although those fans from UCLA (for example) still have an argument that their Bruins might have been able to beat UNC....and even with a playoff, they didnt get that chance....so the debate rages on.

You may not like my examples, and that is fine, however dont get caught up in the details of the teams I picked for examples. Look at what a playoff produces and what a poll produces. They are two completely different things, and to argue that we should use a playoff to get what a poll gives us makes no sense at all (and vice versa).
May 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTravis
perfectly. well thought out and well written. spread the word.
May 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertaylor
Love the BCS...without it you get Nebraska playing the Northern New Hampshire Drum and Bugle Corps. At least there are some good early season games. There are some disaster games too. (check out the list at;
http://firstworstfootball.thewebinfocenter.com/funny-football/bottom-ten-early-season-games-%E2%80%93-2009 )
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