College football has either concluded its regular season or concluded its bowl season or announced matchups or failed to exist for eight months out of the year so it's time for another go-around about whether a playoff is a good idea or not. There are a thousand arguments too dumb to warrant a response—see the head of the BCS's post defending the system he's paid to defend. "Every game counts," he says, which is true as long as you're not Boise State or Cincinnati or TCU or Auburn in 2004 or LSU a couple years ago or… you get the idea.
Those advanced by Joe Posnanski are not among them, however. one playoff proponent's answers to a third party's skepticism follow.
Many of these answers are rehashes of the my previous thoughts on the matter, but that post is aged and I've learned that most of the people reading are relatively new. Forgive me, old-timers.
The Primary Challenge
So, I’ll open up this forum to you, the brilliant readers. But this is no place for screeching. This is your challenge: Tell me WHY there should be a playoff. I don’t want to hear why the current system fails. I don’t want to see your brackets — we have become a bracket nation, everyone can do brackets.
Let's go back to first principles. What is the point of a playoff? Most soccer leagues across the globe play a balanced schedule and eschew the playoffs entirely. The season determines the champion. To them, the American way of doing things is stupid. And when you've set up your league such that everyone plays everyone else home and away, it is. Around here, however, there are very big leagues where balanced schedules are impossible and at the end of the regular season you're not quite sure who the best team is. So it makes sense to have the teams that you think might be the best team play each other.
And then there is "off."
Playoffs are assets when both of the following criteria are met:
- The regular season is insufficient to determine a best team.
- The winner of the playoff can reasonably claim to be the best team.
If you don't have #1, then the only thing you can do with a playoff is hand the trophy to the wrong team. If you don't have #2, your playoff is too large and can be counterproductive.
The problem is that how well your league meets these criteria changes every year. Sometimes the top 12 teams in the NFL are all relatively even. Sometimes you could skip right to a conference championship game or a Super Bowl. You can either have your championship structure oscillate wildly on a year-to-year basis or live with some years where your structure is a little broken.
Sometimes playoffs are lame, like when the Cardinals on the World Series or any number of years when one particular NBA team was obviously dominant. Other times—almost every NFL season, literally every college basketball season—a playoff is the only reasonable way to distinguish between a set of nearly identical teams. Every playoff will have hits and misses. The important thing is to maximize the hits and minmize the misses.
Baseball misses a lot. It's a statistical fact borne out by (relatively) recent history that throwing eight baseball teams in a playoff blender is tantamount to playing plinko with your championship trophy. Elsewhere, an under .500 MLS team won it all* this year. On the other hand, March Madness almost never misses. Might not ever, actually. That's why there was outcry when baseball added teams. It was a dumb money-grab that compromised #2. And that's why there was an outcry when the NCAA floated expanding the basketball tournament.
Here's the thing about college football: #1 above is almost always true. There has been one season in the history of the BCS in which it was not (2005). It is more true than it is for any other American sport. Teams play twelve games, eight or nine of which are against an tiny interlocked subsection of of available teams. Two or three are against I-AA teams or total tomato cans. Maybe one or two are games between conferences. By the end of the year you have a variety of teams with virtually no common opponents, wildly varying (and largely unknown) strengths of schedule, and identical, or close to identical, records.
You have a good idea who the best teams in each conference are, but you have almost no idea how the conferences are relative to each other. Before the bowl games, the Big Ten played this many games against the SEC: zero. They played one against the ACC (Virginia housed Indiana). They played four against the Big East, three of which were against Syracuse, two against the Big 12, and four against the Pac-10. Intersectional information hardly exists. As a result, half the time you pick a BCS title game it's an ugly, uncompetitive blowout. This is because college football is the sport with the least information and smallest playoff field.
As far as #2 goes, the short season, large number of available teams, and numerous cupcakes work in favor of a playoff. It would be impossible for a 9-7 Arizona Cardinals team to get to a championship game. The equivalent of Real Salt Lake—this year's sub-.500 MLS champs—or your 80-some-win world champion St. Louis Cardinals would be in a December bowl game. No matter how you construct a playoff field for college football, the winner of that playoff will be coming off of three (or possibly four) consecutive wins against elite competition. The rest of that elite competition will have lost. In college football, the winner of the playoff has the best resume by default.
College football meets criteria #1 over 90% of the time and criteria 2 100% of the time. That's why a playoff is a good idea.
*(Sort of. MLS does award a regular-season trophy that may be more important to soccer fans than the President's Trophy—more of a laughable curse than something to achieve—is to hockey fans.)
Questions du Posnanski
Joe has a lot of logistical issues to be worked out. Let's do so:
1. Are you willing to tell unpaid college football players they now have to play an extra three or four games for free and for our amusement? Are you willing to tell NFL prospects that for the same price of education they have to put their knees and brains and shoulders at greater risk so that we can feel better about our champion? Or will some of the money go to the players? And are you willing to get into that mess?
Yes, I am willing to get into the mess of paying players, whether it's directly or (far more likely) by providing post-eligibility scholarships so more of them can actually get useful degrees once the dream of playing pro ball has passed.
For what it's worth, when ESPN surveyed 85 players in August, 75% of them wanted a playoff. Most of them look at it as an opportunity, not a burden, I'm guessing.
2. Would a playoff more definitively give us the best team in the country? Has the wildcard given us more legitimate World Series and Super Bowl champions?
This was discussed above, and the answer is yes. College football's structure means that every champion of a hypothetical playoff is satisfying. Especially if it has home games and byes, as my pet plan does.
3. Montana is one of the true powers in Division I-AA (I guess they call it the Football Subdivision now or something). Missoula has one of the great football experiences — the Grizzlies sold out every game during the season. Every one. OK, so Montana went to the Division I-AA championship game — which meant Montana had three home playoff games.
Not one of those playoff games sold out. Not one.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Montana was the only school to draw more than 13,000 people to a playoff game. The Villanova-William & Mary semifinal drew 4,171 people (in a 12,500 seat stadium). So, you tell me: Why do you believe that a college football playoff would draw big crowds? I mean, it might the first year, and the second, and for a while after that. But after the novelty wears off, what makes you think that people at Alabama and Florida and Texas and USC and Ohio State and Penn State and all these places have the money and time and interest in going to two or three more games every year.
And those people who think these games should be played at neutral sites — how many people do you think are going to travel to THOSE games?
No offense, but that's like trying to argue against the NBA playoffs because the D-league doesn't sell out. A home playoff game in college football would be an incredibly tough ticket. I'm with him that multiple neutral site matchups are a bad idea, but just because bad playoff systems exist does not mean they have to be adopted.
(I'm pretty sure on review that Joe will find this objection silly, right?)
4. Who would a playoff be for? The college presidents absolutely do not want it. You might disagree with them, but they don’t have any interest in making the seasons even longer and more demanding and more disruptive for their students. The athletic directors and coaches are split — some probably want it for more money or potential glory, but I would bet that most are against it because it just adds strain and pressure to the must-win atmosphere. How about the players? You think they want to make their seasons longer and more demanding? Plus, from what I can tell, those guys LIKE the bowls. They get to spend a week in place, get treated like kings. Why not?
So it would be for the fans. But what fans? Most school-specific fans in college football probably like it just the way it is. Iowa State fans seem to enjoy going to their bowl game every year. A playoff would not affect them … unless the playoff eliminated bowls like it could. That’s how it would be almost every year for 80 or 90 of the 120 or so schools. So it seems to me it would be more for the GENERAL college football fan who likes to watch games on TV. Is that who this is all for?
As noted above, the players want a playoff. And a playoff would no more end the bowl system than the NCAA tournament ended the NIT. Iowa State fans could enjoy their Insight Bowl all the same.
Take it from a guy who spends much of his life reading and reacting to hard-core school specific (how many college football fans aren't school specific? 5%?) college football fans: almost all of them hate the BCS. Pick a number, any number: 90% "disapprove" of the thing, or 63 percent hate and 26 percent support it. Literally every survey that's ever asked about the BCS has come back with huge negative numbers no matter the questioned population.
5. College football is more popular now than it has ever been. There are big games throughout the season — huge, playoff-atmosphere type games. People point to March Madness as a reason for football to go to a playoff, and March Madness is special. But it is also true that the college basketball season is pretty close to meaningless. Texas played North Carolina earlier this year in what seemed like a BIG GAME. But it meant nothing, and nobody cared, and Texas and North Carolina will both be in the tournament with high seeds so … big deal.
I’m not suggesting, as some do, that a playoff would make Ohio State coaches rest players against Michigan like they do in the NFL. But it certainly could make Ohio State-Michigan mean a lot less … and also Georgia-Auburn, Alabama-Tennessee, Penn State-Iowa, USC-Notre Dame, Texas-Oklahoma, Kansas-Missouri, Mississippi-Mississippi State, Washington-UCLA, Kansas State-Nebraska and on and on and on and on and on. Is that worth the price of a playoff?
First: football is more popular now than it's ever been. The NFL grows every year as fast or faster than college football. Playoff or no, it's football that's surging.
Second: This is a completely subjective argument that's hard to refute because of that. But let me just say that the idea that a college football playoff would have any impact on the Egg Bowl or most of the other games on that list is preposterous. Meanwhile, saying Texas and North Carolina "meant nothing and nobody cared" is over the top. It drew 3 million viewers.
The primary thing that makes college football so intense is its scarcity. College basketball teams play three times as many games. Every other sport except the NFL more than doubles those numbers, and even NFL teams get two cracks a year at their division rivals. In college football you play once per year, or less frequently than that, even, and as a result serious college football fans can tell you all about the high and low points of any particular series off the top of their heads. I can say "Mario Manningham" and cause hundreds of Penn State fans to spontaneously throw up. That scarcity is the thing that drives the feelings of horror and joy in the big rivalry games, not some crazy aspiration to make the BCS title game. Exactly two of the games above had any impact on that game. In fact, wouldn't the Michigan-Ohio State game meant more if Ohio State was still battling for a shot in a playoff game?
It's inescapable that a playoff would reduce the intensity of certain games, like this year's SEC championship game. But what it takes away it also provides by giving a dozen more teams aspirations at the end of the season. And a properly constructed playoff with byes and home games could inject much of the lost drama back into the games between teams assured of making the tournament. If Alabama and Florida were playing to avoid a first-round game in Columbus, that would be a prize (other than, you know, the conference championship) worth fighting for.
6. How many teams would a playoff need to be “fair.” I know it’s easy to say that if you take 16 teams, who cares about the 17th? But does anyone really believe that the 16th best team in the country — this year, that would be 8-5 Oregon State — deserves to play for the national title?
OK, so you make it eight teams. Well, there are 11 conferences and Notre Dame so now you are leaving out conference champs which I thought was the point, to give everyone a chance.
So, you make it four teams — a little three game tournament at the end of the year. That’s OK — like a plus-one game — but there were five undefeated teams this year, and a Florida team that we now know was about about 12 touchdowns better than one of those undefeated teams. How do you fairly choose? And, larger point, how does this add more legitimacy to the system than just taking the two who seem to have had the best season?
The perfect is the enemy of the good. As discussed above, unless you want to change your playoff system every year it cannot be utterly fair. The real question is "can we construct a system that is more fair than the current one?" Since a tougher question is "can you manage to construct a more ridiculous system?" I submit that a playoff is probably a good idea.
I don't think the #16 team in the country deserves to be in a playoff but I also don't think that managing to construct a playoff that is a bad idea means that all playoffs are bad ideas. The point is not to "give everyone a chance." It's to construct a fairer, more satisfying system. I'm fine leaving Troy and Central Michigan and Oregon and Ohio State out.
You fairly choose by picking the teams that have assembled the most impressive resumes to date—the ones who "seem to have had the best season," as suggested. This adds more legitimacy to the season by making the winner of the playoff play a selection of elite competition that includes, say, a 13-0 team that shut out the Pac-10 champ and a 12-0 team that had more wins over top 20 teams than Texas.
No system can be perfectly fair. But even generic eight-team playoffs are self-evidently more fair and satisfying than the current mess.
Here is where the recap of my ideal system goes:
A six team playoff with no automatic bids chosen by a committee similar to the March Madness committee. Byes for the top two. Home games in the first two rounds, with the first round a week after the conference championship games and the second on or slightly after January 1st. The final is at the Rose Bowl a week later.
The byes and home games simultaneously make the regular season more important—finishing 1 or 2 is a major leg up—and give the teams at the back end more legitimate should they win since they slogged through extra opponents and road games. The number of teams includes all legitimate claimaints to #1 without allowing mediocrities like this year's Oregon State in. Leaving out autobids sidesteps uncomfortable questions about Notre Dame and the Sun Belt.
If anyone can give a single reason that would be worse than what we've got now, I'm listening.