It’s been promised to Mike that I was going to get my thoughts out there about the whole debacle going on lately around college football, but real life has intervened in the interim. This is actually a very prescient topic just because of all the discussion going on within the college news ranks regarding Orrin Hatch, BCS, and playoffs. In light of this discussion, I find it interesting that I just finished reading Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis this past weekend. More on that later.
I wrote a piece while Kyle and his family took a vacation a few weeks ago regarding Orrin Hatch and his anti-trust crusade against the BCS. Personally, I think Mr. Hatch is doing a disservice to all those rational supporters of a playoff and gives unlimited ammunition to the oldies (by oldies, I mean traditionalists, I’m still a child of the 1980s dammit) like me that are still in favor of the bowl system as it stands today. My ultimate conclusion about Hatch is that he probably is just trying to score some cheap political points with his constituents as the BCS vs. playoff debate touches an emotional button akin to the pro-life/pro-choice debate.
Rather I think he (as most politicians today) just doesn’t care how the taxpayer dollars are spent and thinks by spouting off with the word “anti-trust” that the proletariat will believe anything he says as “anti-trust” is a complex subject. In reality, he has absolutely no “anti-trust” case as the BCS does not violate any provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Nothing is stopping the Coalition conferences from setting up their own post-season and TV deal and call it a national championship tournament if they wish. Anyways, the anti-trust debate is another discussion for another day. I’m here to talk why I’m against a playoff.
A few months ago, I posted some thoughts about how I see any potential playoff systems happening. Now that I’m a little older and a little wiser (with improving writing skills) I’d like to expand upon that initial foray into this slippery slope. First, we need to define what is a national champion. College football is unique in that it has always defined (or attempted to define) its national champion as the best team over the course of an entire season of work. This is inherently different from every other sport where we essentially define champion as the team holding the trophy at the end of the day. That in and of itself presents a problem with having a playoff to me. I especially like that unique quality of college football where we try to objectively evaluate who was the best team over a four month season. We don’t just say “this team that backed into the playoffs and only played four good games all season long deserves to be declared the best team in the nation”.
I think the biggest proof of the fault in determining a champion in a playoff is evidenced by the results the last few years in the NFL. I mentioned this in my previous post, but these are still my three biggest reasons why I’m against a playoff:
(1) 2008 Arizona Cardinals
(2) 2007 New York Giants
(3) 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
None of these three teams would be considered the best team over the course of their respective seasons, but two of them were deemed champions and one nearly won a championship because of the playoff structure in the NFL. There’s not one person that will ever convince me that the 2007 New England Patriots were not the best team that season and possibly in the history of pro football. Yet, because they lost one game by three points to a team that they defeated soundly in the regular season, they are an afterthought. If the Patriots and Giants played again the next week, who do you think would be favored in Vegas? To get in touch with my inner Orrin Hatch, I find it slightly unfair that the Patriots weren’t considered the best team in football that year because they lost one game. They might not be the champions under the definition of “holding trophy at end of day”, but they were the best team in football that year and no one will ever convince me otherwise.
That in and of itself is why college football is different. There is no team holding the trophy at the end of the day. There is “best team in the land” and a four game playoff doesn’t determine that. A four game playoff determines who played good football for four games, not twelve. I brought up Moneyball earlier for a quote that I read in the book that I think is very relevant. It was near the end of the book and the Oakland A’s (who won more games in 2003 than any team not named the Braves/Yankees/Giants) had just been defeated in the 1st round of the playoffs by the Minnesota Twins who were considered an inferior opponent. A’s GM Billy Beane was flabbergasted at why everyone considered the A’s to be a failure becuse they lost in a five game playoff series despite the fact that they won 96 games during the regular season. Over time, statistical studies have shown that 15% of the time, an inferior team will win in baseball. You can’t account for abnormalities to the norm (in that playoff series Tim Hudson lost two games which no one would have predicted at the time). In Beane’s opinion, and generally that of sabermetricians, the best measure of a baseball team was how the team performed during the regular season because sample size was large enough.
Ultimately, this is why I’m against a playoff. I believe that if a playoff is ever implemented in the highest level of college football, there is an inevitable expansion just like what has happened with every other sport that determines its champion via a playoff. Once you start expanding to include wild-card teams and the such, you truly devalue the regular season. It becomes the objective of teams to make the postseason, not win their rivalry games and the such. I suppose I’m just a traditionalist in that sense, but I sincerely believe a playoff will devalue what is the truly unique aspect about college football and that is the regular season. There is no other sport in America where hopes and dreams hinge on every game. One loss and you could be done for the season. Could you imagine a 16 team playoff (I know that 8 is the most discussed, but I think that it would expand to at least 16 if not more) where both Michigan and Ohio State have playoff spots wrapped up and they sit all their starters to rest for the first round of the playoffs? I don’t want to imagine a college football world like that.
I think the problem a lot of people have regarding the BCS, and what Orrin Hatch consistently mentions under the guise of anti-trust, is that the BCS is unfair. I somewhat disagree with that sentiment. I find the argument that so many people make that teams like Utah or Boise State are systematically eliminated due to the structure of the BCS to be a valid one, if not misguided. The BCS didn’t prevent Utah/Boise State/Hawaii of the last few years from playing for the BCS championship. It was the voters that didn’t deem them as worth as other counterparts.
Some argue that this is exactly why a playoff is needed because these teams will never get a chance otherwise. I completely disagree with that sentiment. My recommendation is that Utah does what Florida State did 30 years ago. Become an independent. Take the Fresno State mentality of “anyone/anywhere”. That’s exactly what FSU did and now we give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to rankings and the such. The Utahs and Boise States of the world need to prove that they belong with the big boys. We’re so quick to remember Utah beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl or Boise State beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl as proof that they belong while discounting Hawaii and Boise State both being destroyed by Georgia in recent years. Behind the to two teams in the MWC and WAC there aren’t a whole lot of world beaters and that’s why Utah/Hawaii/Boise State doesn’t get the love in the final polls. Start playing and beating the big boys more frequently and maybe you have a case that there’s a systematic exclusion of your team.
Anyways, to make a long story short, there are several reasons I am anti-playoff in college football.
(1) There is an inherent devalution of the regular season that I refuse to stand for.
(2) A playoff does not determine who is the best team over the course of a season, but rather who played the best football for 1/4 of the season (i.e. too small a sample size).
(3) I haven’t really mentioned it, but there are so many economic factors and communties of bowl games that would be adversely impacted by the loss of the bowl season that I don’t think there’s a realistic way to satisfy everyone involved.
Now do I think the BCS is without its flaws and is the best solution? Not necessarily. Do I think it is better than the proposed playoff models? Absolutely.