The narrative arc of the single elimination tourney

Playoff thought from a political blog I like to read:

… This is another way of saying that playoffs, in any sport, have never been about “finding the best team”. Rather, they’re about building tension in the most effective way for the sport in question. In this, the NCAA Tournament is indisputably superior to the Bataan Death March that constitutes the NBA playoffs. Major League Baseball uses a playoff system similar to that of the NBA, but the seven game series is much more suitable to the rhythm of baseball than of basketball, and moreover it’s built into the structure of baseball that many of the best and most important players simply cannot play every day. In short, the capacity of a George Mason to reach the Final Four now and again is a feature, not a bug…

Forget the time constraints of an extended playoff for a minute: the biggest effect of a single elimination format is to provide a counter-balance to a lack of parity in a tourney pool.

As much as many pundits like Mandel want to argue that D-1 football has entered a new age of level footing, the fact remains that the sport is still one of the most imbalanced out there in terms of talent and resources. The truth is that the Boise and Appalachian States of the college football world as a general rule are going to lose to the Oklahomas and Michigans nine times out of ten, which is why (again, ignoring the time constraints for a moment) a best of three format would be a complete waste of time. It’s the “any given Saturday” factor that gives an extended tourney its spice.

Obviously in a four team setting, this effect is reduced – in some seasons (2007-08 ) more than others (2005-06). But the nature of the sport changes as the pool grows and the effect of the single elimination factor increases along with it. In the context of college football, this is what those of us mean when we worry about devaluing the impact of the regular season. Admittedly, this is a question of aesthetics, but I firmly believe that D-1 football would be the poorer for it if that were the path taken.


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