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Friday, November 30, 2007

The Case for a Playoff

Over the past week, I've been working on hammering out the at-large bids to my simulated college football playoff. As I've detailed here before, if you want a playoff, the most logical way for it to work is a full 16-team field with all 11 conference champions and 5 at-large bids. Currently, I haven't made any seedings and none of the at-larges are set in stone, so that I can react to this weekend's slate of games.

I've been treating that as a bare minimum, and when I originally conceived of it I saw it as a logical limitation on a playoff. If you wanted the NCAA to institute a playoff, that's the bare minimum they were likely to accept - no 8-team garbage. Most 8-team layouts I've seen have all six BCS conference champions, which is just as disenfranchising as before - to potential second-best teams from BCS conferences as well as non-BCS conference champions. Partly because of these concerns, and because I saw even five at larges as too limiting, I've been toying with the idea of a 24-team playoff with 8 byes to the second round.

But looking over this idea, I find that, far from being a creation of expediency and compromise, this might actually be the ideal tournament format and the one most likely to stand up to the scrutiny of the BCS backers. Here are the most common arguments leveled against the idea of a playoff and my responses:

The regular season, which is part of what makes college football special, will become meaningless. Big upsets will mean less if the losers are going to get into a playoff anyway. Not under my system. With such Darwinian competition for five at-large spots, the only truly sure way to get into the playoffs is to win your conference. It's not like basketball where the Big Six conference tournaments are a big joke because everyone who gets semi-far is getting into the NCAAs anyway. If you slip, and it costs you the conference title, you have to be absolutely perfect the rest of the way to battle it out for position for an at-large. USC probably is not getting into my tournament if they lose to UCLA, Michigan almost certainly is not getting an at-large and the loss to Appalachian State is no small part of it, and there is a scenario in which LSU doesn't get into my tournament either. Those upsets are still meaningful, as is Illinois' upset over Ohio State, and as do many more games on the schedule besides - under my system, every conference championship takes on profound importance every year (the ACC and SEC Title Games are important parts of my waiting game to fill at-larges, but in reality they're sideshows to the national title race). Every team wants to run the table and go undefeated (I'll explain why, and why OSU's upset still matters, in a moment), but you never know when someone will come up and ruin your shot at a conference title (see this season). So you have to be sure that, just in case something wrong happens, you can sufficiently impress the Powers that Be that are choosing the at-larges that your team is worthy. What does this mean? It means that TEAMS WOULD ACTUALLY HAVE AN INCENTIVE TO SCHEDULE TOUGH OPPONENTS! Do you think Michigan would have passed up that game against Hawaii under my system? Hell no; they couldn't pass up the strength of schedule boost it would provide should they lose to Ohio State (again) and lose the Big 10 Title. Losing to Hawaii would cost Michigan an undefeated season, but it wouldn't affect their chances of winning the Big 10. Beating Hawaii, on the other hand, would make a big statement that would shore up their case for getting in, their seeding once in, and their case for a 1 seed should they go undefeated.

Late in the season, if a team has no or 1 loss, and has already locked up their conference or at least a spot in the playoff, they will rest starters and begin to coast, like in the NFL. Not if they want to beat their rival they won't. More importantly, such a strategy can be suicidal. My plan has an element that looks like a weakness at first. Why, the 8-team proponents say, should I award spots in the tournament to every mid-major conference champion? No way are they better than potential at-large teams that would make for a true top 16. But this is actually a strength. Sure, the MAC, C-USA, and Sun Belt champions might not be real threats to win the national championship. But you can't tell me it's not incredibly valuable to pick up a top 3 seed and, basically, a free pass to the second round. The four seed, on the other hand, might be at risk of an upset against one of the better mid-major champions, or if it's a really strong year for mid-majors, an at-large. The five and six seeds get stuck with either the lower-rated at-larges or the "BCS Buster" du jour. Ohio State likely would have gotten a top two seed had they run the table. Now, however, Ohio State might fall behind some at-large teams and pick up a four or worse. Last year, I've heard it said that Michigan-Ohio State would have been nowhere near as special without a playoff. See this year's Patriots-Cowboys, Patriots-Colts, and Cowboys-Packers matchups and get back to me on that. Ignoring how huge the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is, the fact is that Michigan-Ohio State likely would have been for a No. 1 seed on the line, and thus a worse first-round opponent, and the loser could have easily slipped below No. 2 - Michigan could have easily slipped to #4 behind Florida and Louisville. If you manage to get a 1 seed, the Sun Belt (or quite frankly, the MAC or C-USA; Troy is a pretty good team this year) is probably going to feed you a team so crappy, you might as well rest your starters and coast then, as a reward for your stellar regular-season performance.

Protect the sanctity of the bowls! Oh please. I once agreed with this point, until I realized that 90% of the bowls are crap. No one gives a shit about most of these meaningless bowls that semi-randomly pair teams together and lets them loose to play a game, and generally we learn absolutely nothing from it and there's no reason to watch. Who cares about the Meineke Car Care Bowl or the New Orleans Bowl? The BCS has ruined the sanctity of the bowls already (just ask the Cotton Bowl), with the result that the Rose Bowl is the only bowl that still has a "tradition" worth saving. That's easy enough to keep. Seed the field so that the Pac-10 and Big 10 champion would always meet in a semifinal. Make that semifinal the Rose Bowl. Bingo, problem solved, at least for the most part.

But the beautiful thing about the bowls is that we have 32 winners, not 1. There's a reason college basketball has the NIT. I'm only selecting 16 teams for my tournament. All the other teams can still go to the bowls, including early-round tournament losers. There's even the possibility of a third-place game. What's that? You say those bowls would be meaningless? Hell, they're meaningless now. The BCS bowls are the only non-national championship bowls worth watching (with some exceptions like that year when Louisville and Boise State played in the Liberty Bowl when BSU was undefeated and Louisville came within a play of doing the same). Teams that don't make the tournament can still get an ego boost from the bowls, and the tournament-loser "consolation bowls" can be used to partially settle certain arguments not covered in the tournament itself.

You have to protect the integrity of academics! Oh please. These people are probably the same people that added a 12th game purely for the money. College football sold out on academics long ago, and the Division I-AA, II, and III football tournaments don't seem to have grossly negative effects on academics. If you're concerned about players not being able to participate in finals week, you can insert a one-week gap into the tournament. That would result in the semifinals being played around New Year's Day and the national championship being played about when it is now.

The fans can't possibly attend all these games! They seem to have no problem moving from site to site in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. You can alleviate the problem if need be by playing at least the first round at campus sites.

You're not getting rid of controversy. There'll just be controversy as to who gets in from the at-large pool. At least we won't have any more undefeated teams with NO chance of playing for a national championship. By the point we get to the edge of the at-large pool we're talking about two, three, or even four-loss teams that probably don't have a real shot at winning the whole thing anyway. Does anyone really think that the teams on the bubble of the NCAA basketball tournament ever have any real shot at winning the national championship, George Mason notwithstanding?

Will someone please think of the children! This is often an argument that college football players are very young and often don't have their feelings considered - never mind that the players themselves overwhelmingly support a playoff. According to this, we shouldn't be overworking the poor little kids and leaving them at risk to injury in so many added games. It certainly doesn't seem to hurt those kids in I-AA, II, and III to have a football playoff, does it?

A playoff won't give us the best team at the end of the season, only the hottest or the one best able to avoid - or pull off - upsets. By the same token, this is also a problem with our current "regular season playoff". Everyone knows USC was better than Cal in 2003, and thus better than all the teams they played, but losing to Cal cost USC a trip to the national championship game. It's a dirty little secret: the team that goes undefeated isn't necessarily the best, just the luckiest at avoiding potential upsets. Similarly, it's a problem no matter what type of system exists, including the current BCS. Ohio State in all likelihood was better than Florida last year but the Gators got hot at the right time, so they became national champions.

We already have a playoff - the regular season! Oh please. For the love of God. Tell that to Auburn in 2004, Boise State last year, or - especially - Hawaii this year. And try to keep spewing that argument if we get a team with two losses in this "playoff" still playing in the national championship game. Most of the arguments attatched to this meaningless blanket statement have been covered above.

The controversy the current system creates is one reason why college football is second in popularity right now only to the NFL. And a playoff would give it a shot to rectify that problem. Before you call that far-fetched, look at college basketball - it's more popular than the NBA, even comparing their respective regular seasons, and the college regular season is supposedly meaningless. Texas-USC in 2006 produced gerbonkers ratings. That was a controversy-free year, so I doubt it would have gotten lower ratings if it had come at the end of a playoff. If anything, the ratings would have been even higher because the playoff would provide a way to guide and nurture the ascending hype. And a championship game in years that the BCS created controversy would likely be more popular as well. The more people accept a game as a championship, the more popular it is - what a concept!

College football loses money. Ultimately, this is what's killing the idea of a playoff. The schools would lose money compared to the bowls, the conferences would lose money, the bowls would lose money, the networks would lose money. The current system produces 5 bowls worth watching. My system would produce 15 games worth watching and increase the importance of every one, which helps everyone except the bowls - unless the bowls were made part of the tournament. That's before we consider how lucrative a TV deal would be associated with this playoff. Just look at the success of the Basketball Tournament. But the real killer? The BCS conferences would have to share more of the pie. Even if they would still, individually, get more nominally, they don't want to have to share with the little guys.

Well, the little guys have already pressured them to open up the BCS - it's now almost certain for an undefeated non-BCS conference team to get into the BCS bowls. They can do it again. I guarantee that we will have a plus-one system within the next 16 years, and I would be willing to bet that we will get a full-fledged playoff of at least 8 teams within my lifetime. There are many more advantages besides the ones presented here, and this is perhaps the best idea I'm likely to see, with one of the few others coming close being basically an adaptation of this idea with only one at-large and a 12-team field.

A version that's essentially what I've laid out previously is making the rounds from here, with the difference that the bowl games would be cut out until the national championship, with all rounds through the semifinals on campus sites, on the grounds that bowls put money in the hands of people outside the system, and are played in more sterile environments (as of next year, three of the four BCS bowls will be played on NFL fields, two of which I don't believe host a BCS conference team, and the fourth won't be in an NFL market, with the most storied non-BCS bowl soon to move to an NFL field as well) than the home fields of college football's most storied programs. The truth is probably some sort of compromise, if only as a practicality to appease bowl directors and traditionalists, with the main battleground in my system likely to be the quarterfinals. The main advantage of bowl sites is to make things more fair by mostly cutting out the home-field advantage. On the other hand, there's a reason why I'm keeping campus sites for the first round: among other things, it provides yet another incentive for competing for seeding, by way of fighting for a lucrative top-eight seed, which not only provides competitive advantage but also sends money flowing into the coffers of the school for hosting the game.

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