Dan Wetzel and the intellectual consistency of playoffs

Honestly, I don’t know what it is about Dan Wetzel’s particular form of playoff monomania that drives me so batty, but there it is.

His latest outburst is a criticism of Larry Scott’s conference champs-only plus-one proposal.  This literally made my jaw drop:

Scott’s instincts aren’t completely off; deemphasizing flawed, groupthink-powered polls and mathematically unsound computer formulas is an admirable goal. The only reason polls (25 teams deep) are used is because college football still believes there was validity to something invented by some sportswriters in the 1930s.

It was a just a promotional tool then (try comparing teams in the pre-TV era). It should’ve remained that way. It never should’ve been used on an official level.

The computers were brought in to partially take subjectivity out of the equation. The formulas were bastardized, however, by PC decisions such prohibiting margin of victory.

At its core, this is the intellectual inconsistency that plagues college football, one that Scott reasonably wants to escape.

The problem is obvious: Rewarding only conference champs would be intellectually consistent only if all conferences were competitively consistent.

They aren’t even close to that. Plus they shift on an annual basis. Decades and decades of history in every sport says that there are years the second-best team in one conference or division is superior to a champion of another conference or division.

It’s not that I disagree with any of that.  I think an objective, conference champs-only playoff format should be what D-1 winds up with once they get realignment out of their system and consolidate the division around 64 to 80 teams, but right now, it would lead to as many new problems as it would solve.

No, what drives me crazy here is Wetzel arguing that with a straight face after previously pitching a 16-team playoff with a 6-6 Sun Belt champion in it based on this appealing rationale:

… While no one would argue that the Sun Belt champ is one of the top 16 teams in the country, its presence is paramount to maintaining the integrity and relevancy of the regular season. Teams that put together exceptional season deserve to be rewarded. If you just take the top eight or 16 teams and match them up on a neutral field then there is no advantage to being No. 1 rather than No. 16.

The way to reward the best teams is two-fold. First is providing home-field advantage to the higher-seeded team until the title game (more on this later).

The second is by giving an easier first-round opponent – in this case No. 1 seed Auburn would play No. 16 Florida International. Earning a top two or three seed most years would present a school a de facto bye into the second round.  FIU isn’t in the tournament to win the title – they won’t – but to make the regular season matter more.  [Emphasis added.]

Intellectual consistency?  Pot, meet kettle.

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17 Comments

Filed under BCS/Playoffs, Media Punditry/Foibles

17 responses to “Dan Wetzel and the intellectual consistency of playoffs

  1. Cliff Clayburn

    Can we forever ban the word “objective” when it comes to sports? If a philosophical tradition that started with Aristotle 2,500 years ago can’t pin down what that word really means, I don’t think 21st century American sports are going to shed any light.

    Playoffs come down to which arbitrary subjective standard people like most, which they will then call “objective” in order to pretend that it’s not arbitrary and subjective.

    • Hackerdog

      Why should I listen to Aristotle? He never earned it on the field.

    • Cliff, I use the term “objective” in this context to describe playoff admission being based on a clearly defined objective, such as being a conference champion, rather than being based on rankings derived from pollsters and/or computers.

      If you’ve got a better label, I’m all ears.

      • Cliff Clayburn

        I see your point.

        Getting as high as you can in the polls remains an objective (an orienting goal), no different than winning your conference (an orienting goal). Those two goals can be debated on their merits, but one can’t say that the first goal is more objective (goal-orienting) than the other. Both remain “objectives” to be achieved. All that remains is the debate about which one is more “valid.”

        “Objective” normally gets used in these debates as an adjective (better than something else because it’s less “subjective”) rather than a noun (an orienting goal). Boo to that whenever it happens, because it’s disingenuous in most cases. Bloggers like you, the Artist Formerly Known as Dr. Saturday, and Mr. Hall I trust to be good faith opinionators. Others, not so much.

        I prefer polls because they include more viewpoints, larger sample sizes, and a larger competitive arena. A conference champion criteria, for example, excludes Notre Dame before a game is even played. Or do we make an exemption for them if they are high enough in the polls but not other teams high enough in the polls? What about conferences that avoid a conference championship game and rig their finances and scheduling to favor a couple of breadwinners? Is that “fair?”

        Cynical View: This is all a plot to force Notre Dame into a conference.

        Love the blog. Keep cranking it out. You do good work.

  2. SCDawg

    “The formulas were bastardized, however, by PC decisions such prohibiting margin of victory.”

    No, the formulas were changed because you shouldn’t get extra credit for beating Nobody State 63-3.

  3. Irwin R. Fletcher

    Quick comment:

    #1- I don’t think you have to punt the word objective. If you have a formula that sets a specific set of “If X, then Y” with minimal, if any, subjective judging required to determine if X was met, I would say that the outcome of that formula is pretty ‘objective.’

    #2- I’m completely, 100% for conference champs being the entry way into a playoff. A playoff isn’t to determine the ‘best’ team, it is to determine a champion.

    #3- That’s what makes Wetzel’s, Mandell’s , etc. outrage over Scott’s suggestion so funny to me. You’ve got a bunch of guys, who have spent the last few years railing against the BCS. All of the sudden, it looks like their little self-promoting poll system might be put aside by actual wins and losses and they scream and moan about leaving out a 2nd place conference team because of the conference they play in? Let’s get this straight once and for all…a playoff doesn’t determine who the ‘best’ team is. A playoff determines a champion. And for whatever it’s worth, some folks are going to be in harder prelims than other folks. It works the same way for track and field, baseball, swimming, basketball, etc. etc. etc. You think the guy that was 3rd in the US in “X” swimming event wasn’t better than some of the other guys in the Olympics or even the Olympic finals? Of course he was. But he had the pleasure of swimming against Michael Phelps…

    I’ve stayed out of the playoff debate for the most part…i assume every response will be “What about the money?!? Won’t someone think of the children!!!”

    But let’s just make the point and leave it open…the key to relevance and excitement in the regular season in college football and in the NFL is the sample size, not the postseason format. If college football or the NFL had a 30 game season, it wouldn’t matter what the playoff format was like…the regular season would lose its appeal. A playoff will not destroy the ‘regular season’ in college football. I think it will make it better so long as you give auto bids to conference champs. No reason not to schedule decent non-conference opponents if it doesn’t affect your ability to auto-qualify.

    • Bulldawg165

      “No reason not to schedule decent non-conference opponents if it doesn’t affect your ability to auto-qualify.”

      While I agree with pretty much your entire post, I especially like the last sentence. A playoff would definitely increase the willingness of premiere programs scheduling good OOC opponents because the punishment for losing them wouldn’t be nearly as severe. This, in turn, would make the regular season more exciting in and of itself and would help do away with teams scheduling all of their OOC games to be against Cupcake University beause the free win wouldn’t be worth the lost national exposure that particular week.

      • Connor

        But the other side of that is “no reason to schedule decent non-conference opponents if it doesn’t help your ability to auto-qualify.” Some UGA fans are convinced the reason we lost the 08 Bama game was due to the travel to Arizona the week before. In a conference champs only situation, there’s zero benefit to an out of conference game. As a hypothetical, imagine an East Div Champion UGA team loses a key player to injury in the tech game, and then loses the SEC championship the next week, and the associated automatic bid. There would be a lot of folks who would be in a hurry to do away with a century plus old rivalry in that case. And that’s for an OOC game with some history.
        If we end up with a 4 team playoff with conference champs only and we get 9 game conference schedules, I’d expect big time OOC games to be even rarer than they are now.

        • Dawgaholic

          If you have auto-qualifiers for conference champs and 2 or 3 wildcard entries, then you would have incentive for difficult schedules as well.

          Still auto-qualification should be only for conferences who have won the title in the last ten years.

          By the way, I am not for a playoff but it appears it is inevitable. My fix would be to keep the current system but require teams to play two OOC games per year against top 50 schools to be eligible for the BCS game. (The details of that are similar to the bracketbuster format for mid-majors in basketball.)

          • Still auto-qualification should be only for conferences who have won the title in the last ten years.

            Soo…SEC and Big 12, since 2004 didn’t happen. :)

            • Dawgaholic

              Exactly, but I’d say the PAC-10 gets in b/c they won the game – regardless of whether or not it still counts. If your conference isn’t good enough to win once every ten years, you don’t get an automatic invite. Please don’t tell me you would argue with that logic for a 4 or 8 team playoff. Also, the Big Ten would still get an automatic this year.

              I’d have no problem with conferences not getting automatic bids. In fact, in a four team playoff you would probably need to limit automatic bids to conferences that have won at least 2 of the last 5.

              As an aside, I find it asinine that anyone would support a playoff that would exclude a team like the one that just won the MNC. Are people really suggesting that if you are the No. 2 team in the country and only lost once to the No. 1 team in the country and your conference champ that you don’t deserve to be in a playoff that has 4 or 8 teams? Would you still support that contention if the No. 2 team lost to the No. 1 team in a game where it’s Heisman candidate QB/TB was out with a concussion/sprained knee/etc. but came back and played well the rest of the year?

              If you are going to have a playoff, you at least need to make sure the best 1 or 2 teams that did not win their conference have a chance to get in.

        • Irwin R. Fletcher

          ‘But the other side of that is “no reason to schedule decent non-conference opponents if it doesn’t help your ability to auto-qualify.”

          Ok…so worse case you end up with the status quo on scheduling and best case is you open the door for better games. I’d at least like a best case scenario, which for now, there is none.

          • Dawgaholic

            You would almost certainly force teams from weaker conferences to schedule harder OOC games – Big Ten, ACC, Big East.

  4. Cliff Clayburn

    Every system determines a champion. By that criteria, you can’t differentiate Pre-BCS from BCS or BCS from playoffs.

    Throwing numbers at the problem – sample size, binary algorithms, whatever – remains completely subjective criteria. Massey and Sagarin,s formulas have inherent bias, just as the fine people at Smart Football do.

    Playoffs are just conventional wisdom. “They make more money, and no one argues the results.” If CFB wants to be just like every other sport, then that’s the way to go.

    Any system which consciously seeks to avoid the teams that play the best football in favor of the teams that make the most entertaining championship production is a farce. Go watch Matrix reruns if entertainment’s your deal.

  5. Good thing that Wetzel isn’t a politician. He’d get killed in the debates because of his “flip-flopping”.

    I agree with you, Senator. I read “Death to the BCS” around the 2010 holidays to understand where he was coming from and he’s definitely one of those “the BCS is so awful that we must have anything else to replace it,. unintended consequences be damned” types. Funny now that he sees the unintended consequences of a poorly planned post-season and has changed his tune a bit. He’ll probably change his tune again when the first iteration of a playoff doesn’t have a conference championship requirement and 3 of the 4 participants are from the SEC.