Wednesday, November 16, 2005


College Football's Bowl Coalition Series

A playoff would destroy the unique character of the regular season

Mike at the Deep Freeze argues that a structured playoff for Division I-A college football would level the playing field for college athletics in general.

I can't argue with this. Much has been made of the recent success of college basketball programs from BCS schools like Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Texas Tech, ect. No doubt this trend extends to other, non revenue sports as well. Provided it distributed revenue equitably, as the NCAA does with its tournament revenues, a playoff system would go a long way toward addressing current funding -- hence competitive -- imbalances.

But I don't think such imbalances necessarily need correcting. The NCAA has many different divisions which function as competitive classes. I don't see anything wrong if the BCS schools effectively form their own separate competitive class.

Concerning the narrow question of whether a playoff system would be good for the sport of college football, I don't think it would be. Almost alone among the people I know, I oppose a playoff.

As much as I enjoy its pageantry, traditions, rivalries and peculiar regional nature, the biggest appeal of the sport for me it that, for the top teams anyway, every single regular season game is absolutely vital. One loss basically eliminates a team from national championship contention. This is unique among the major sports. Mike laments:
For some reason it isn't right that right now there are ten teams in Division I-A with one loss, and most likely none of them will have a chance to play for the title this year because USC and Texas will go undefeated.
I don't know why this isn't right either. This is something to be celebrated rather than lamented. For all practical purposes the regular season functions as an extention of a sudden death playoff. Why do any teams deserve a second chance, particularly if Texas and USC don't get one? In what other sport can a team's national championship hopes end after their very first game? Its very similar to a no-limit hold 'em tournament in that at any time one mistake means almost certain elimination. Unsurprisingly to those who know me, I absolutely love this aspect of college football, the only major sport that works this way.

To illustrate the point, consider the October 15th Penn State/Michigan game Mike cited:
What if Penn State had not lost to Michigan in the last second of the game. What if we hadn't kicked to the kid who had burnt us earlier in the game on a kick return. What if Lloyd Carr hadn't lobbied the officials to get those two seconds back on the clock. Penn State could easily be undefeated right now and we would be in the running to play for the National Championship in the Rose Bowl. But because of that one fateful second in Ann Arbor, Michigan on a warm October afternoon Penn States hopes of a National Championship are dashed.

(Emphasis mine)
No offense to Mike and all the other Penn State fans out there, but YES! That is what makes college football great. Penn State likely won't get a second chance to remain in national title contention. Moreover, why should they? Despite the loss they were still in contention for the Big Ten title, something which would matter primarily for seeding purposes -- if it mattered at all -- were a playoff system in place. For every game the surprising Nittany Lions won while unbeaten, the stakes for the next game increased. The Michigan game was thus of far greater significance and the final play was exponentially more important than would otherwise have been the case if the game had mere Big Ten title implications. Everyone watching the final play knew its national ramifications 2 1/2 months prior the national championship game. It was a riveting moment. No other sport offers situations remotely similar to this.

I like the current bowl system pretty much as it is. Major conference championships actually matter for more than just tournament seeding purposes. The better teams, even from the smaller conferences, are rewarded for a successful season. Half of the participating teams win their final games, giving many seniors a chance to go out a winner.

Like Mike, I dislike the current BCS formula in that it favors schools from the largest conferences and those popular with the media at the expense of schools from smaller conferences. But a BCS-like system to determine bowl eligibility, which included a single national championship game matching the two highest rated teams, would be ideal if the both computer and human bias were removed completely from the process. Teams should be ranked by fewest losses, with ties broken by strength of schedule. That way, the national championship would be determined entirely by what happens on the field.

And if there are three or more unbeaten teams and the end of the season? The two schools that survived the strongest schedules would play for the title. And sure, we'd occasionally get a weak team from a weak conference in the national title game. But so what if a consensus national champion isn't crowned every year? What's so bad about an ambiguous ending once in a while? Even if such a system as I suggest only produces a conclusive end to the season two years in three, that's good enough as far as I'm concerned.

College football's regular season is far and away the best in sports. Though it would make for a fine spectacle, a playoff would drastically alter the nature of America's best major sport. For that reason, I'm opposed to one.

Diego adds:

While I prefer the Pro playoff/tournament to the College system I am happy that they are different and can enjoy both. If College were to adopt a playoff system it would lessen the excitement of the regular season. However the current system could benefit from some simple adjustments that would not take anything away from the early season games. I have two suggestions.

If there are more than two undefeated teams there should be some sort of playoff to include the 3rd ranked team (or 4th, 5th etc). Say #2 and #3 play in the x-bowl in late December and then the winner plays #1 in the BCS Bowl.

As a general rule, no team should be allowed to play for the Championship without having won their conference. There could be circumstances for exceptions but it would be rare (ex: Two undefeated Big Ten teams who did not play during the season).

Unfortunately money is the driver and will push college football to systems that will generate the most revenue. I don't have a problem with the NCAA and the Schools making money but they should not pretend that the 'student athlete' (if there is such a thing in major college sports) matters.


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