Overstating the case

I’ve seen a couple of blogospheric reactions, at Groo’s blog and at College Football Resource, to this piece by Tony Barnhart about the college football regular season and playoffs.  My reaction is that even though Groo and Brian come to different conclusions about Barnhart’s post, they’re both right as far as it goes, but that’s mainly because Barnhart’s reasoning strikes me as overreaching.

Barnhart starts out on solid ground.

Last weekend was yet another example of why it is going to be hard to get the college football powers that be to ever buy into a playoff.

Just follow me here.

After all the craziness of 2007 there can be no doubt that college football has the best regular season of any sport. Last weekend was our first sign that the fun will continue in 2008 as three of the top four (No. 1 USC, No. 3 Georgia, and No. 4 Florida) all lost. When the carnage was over Saturday night, four of the top nine and nine of the Top 25 had lost as well. Oregon State’s upset of USC on a random Thursday night in September sent shock waves all the way from Corvallis, Ore., to Athens, Ga. On Friday the conversation on sports talk radio was dominated by college football and what it all meant.

But if we had an eight-team playoff in place, that Oregon State victory would have barely created a ripple outside of the Pac-10. Because of its impact on every national championship contender in the country, last Thursday night millions of people turned over to that game as soon as “Grey’s Anatomy” was over. With a playoff, that USC loss is not dramatic because the Trojans would still be pretty much a lock for the post-season by winning the Pac-10. But now there is the very real possibility that USC’s loss to Oregon State will eventually cost the Trojans a shot at the national championship.

The fact that a game like USC-Oregon State game can impact so many other schools has pushed television ratings higher and is keeping stadiums full. And as long as the TV ratings are high and the stadiums are full, there is no motivation (other than fan unrest) to go to a playoff of any kind. After four of the six BCS conferences shot down the idea of a four-team playoff last April, we are pretty much assured of having the same BCS format for the next six years.

That’s an argument as to how an extended playoff would impact the regular season for the worse and it’s one that I find compelling.

Look a little closer to home with the Alabama-Georgia game.  This game wound up being huge – as reflected in these rather amazing TV ratings – not because the teams were traditional rivals, but because there was so much at stake in the game.  And while I don’t think a four team playoff would have impacted the import of the game, once we get to the level of, say, a twelve or sixteen school tourney, the expectations about that regular season matchup become a whole different ballgame.  Indeed, with a sixteen team playoff, it’s quite possible to envision a scenario where if both teams were to meet in the SECCG that there very well might be a third meeting between them in a national tourney, regardless of the outcome.  I don’t see how that’s a good thing for college football’s regular season.

So I’m with Brian at CFR as far as this part of the argument goes.

The problem is that Barnhart can’t stop while he’s ahead.

… Besides, who says we don’t have a playoff in Division I-A football? There are five SEC teams in the Top 13 of the Associated Press poll and given their respective schedules, each will have a chance to play their way in to a BCS championship game. I broke down the remaining games against ranked teams for the Top 13. I took the liberty of projecting some conference championship games. What it told me is that we can expect many more whacky weekends like the one we just had. It’s time to buckle up because 2008 is going to be a wild ride and we are just getting started.

Here, gentle readers, is your national championship playoff:

1. Oklahoma (4-0): No. 5 Texas in Dallas, Oct. 11; No. 16 Kansas, Oct. 18; at No. 7 Texas Tech, Nov. 22; vs. No. 4 Missouri in Big 12 championship game.

2. Alabama (5-0): at No. 3 LSU, Nov. 8; vs. No. 13 Auburn, Nov. 29; vs. No. 11 Georgia or No. 12 Florida in SEC championship game.

3. LSU (4-0): at No. 12 Florida, Oct. 11; vs. No. 11 Georgia, Oct. 25; vs. No. 2 Alabama, Nov. 8; vs. No. 11 Georgia or No. 12 Florida in SEC championship game

4. Missouri (4-0): at No. 5 Texas, Oct. 18; vs. No. 16 Kansas in Kansas City, Nov. 29; vs. No. 2 Oklahoma or No. 5 Texas in Big 12 championship game.

5. Texas (4-0): vs. No. 1 Oklahoma in Dallas, Oct. 11; vs. No. 4 Missouri, Oct. 18; at No. 7 Texas Tech Nov. 1; at No. 16 Kansas, Nov. 15; vs. No. 4 Missouri, Big 12 championship game.

6. Penn State (5-0): at No. 18 Wisconsin, Oct. 11; at No. 14 Ohio State, Oct. 25.

7. Texas Tech (4-0): at No. 16 Kansas, Oct. 25; vs. No. 5 Texas, Nov. 1; at No. 1 Oklahoma, Nov. 22; vs. No. 4 Missouri in Big 12 championship game.

8. BYU (4-0): at No. 15 Utah, Nov. 22.

9. Southern Cal (2-1): vs. No. 23 Oregon, Oct. 4.

10. South Florida (5-0): vs. No. 24 Connecticut, Nov. 22.

11. Georgia (4-1): vs. No. 19 Vanderbilt, Oct. 18; at No. 3 LSU, Oct. 25; vs. No. 12 Florida Nov. 1 in Jacksonville; at No. 13 Auburn, Nov. 15.; vs. No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 LSU or No. 13 Auburn in SEC championship game.

12. Florida (3-1): vs. No. 3 LSU, Oct. 11; vs. No. 11 Georgia, Nov. 1 in Jacksonville; at No. 19 Vanderbilt Nov. 8; vs. No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 LSU or No. 13 Auburn in SEC championship game.

13. Auburn (4-1): at No. 19 Vanderbilt, Oct. 4; vs. No. 11 Georgia, Nov. 15; at No. 2 Alabama, Nov. 29; vs. No. 11 Georgia or No. 12 Florida in SEC championship game.

As Groo notes, that’s a ridiculous stretch and in fact does the “don’t dilute the impact of the regular season” argument a disservice.  What kind of playoff dictates that some schools only have to navigate one tough game, while others have to run the gauntlet of four or five?  Besides, the reality is that for schools like BYU and South Florida, this “tourney” is in a single elimination format while for powers like Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama it’s more like a double elimination format (at least if the first loss is early enough in the season).  That’s not like any playoff I’ve ever seen.

It’s not a relevant argument as to what’s at stake here.  Again, if you look at those TV ratings for Alabama-Georgia, you realize why CBS and ESPN ponied up the money they did to lock down the SEC broadcast rights for as long a period as they did.  They don’t care if there’s a “playoff” going on before the bowls; they just want people watching the regular season in those kinds of numbers because it’s compelling.  Where that gets flipped if the powers that be in D-1 football ever decide to embark on a journey to extend the postseason is the $64,000 question.

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5 Comments

Filed under BCS/Playoffs, Media Punditry/Foibles, The Blogosphere

5 responses to “Overstating the case

  1. Sam

    You are right Senator, a 12 or 16 team playoff is too large, not workable without abandoning many traditions, and too disruptive. A four team, or plus 1, concept is too exclusive and doesn’t address Groo’s valid observation about the unlevel playing field.

    Any viable playoff has to accommodate the winners of each BCS conference (six) to allow representation from each geography and address schedule imbalances. If a system does not allow inclusion of these six champions at a minimum, there will always be legitimate doubt if we truly addressed the concerns we currently have. Add the next two highest rated teams using the BCS formula de jour and you have an 8 team playoff that can be worked within the December/early January time period and allows everyone in that deserves a shot IF they win their conference, plus a couple that don’t. It will never be perfect, but that is close enough for me to make me feel there would be a TRUE national champion for the first time ever. Until then, I will continue to say there has never been a NC in Division 1 CFB (or whatever they call themselves these days.) It is sad CFB fans have not rebelled against this insanity.

  2. sUGArdaddy

    I’d challenge anyone to give me a year in which 8 college football teams deserve a shot at a national title. Last week,s games would have meant nothing if we had an 8 team playoff because SC will most likely win the Pac10 and UGA and Fla. will most likely compete for the East division.

    Also, it would put teams like UGA last year pulling “FOR” Tennesee at the end of the season because a loss to LSU in the SEC title game would have knocked us out of the national tourney. Plus, teams that play non-conference season ending games WOULD sit stars to get ready for the end-all-be-all tourney. None of that is good for college football.

    Have everyone have a conference title game. Use the current BCS as a measuring stick (much like the RPI), and have a committee pick the 4 teams to play in the plus one. You have to win your conference to get it. Every year we’d get it right if we did that. Commonality across the board and some humans to correct what the computers mess up.

  3. Sam

    I think you are missing the point, while there may be only 2-4 truly “top quality” teams per year max, you have to give allow the conference champions a ticket to the dance because you will NEVER, EVER get agreement on the best conference, toughest schedule, yada, yada, yada. I feel very confident I could narrow the field to 4 teams and get it right, but it will have no credibility with millions of others, even though I would be right.

    Allowing the 6 BCS champs a pass guarantees everyone controlling their own destiny. That is the critical piece that is missing currently and why I do not assign any value to a MNC. Someone ALWAYS has a case against. Since 6 isn’t a good playoff number, the 2 wildcards insure smaller conference champs have a way to make, or even more important, a 2nd place finisher who may be the best team in America at the end of the season (UGA last year?). A committee picking the finalists will not answer the questions, it is just another version of the BCS…better than what we have but not a good solution.

    If you think finishing in the Top 10 isn’t tough and doesn’t guarantee the importance of the regular season, you have been watching a different port than me for the last 50 years. The “regular season would be diminished” argument is the weakest of all the ones used against a playoff. I already pull for many of our conference rivals in games now for a variety of reasons so what would ever be different from that? I may pull for TN against Bama, and I already pulled for them against Florida. With the number of conference losses they may have, I will probably need to pull for them against Vandy.

  4. The “regular season would be diminished” argument is the weakest of all the ones used against a playoff.

    There’s plenty of empirical evidence in other sports, like college basketball, to suggest otherwise.

    I don’t think a four team playoff would have a negative impact on the regular season, but I have little doubt that a sixteen team playoff would.

  5. Sam

    Diminished only if it grows. I know you feel this is inevitable and point to other sports as proof. A+B does not have to equal C. No question if my 8 team playoff becomes a 16, or 32, or 64 teamer, it would diminish the regular season. I repeat my earlier statements, there is ZERO logic to going beyond 8. It isn’t an absolute this would happen and thus my support for it.