This meme going around that college football can say “screw it” to the Pac-10, Big Ten and the Rose Bowl if they don’t want to go along with the brave new world of college playoffs because sooner or later outraged fans and lost opportunities will make them see reason and force them to go along – cited by Bernie Machen and Tony Barnhart, among others – just doesn’t strike me as being as credible a threat as its proponents believe it to be.
First of all, this concept of the all-powerful fanbase that can bring the decision makers to their knees about playoffs strikes me as overblown. I don’t know anyone who’s passionate about college football that likes D-1 schools playing powderpuff games against 1-AA opponents, but I don’t see those games going the way of the dodo any time soon, do you? (Not to mention the fact that most polls show college football fans favor a playoff, yet that support doesn’t seem to have translated into any pressure to date to change the BCS mode into a full blown playoff set up.)
But let’s skip over that point for the sake of argument. Exactly what is it that people think the Pac-10, Big Ten and the Rose Bowl will be missing if they don’t elect to join the playoff setup in the first place?
To get my point here, take a look at the top five teams (in order) in the last regular season polls over the previous five seasons:
- 2002 – Miami, Ohio State, Iowa, Georgia and Southern Cal.
- 2003 – Oklahoma, Southern Cal, LSU, Michigan and Georgia.
- 2004 – Southern Cal, Oklahoma, Auburn, California and Texas. (Michigan was the highest rated Big Ten team at #12.)
- 2005 – Southern Cal, Texas, Penn State, Ohio State and Oregon.
- 2006 – Ohio State, Florida, Michigan, LSU and Wisconsin. (Southern Cal was the highest rated Pac-10 team at #7).
Notice a pattern there? In the absence of the BCS, the Rose Bowl would have hosted a #1 or a #2 ranked team every year. The worst matchup it would have had during that time would have been a #1 versus a #12 in 2004 – the year that USC was clearly the most dominant team in college football. Are we really supposed to think these games would have generated enough fan displeasure to force the conferences’ hands? Or that the conferences themselves would be unhappy about the outcome? I’m not seeing it.
And don’t forget the BCS, or whatever they’d have called it, comes off much weaker, because, after all, it never gets a #1 versus #2 matchup during that period. That’s some improvement. And that’s hardly conducive to more money being paid out over time – one of Bernie’s big selling points.
As long as USC, Ohio State and Michigan are likely top five teams at season’s end, the Pac-10, Big Ten and the Rose Bowl are looking at a fairly idle threat from their perspective. Anyone care to guess when they can quit yawning?
Brushing them off won’t work. It’s a strategy doomed to failure. Worse, it’s likely to create bad blood between the conference commissioners. (We’ve all seen how well Jim Delany responds to adverse situations.)
Standard caveat: this isn’t a post about why playoffs are bad. But insisting on a playoff structure built upon unsupported assumptions seems foolish at best. A strategy of “take it or leave it” has led to any number of unfortunate consequences in other leagues, in other sports. I’d truly hate to see college football make that same mistake.