It’s so easy…

a playoff system for D-1 football, that is. After all, 1-AA has one, D-1 basketball has one and the NFL has one. What’s the big deal? Don’t Neanderthals like me want to see the season settled on the field, instead of being left in the hands of pencil-necked geeks with their computer programs?

Well… let me put it this way: while there are a few fans of a playoff who are honest about the fact that they just prefer a March Madness setup, like korey who posted a comment here a few days ago, there are a lot of folks who argue for a playoff by asserting that the present BCS set up is so compromised that a playoff system is superior by default.

The problem I have with the latter group is that they seem to take everything as a matter of faith about a playoff system being a good thing. It’s almost like listening to a religious fundamentalist talk about creationism.

I’m just not convinced. If things are so horribly broken under the BCS, why does there continue to be so much interest in the sport? And if a playoff is so easy to institute, why hasn’t it already happened?

Rather than approaching this by arguing about what’s wrong with the BCS, what I’d like to hear about is how the obvious flaws that I see with a playoff system could be addressed. Set up a playoff scheme that fixes these problems, and you can sign me up.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but let’s start by making some headway with these:

1. Mission creep. Most proponents of a playoff talk about a small scale proposal – usually, anywhere from four to eight teams. The virtues of this approach are that it does the least amount of harm to the results of the regular season, minimizes extra travel and keeps the extension of the season to as short a period as possible. What nobody talks about is how things would stay compressed. I like to point to the history of NCAA men’s basketball as an illustration of what occurs over time. When the NCAA started the tourney in 1939, there were only eight participants. Today, the field is over eight times that size. Because of that, the regular season has been reduced dramatically in its meaningfulness. How do you propose to prevent that from happening in football?

2. Overkill. Again, most of the fury about the BCS stems from a third or fourth team being shortchanged by the selection process. If that’s the case, why is it necessary to formulate a playoff system that involves more than the controversy? As an example, look at this year: Florida and Michigan. Why should Ohio State have to play another game because there’s a dispute over #2? Yet that’s what would have to happen with a four or eight team playoff. That seems counterproductive. And don’t forget, no matter where you place the cutoff, there’s always going to be someone angry about not being invited to the big dance.

3. Money. A common assumption I see made is that simply by slapping a “playoff” label on a college game, the revenue made available by the event will significantly increase from what is currently generated. Yet I never see any proof of that assertion. And, believe me, that needs to be the case, because once the NCAA becomes the delivery system, as would be the case with a playoff, the distribution of revenue becomes radically restructured. Every D-1 team becomes entitled to a piece of the pie. How do you propose to keep everybody happy? This leads to the next special problem, namely…

4. Notre Dame. AKA She Who Must Be Obeyed. The Irish have their own friggin’ TV contract, for God’s sake. When ND goes to a BCS game, with its $15-20 million payout, it doesn’t share the money with anyone else. There’s a national fan base that buys tickets anytime, anywhere. Yet, it’s amazing to see the number of people who blithely suggest that ND will have to join a conference or else face being excluded from the brave new world of the NCAA playoffs. Yeah, right. First of all, none of the powers that be are going to want to cut off that revenue stream of Irish support. Second, even if they were that suicidal, what do you think happens if they do carry out that threat? About fifteen minutes later, ND sues the NCAA’s ass for antitrust violations. And wins. Then ND owns the NCAA. You want that? I sure don’t. So give me a realistic suggestion on how to deal with the Irish.

5. The little guy. Even with an eight team playoff, you’re asking fans of a college to travel to at least one more post season game than they currently do. Expand out to sixteen, twenty-four, thirty-two, sixty-four… well, you get the picture. Congratulations, you’ve just contributed to the corporatization of attendance at college football games (anyone who’s been to Turner Field for the Braves over the last ten years knows what I’m talking about). That is a very, very bad thing for the sport.

6. The regular season (and conference championships). Forget about the latter – and there goes another big source of revenue, by the way. Just to give you an example, Kentucky in 2004, a school that didn’t go to the SECCG or participate in a bowl game, received a distribution of approximately $2.5 million from the conference. And you can also kiss the 12th game goodbye, which is a shame, as that’s been the best recent development in the college game as far as opening up some great new matchups during the regular season. Those are what you’d lose with an eight game playoff; think about how much more would be cut if the playoffs were increased beyond that. Can you really argue with a straight face that the end result wouldn’t shrink the significance of the regular season?

So there you have it. Wave your magic wands and fix these issues. Like I said, it’s so easy…

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “It’s so easy…

  1. Thank you!!! Much better stated than my “Why the BCS is better” post last month. I gotta link this article when I get a chance.

    Kudos

    O&BHue
    http://www.orangeandbluehue.com

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  3. 1. Time constraints, the brutality of football, and the existing bowl system. Football’s once-a-week (at best) game schedule doesn’t allow for a 64 team playoff, not to mention the strainon the athletes. And as long as the non-BCS bowls remain in existence for teams not in the playoffs, they’re an economic interest fighting against playoff expansion.

    2. That’s this year. Other years there are no undefeated teams, or four or more. Nobody was complaining that this year’s top ranked women soccer teams – UNC and Notre Dame – had to play just as many games as the rest of the plebes, and that tournament turned out OK. (UNC beat Notre Dame in the finals. It was like a BCS system, but with more sports.)

    3. You graft an 8-team playoff onto, say, three BCS bowls and four first round home games, and that won’t make more money than those same three bowls separately? Do you think the Orange Bowl couldn’t make a larger profit of of Ohio State-Oklahoma than Louisville-Wake Forest?

    4. Eight-team playoff. The eight highest conference champions or independents. It almost biases the system too much towards Notre Dame, but the current playing field is tilted, so what the hell.

    5. Eh, the basketball tournament hasn’t become the select privledge of th elite, and they involve a lot more travel than a football playoff would. I’m not particularly worried.

    6. Again, conference champions and independents only. The regular season remains paramount, even those stupid conference championships stay in business, and everyone continues to get wealthy. There’s no reason for the other thirty-odd bowls to mysteriously disappear, conferences will still divide their bowl money – plus the added tournament money – among all their members, and everybody’s happy.

    Oh, and there’s more football instead of a month and a half of people arguing whether there should be a playoff or not.

  4. It’s fascinating to me that there’s so much interest in this topic – this post has gotten far more views than anything else I’ve written here so far.

    Thanks to the guys at Orange and Blue Hue for their kind words. I’ve linked to an article at their blog before, so it should be obvious that I think they do a good job over there. If you’re interested in Florida football, or seeing another perspective on what goes on in the SEC, check them out.

    As for T.H.’s comment, I’m not going to take the snide way out and make some snarky comment about women’s soccer – although I have to admit I didn’t see that comparison coming – but instead, let me raise a couple of points in rebuttal.

    We fans get caught up in seeing issues like this as being problems that should be solved to our satisfaction. The reality here is that once a decision is made to go down the road to having a formal playoff structure put in place, we’re the last group of people that will have any input in a “solution”. The playoff battle will be over money and it will be fought by the schools, the conferences, the bowls, the NCAA and the networks. That’s why I am so skeptical when I see all these breezy assurances that a playoff will be both easy to implement and good for all. That’s just not a group that leads me to think that’s the case.

    You think a 64 team tournament can’t be implemented? Sure it can – just reduce the regular season to 10 games and you’re there. And given that that’s approximately the number of D-1 schools that participate in the post season now, that’s a likely scenario to see the NCAA gravitate to over time.

    As for conference champions in the playoffs, what do we do about the fact that some conferences determine their champions with a championship game, and others don’t? For those that don’t, what happens when you have co-champions because the two teams with the best record never played during the regular season?

    I’m not saying the current set up can’t be improved – read my “Better Mousetrap” post on that – but I am saying that before we rush to judgment on implementing a fixed playoff structure in college football we better make sure that the cure isn’t worse than the disease. And I haven’t seen anyone make that case yet.

    One other opinion on this issue that I recommend reading comes from former UVA coach Dick Bestwick and can be seen here: http://onlineathens.com/PalmPilot/stories/120906/opinion_20061209041.html

  5. There’s always going to be a danger of a playoff system being expanded – these things are decided by people, and people are stupid. (c.f. this year’s clock rule changes, the addition of a rotating bowl game, and the basketball coaches who want to expand that tournament to a laughable 128 teams.) I think if established properly along side the bowls, chances for expansion are slim because both the existing bowls and the conference commisioners would have massive financial incentive to not expand. Keep in mind the NCAA’s started in basketball with 8 teams because of the overwhelming power of the NIT, and that only waned with the point-shaving scandals of the ’50s and ’60s.

    As for the conference championships, they’re the conference’s problems. If a conference has a backward system that doesn’t send the best team to the playoffs, they’ll lose money, which will get them to fix such problems a damn sight quicker than fan outrage.

    The real reason I’m so fervently for a playoff though, is that it’s the middle of December, and I’ve got almost a month until the two best football teams take the field to play their first and only football game to decide a champion. That’s insane. Dick Bestwick is against a playoff because of the media frenzy? Does he own a TV? The football media has nothing to do but talk about this game. The pregame, halftime, and postgame of all 30-odd bowl games (You’re worried about postseason expansion? This is a good place to start) discussing Ohio State-Florida. People could be playing meaningful football, for crying out loud.

    (Oh, and the women’s soccer thing? First tournament that came to mind where two teams were obviously superior to everyone else on the field. UNC-Illinois two seasons back ion basketball would have worked just as well.)

  6. “People could be playing meaningful football, for crying out loud.”

    How ’bout we split the baby? Let’s add a thirteenth game to the regular season schedule and require it to be another conference game where applicable so that we know it’s meaningful.

    Also, with regard to your point about the NCAA basketball viz a viz the NIT, most of the growth in the NCAA tourney has taken place well after the ’60s. I know it was a 16 team tournament when Virginia shocked the ACC in ’76.

    These things take on a life of their own once they get going, I’m afraid.

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  8. peacedog

    The NCAA started with 8 teams in 1932. So what? There are 300-some odd D1 basketball teams now; probably more progams in D1 now than were seriously playing basketball nationwide back then. The tournament was expanded, and with good reason.

    The NCAA arguably didn’t hit its sweet spot until in the 70s, and the 64 team field has been fantastic. No #16s have won, true, and very few #15s have (though that small handful exists), it’s been ultra competative in between more often than not.

    The fact that a football playoff might (would?) expand doesn’t really strike me as a problem with playoffs.

  9. One reason the number of teams playing D-1 ball has expanded is because of the tournament itself.

    Look, I enjoy March Madness as much as the next guy. But, as someone who used to be a fanatic about ACC basketball (it was one reason I chose to go to UVA for college), I can’t help but note that the passion that used to go with the D-1 regular season has been steadily diminished as the number of schools playing in the NCAA tournament has grown. The nature of the game has changed as a result – and, in my opinion, not for the better. I’d hate to see that experience be repeated in college football.

    Again, I recognize there are lots of folks who share your mindset about this and prefer a playoff structure. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  10. peacedog

    You identify “bracket creep” (Kyle’s term; I like yours better but we can market his!) as an issue with a playoff system. I say you are mistaken if you think this is an issue that is soley a probem in a playoff, and not just a general issue (that *might* manifest itself in an “ever expanding” format; I think what would happen is probably something closer to what SMQ envisions, where the playoff format might change over time and the number of teams shut out to the “NIT bowls” shrinks and grows as we go). Roughly half the teams in division one go to bowls. We’ve already been dealing with “bowl creep” (if you will) for some time (and don’t get me wrong, I watch a number of those games, but I also think it has gotten absurd). And I think there’s an argument to be made that all the non BCS bowls are NIT bowls. I know that there’s a very subjective element at play in that judgement (indeed, one team’s fan base might be happy to play in the Music City bowl, but our own generally wouldn’t be).

    I don’t think it’s a reasonable critique of a playoff system, not per se. It’s just an issue we have to deal with, *period* (I don’t mind discussing it. And I think that’s part of the problem with this discussion as is. Eslewhere on Kyle’s blog, Im A Realist says he doesn’t think there’s value to the discussion without talking more specifics but I disagree with him on that point, and this is a good example of why). It’s one of a number of issues that I think transcend a “college football seasonal resolution format”.

    That isn’t to say that it’s not reasonable to discuss “bracket creep” as it pertains to a playoff proposal (specific or the idea in general). I just don’t think it should be discussed as “a mark against”.

    Any “CFSRF” is going to have to deal with things like mission creep, financial pressures, etc.

  11. Well, one big difference between 64 teams in bowl games and 64 teams in a NCAA playoff is that nobody plays more than one bowl game.

    In a playoff format, though, two teams will play six weeks of post season games. I don’t see how that happens without junking conference championship games and reducing the regular season schedule back to 10 games.

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  18. > I’m just not convinced. If things are so
    > horribly broken under the BCS, why
    > does there continue to be so much
    > interest in the sport?

    I’ll give you a current events primer. Football is the dominant sport in popularity in the USA. NFL crushes all the other pro sports.

    College football is successful in spite of the BCS, not because of it.

    > And if a playoff is so easy to institute,
    > why hasn’t it already happened?

    Because the people who control the BCS do not want to give up that control. And because the Big Ten and PAC-10 nimrods can’t let go of their stranglehold on the Rose Bowl.

  19. I think the whole “next thing you know, 64 team playoff” is a really absurd canard. There’s absolutely no way that would happen. There is no room for teams to drop 2 games from their regular schedule, it would suddenly be nearly impossible to get 10 wins in a season (you’d have to be undefeated), records would be a mess, and injuries would be too big of a factor.

    The NBA plays 70+ games, the MLB plays 162 games, and the NFL plays 16 games. There’s a reason for that, and the same reason is why the playoff wouldn’t “creep” to 64 teams. That argument is a bit of a smoke screen, imho.