Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Case Against a College Football Playoff

It's that time of the college football season again.  Time to watch the best teams play each other, to celebrate the achievements of the student athletes--and to argue about how we could do it all better.  It's awfully trendy these days to argue in favor of a college football playoff, but in reality, a playoff solves few of the problems it's ostensibly designed to fix, and introduces plenty of its own.

1. Someone still gets left out

One circumstance that sparks a particularly impassioned rallying cry among the football playoff's supporters is when a team gets left out.  Maybe there are three undefeated teams, only two of which can play for the national title.  Maybe there is only one undefeated team but three teams with one loss.  Supporters of the playoff argue that a playoff is inherently more fair simply because there are more slots, giving more teams a chance to contend for the title.

Admittedly, even expansion to a modest four-team playoff does allow every undefeated team to contend for the title in most years.  Expansion to a more ambitious eight-team playoff virtually guarantees that all the undefeateds will be in, barring the vanishingly rare case of enormous imparity in every football conference.  However, unless there are exactly four, or exactly eight, undefeated teams, some team with the next-best record is still going to get left out.  I'll use the 2010-2011 season as an example, referencing rankings and records as of the final BCS standings, but you can perform the same analysis on any college football season and come up with pretty much the same conclusions.

This year was an unfortunate example of the "three undefeated teams" version of the "someone gets left out" argument.  Auburn (13-0) and Oregon (12-0) are outstanding football teams and the natural choices to contend for the title.  But in letting them play in the title game, you're keeping out TCU (12-0), who essentially had no chance at ever making it to the title game unless Auburn or Oregon lost, and who showed in the Rose Bowl that they're every bit tough enough to "play with the big boys."

A four-team playoff would have allowed TCU to play for the national title.  It also would have allowed Stanford (11-1) that same chance while denying it to Wisconsin (11-1) and Ohio State (11-1).  While Stanford is also without question very good, you could make the argument that Wisconsin and Ohio State deserve the chance more because Stanford already lost to Oregon.

Want to expand to eight teams?  Okay, but now you're letting in Oklahoma (11-2) but not Michigan State (11-1) or Virginia Tech (11-2).  You're letting in Arkansas (10-2) but not LSU (10-2) or Missouri (10-2).  And you're entirely neglecting Boise State (11-1) and the only team that figured out how to beat them, 12-1 Nevada.

In summary, although a playoff is a step in the right direction toward ensuring that no undefeated team gets left without a shot at the title, it still involves drawing an arbitrary line through a cluster of teams with similar records--and the teams on the wrong side of that line get left out.

2. Bowl coexistence

The bowls are an integral part of college football history, tradition, and culture.  Fortunately, not even the most strident playoff supporters advocate getting rid of the bowls, so it's obvious that a hypothetical playoff would have to coexist with them.  There are a number of ways to do this, but none of them are particularly satisfactory.

The BCS has tried two methods of reconciling itself with the classic "major bowls".  Until 2006, the national championship rotated among the Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, and Rose Bowls.  It's easy to envision a scenario where one year, the Rose Bowl is the national championship game, and the Orange and Sugar are national semifinal games; then the next year, the Orange is the national championship, and the Sugar and Fiesta are national semifinals, etc.

But it didn't really work when the BCS tried it, and there's no reason to think it would work any better under a playoff system.  It's confusing--and it takes power out of the hands of the bowls and gives it to the playoff bracket.  These "major" bowls are classics for a reason.  The Rose Bowl is supposed to feature the best West Coast team against the best Midwest team.  The Sugar Bowl is supposed to give the SEC a chance to defend its reputation on a national stage.  College football is better off if it preserves as many of these traditions as possible.

A second option might be sending all the best teams to bowls at the end of the season... except for the really good teams, who get to enter the championship bracket.  Now, the Fiesta Bowl features the best team in the Big XII... except for those two teams that were better and got to play in the playoff.  You're watering down the bowls--they become the less exciting and less meaningful cousin to the playoff, which is fair neither to the student athletes that play in them nor to the culture of the sport.

Finally, it's conceivable to separate the bowls from the playoffs entirely; to play the bowls as they're traditionally done, then re-rank, then seed the top four or eight teams into a playoff.  That idea has the advantage of preserving the sanctity of the bowl system, but it introduces yet another wrinkle: season creep.

3. Season creep

The college football season is already pushing the limit of how long it can reasonably be.  For a long time, the climactic high point of the season was New Year's Day and the Rose Bowl.  In the BCS era, we've tolerated some early January bowls.  And now that the national championship game is its own entity, we've allowed it to take the place of honor as the very last bowl game--but it's pushing middle January.

Middle January is when virtually every college starts its spring semester--some, including my proud alma mater Georgia Tech, will have already started its semester by the time the national championship game is played.  If a hypothetical playoff added any time at all to the season, then the season will extend at least a week or two into virtually every college's spring semester.  That's okay for us fans, but it's not okay for the student athletes involved.  Commitment over an entire semester is enough; there's no justification for stretching it into another one.

In conclusion, there exists no practical approach to a college football playoff that results in both the bowl season maintaining its tradition and excitement and the playoff not encroaching into middle to late January.  And even if there were, it would rarely if ever solve the "fairness" problem that the current system presents.  We can argue all day long that the BCS is broken, but a tacked-on four- or eight-team playoff is not the way to fix it.

Currently listening: Foo Fighters, self-titled album

1 comment:

Forrest Abouelnasr said...

I support moving toward a playoff system. You say that to include 4 teams instead of just 2 would still be unfair to the teams who get left out, but remmeber that the point of the playoff is to determine which one team is the BEST, not to rank all of them. That team might be in the 2 top-ranked, but it's more likely to be in the 4 highest-ranked. With 8 teams it's virtually guaranteed (given that teams rarely move up more than a few spots near the end of the season). Now, whether or not the polling system to rank the teams is fair, that's a story for another day...