On the cusp of bowl season, Trumwill explains why college football’s BCS system is better, warts and all, than any hypothetical playoff.
In 2007, the New York Giants had a decent regular season, but not a particularly good one. At 10-6, they barely finished in the top quartile of teams and failed to even achieve a winning record within their four-team division. But this was not a mediocre team. After all, they have the Super Bowl rings to prove it. But one would be hard pressed to say they were the best team in the league that year. Or even the second best. Instead, they were just the team that happened to slide into the playoffs and won the last four games of the season (three of which by less than a touchdown). The next year, the Arizona Cardinals came within a touchdown of being the champs despite a 9-7 regular season. If you ask me, that is no way to select a champion.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that post-season tournaments are the only way to crown a champion. Granted, when you have a bunch of teams that can’t play one another, it makes a certain amount of sense. How else are you going to sort it out? But we’ve become so attached to the notion of post-season tournaments that we are increasingly willing to relegate the regular season to near-scrimmages and “playoff tryouts.” Didn’t have a spectacular record? No problem! Didn’t win your division? Don’t worry about it! Barely ended up with a record above .500? Take a shot at the national title!
There is, of course, one major exception to this rule. Rather than being celebrated, however, the exceptionalism of college football drives people bonkers.
I’m not going to argue that the current BCS system is perfect. It’s frustrating that a good portion of the teams that play in the league have little chance to win a national championship even if they go undefeated. And who hasn’t endured at least one season where a favorite team had a record just as good as the team that made the national championship? I know I have.
The former complaint resonates with me. That a 12-0 Utah Utes team or Boise State team has no chance at a national title no matter how well they play strikes me as wrong. The fact that in any given year, a 1-loss USC, Texas, or SEC team would go to a national championship game before an undefeated Big East or ACC champion indicates that the situation is getting worse.
My first counterargument is that a 1 or 2-loss SEC team is usually going to be better than a Big East or Mountain West champion. The current system also allows Boise State’s awesome victory over Oklahoma to stand on its own terms rather than as a prelude to the inevitable loss in the next round of a playoff.
Unfortunately, neither of these arguments are incredibly convincing. Utah (an undefeated MWC team) beat Alabama (a 1-loss SEC team) just last season and the more often teams from non-BCS conferences win these games (non-BCS teams are 3-1 in BCS bowls), the more they are going to want the opportunity for something more.
A few weeks ago, I tried to figure out if this dilemma could be resolved without a comprehensive, 16-team playoff that would allow a team that got third place in its division a chance at the national title (as happened with the Richmond Spiders in I-AA football last year). Surprisingly enough, I actually came up with one.* The qualification rules were strict enough that either 8 or fewer teams would be allowed in each year (dating back to 2005). It gave every team, regardless of conference, a chance at winning the title. The regular season would be slightly devalued, but nothing I couldn’t live with.
Just as with many similar proposals, the general response would undoubtedly be “It’s not enough.” Half of the playoff proponents would say “If it doesn’t let a 13-0 MAC team in, there’s no point in having a playoff” while the other half would say “If it doesn’t let this 10-2 SEC team in – which happens to be better than that undefeated MAC team – it’s not a real playoff” or “The only reason to have a playoff is to have the best teams plays, even if some conferences get left out.” My plan satisfies the first group but not the second. Unfortunately, plenty of people simply aren’t interested in everyone having a shot at the title, which is really the only reason I’d care to see a playoff.
To satisfy both camps, you need a 16-team tournament. A lot of playoff proponents swear that we won’t revisit the same arguments for team 15 vs 16 vs 17, but I find that unlikely so long as there is any room for debate. Of course, just as we now argue over who gets to play in a BCS Bowl, we’d always argue over playoff qualifications. Last year, teams ranked 13-19 (except #17, a 10-2 BYU) had 9-3 records going into the bowl season. A hypothetical playoff could use BCS calculations or rankings to determine eligibility, but those are the very things that people object to now. With playoff eligibility at stake, the debate will only become more intense. Eventually we may see a 32-team playoff.
But even if we stick to 16 teams, once you’re letting 9-3 teams in, you’re excusing three losses. Right now, no losses are excused. With a playoff system, almost everything teams fight for now (National Championship Game, conference championship, BCS Bowl, any old bowl) becomes a sideshow. Nobody cares who wins the NFL’s NFC East Division because it doesn’t really matter when it comes to brass ring. The entire season revolves around making the playoffs (and to a much lesser extent, determining playoff seeding). And making the playoffs allows teams to lose games in ways that they cannot afford to now. Under the current system, however, games outside your favorite conference take on greater importance because they have a huge impact on your team’s championship hopes.
A prime example of this is USC’s 2009 season. USC’s first loss was devastating for its fans because it meant the Trojans were unlikely to get a shot at the national championship. Meanwhile, Washington’s victory was celebrated in Texas, Alabama, and Florida because it enhanced their national championship hopes. USC’s second loss was equally devastating because it eliminated what was left of USC’s national championship aspirations. USC’s third loss was perhaps less devastating, but it was still significant because it meant that they would not win the conference title or play in a BCS bowl for the first time in seven years.
Add a playoff system and only the third loss really matters and it still isn’t a season-ender because it’s possible (albeit unlikely) that USC would retain a shot at the national title. And only the third loss would really matter outside of the West Coast.
A smaller playoff system mitigates this somewhat, but leagues don’t generally limit playoff participation. Instead, professional sports have drifted towards increasing the number of divisions and wild card slots to let in as many teams as possible. In other words, I can’t even support my own limited playoff system because I have absolutely no reason to believe that it would stop there, particularly because people will always argue that a team left out deserves a shot to have things settled “on the field.”
Alas, 70% of the country rejects my profound wisdom. The good news, though, is that public opinion doesn’t matter. The only way a playoff system will be instituted is if fans start boycotting. But college football has never been more popular despite its chaotic champion-crowning methodology — or perhaps because of it.
* My hypothetical playoff system basically lets in any conference champion (or independent) that won 10 or more games against FBS opponents. The playoff consists of eight teams, but there is an “elimination week” that narrows the field to four contenders. In the event that fewer than 8 teams are eligible, the teams with the best strength-of-schedule (SOS) do not have to participate in elimination week. In the event that there are more than eight eligible teams, priority is given to undefeated teams, but after that participation is determined purely by SOS, regardless of record.