Beating that dead horse one more time.

It’s a recurring theme here at Get The Picture: mission creep.

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?

That’s what Tony Barnhart looks at today.

On the surface a four-team playoff looks like a no-brainer: Pick four teams instead of the current two. Let 1 play 4 and 2 play 3 in the semifinals. A week or so later you have a national championship game. Use the current bowl structure and the current calendar. Nobody gets hurt. Everybody makes money. The fans get something new.

So what’s the problem?

Based on private conversations I’ve had with some commissioners, here is the one big problem that concerns them. If you could guarantee that a four-team playoff would never grow into eight or 16 teams, then you could probably get a consensus among the commissioners to go for it. The Big Ten and Pac-10 wouldn’t like it, but you could probably get them on board.

But you can’t make that guarantee. The playoff would grow. [Emphasis added.] Remember that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament began with eight teams. Now it’s 65.

And if the playoff grows, then it becomes the focal point of college football and the regular season, which is the best of any sport, runs the risk of being diminished.

If the guys making the decisions can’t make that guarantee, what does that tell you? At least they’re honest enough to admit they’re concerned that an extended D-1 football playoff would change the unique nature of the sport.

… One commissioner pointed out to me that college basketball has basically become a three-week sport. It’s all about the NCAA Tournament. They see interest in the regular season literally dying on the vine. He pointed out that there is really only one marquee regular season game that is national Must-See TV game: Duke-North Carolina.

Football, however, is full of “premium” regular-season games that draw huge audiences: Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Georgia-Florida, Texas-Oklahoma.

Again, I know that there are a lot of college football fans who don’t have a problem with that tradeoff (although many playoff advocates don’t want to admit that such a tradeoff exists). But Barnhart points out that for the movers and shakers it’s not simply a matter of preserving the regular season’s drama for drama’s sake. Thar’s gold in them thar regular season hills, too.

… In college football EVERY regular season game matters. The commissioners do not want to lose that drama because, frankly, it is worth a lot of money.

And there is not going to be a multi-level playoff in college football without cutting back on the regular season. The presidents won’t allow it. People say we can just do away with the 12th regular season game. Tell that to the athletics directors who need the money just to break even on their budgets.

Conference championship games certainly aren’t going away. The SEC championship game not only provides a $1 million to each of the league’s 12 schools, it is a great celebration at the end of the regular season.

Yes, there is a lot of money to be made in the post-season but no one wants to put the regular season at risk. A lot more schools are invested in the regular season than in the post-season.

In other words, the fear is that once you go down the playoff road – more specifically, once you go down the extended playoff road – sooner or later you hit a tipping point where the regular season rights become devalued. And the only way to make that up is to keep enlarging the postseason. At which point you’ve got something very different that what attracts your fan base in the first place. Given that, why, the presidents and commissioners ask, should we go down that road?

In the end, dear Brutus, the fault lies not in the conference commissioners, but in ourselves. As long as we fans continue to be as absorbed in college football the way we are, there isn’t much of an incentive to upset the apple cart. As Barnhart puts it,

… Here is what the powers that be in college football won’t tell you. Listening to the wants and needs of the fans—many of whom want a playoff—is important. But at the end of the day fans are not the only constituency in college football who must be heard and who must be taken into consideration. Fans will complain about the lack of a playoff, which they have been doing for a long time. But they are still going to fill the stadiums and they are still going to watch. The 2007 season proved that.


UPDATE: Groo has some thoughts in response to Barnhart. Specifically, he thinks Barnhart overstates his case in one area.

… Barnhart repeats a line that most college football fans dogmatically accept: In college football EVERY regular season game matters.

That statement has never made sense to me. Without getting too semantic over what “matters” means, it seems to me that relatively few games matter in the context of a national championship. You can’t tell me that the regular season is its own glorious playoff winnowing the field of contenders weekly while at the same time insisting that the South Carolina – Clemson game matters in any way outside of the Palmetto State.

Certainly in a sense I see his point. There are rivalry games that will always matter to the local fans, playoffs or not. And Notre Dame will likely continue to have a national following regardless of how the postseason is shaped.

Buuuuut… Barnhart is right in that if you’re a school in the national title hunt, every game does matter. Michigan found its 2007 national title hopes destroyed by 1-AA Appy State in the first game of the season. Does anyone really want to argue that the West Virginia-Pitt game – an intense local rivalry, by the way – last year would have been as important nationally if we had, say, a sixteen school playoff?

There are also the regular season rivalries that have developed not historically nor because of geographics, but because of what’s at stake in conference play. The example I point to there is the battle between Georgia, Florida and Tennessee for the SEC East. Those games matter because getting to the SECCG is so important. If you extend the national postseason to a level where a conference championship game becomes nothing more than a stepping stone to a higher seed in a national tourney (or an automatic berth for a mediocre team, a la March Madness), what then becomes the big deal about beating the Vols in October?



Filed under BCS/Playoffs, Media Punditry/Foibles

28 responses to “Beating that dead horse one more time.

  1. kckd

    And I don’t understand why no one, anyone doesn’t argue that the very fact that it will cut into the regular season will also prevent it from ballooning. He easily mentions the regular season in basketball has been diminished but he fails to point out that the tournament did not cut into the regular season.

    Those commissioners who have to get on board for a four team playoff are the same ones who would have to vote to expand a playoff and eventually cut into the regular season. Are they such a fickle bunch they can’t trust themselves?


  2. He easily mentions the regular season in basketball has been diminished but he fails to point out that the tournament did not cut into the regular season.

    That’s because football has been a one semester sport traditionally and basketball hasn’t.

    Are they such a fickle bunch they can’t trust themselves?



  3. kckd

    That’s your opinion though Senator but you continue to banter it around as clear fact.

    There are very good reasons to support a four team playoff.

    It’s not nearly as cut and dry an issue as you’d like to believe. And again, if you just stuck with one side of the argument, like the playoff thing growing as it has in every sport, I could respect that. And I do respect that argument.

    But it’s when you go off on other tangents that don’t really mesh with your other arguments that I don’t really get. That’s when it seems you’d sell your soul for any argument that denies the need for a playoff.


  4. There are very good reasons to support a four team playoff.

    I agree. I think that an eight team, all conference champ tourney, with the conferences tweaked a bit to bring more balance, would be an even better format.

    That being said, you continue to misread my position. I can live with a small playoff. It’s just that I strongly believe an extended playoff would be a disaster for the game as I know and love it today.

    I don’t trust the guys running the show to do the right thing. Historically, it’s never happened. And as Barnhart’s post shows, they don’t even trust themselves to do what’s right here.

    Based on that, why shouldn’t I question those of you who make all these rosy assumptions about how a four team playoff will work out?


  5. kckd

    If you don’t trust them, it would seem to me you would be worried about it. Instead you tend to write in a condescending way towards those who think a playoff will happen. If you don’t trust those guys, you ought to be shaking in your boots right now.


  6. I think playoffs are inevitable, kckd. That doesn’t mean I have to like ’em, given the ultimate form I expect them to take. Why do you think I bitch about this so much?

    And I’m not condescending towards people merely for advocating a playoff. I’m condescending towards those who think there’s no downside to a playoff or who dismiss my concerns about watering down the regular season as being unlikely without bothering to explain why either is the case.


  7. kckd

    I don’t think a four team playoff would water down the regular season. Not many teams are safely in a four team playoff scenario before their last game is played. Last year, I don’t think any would’ve been.

    An eight team could, but I’ve never been a proponent of it. I think what needs to be done can be done with four teams. Last year we would’ve had some bitching about the four teams legitimately, but most years I don’t think there would be that much really.

    My point about your talking down to some folks is that when anyone points out that we might be headed in that direction (a direction you yourself are saying is inevitable) you immediately post a quote from some of those guys you say you don’t trust where they are saying it’ll be a cold day in hell before they see it happen.


  8. kckd

    If you can read through all of the crap in that run on sentence. Man, it’s late now and I can’t sleep.


  9. Playoffs will be a pathetic waste and joke if they consist of anything more than conference champions. Period.


  10. I don’t think a four team playoff would water down the regular season.

    Playoffs will be a pathetic waste and joke if they consist of anything more than conference champions. Period.

    With those two comments, you guys have nailed my angst over this whole debate.

    I really can live with a four team tourney. But everything tells me – history, money, the weasels that call the shots – that’s not going to be the end result.

    And if there’s a serious risk that what we could wind up with is worse than what we have now, what’s wrong with complaining about that?

    kckd, go get some sleep, man. You can poke more holes in my arguments in the morning. 😉


  11. Sam

    I am also baffled how a playoff of 4, or 8 teams can diminish the regular season at all, and wish this line of reasoning would be dropped because it is so nonsensical. Does anyone realize how difficult it is to make the Top 8, much less the Top 4? Does it mean someone may have a loss, or two, in winning the SEC? Wow, what a shocking change…..guess it happens because the regular season games will have no passion. Right!!! What a silly argument. Now if you go to 65 teams, or even 32, you may have an argument but please laugh in the face of anyone who says it with a straight face.

    I like the 8 team with the six BCS conference champions getting berths, and joined by the next two highest rated teams with no exceptions for ND, and no restriction for two from one conference. Fans deserve this, and should cut contributions until the Presidents give it to us.

    The money from this mini-playoff (including TV revenues) should be split between all 119 teams to gain the support of the small schools. If the Big 11 and PAC 10 don’t want to participate, proceed without them. They will come begging within two years and will have buried Jim Delany clearing the biggest obstacle. TV would bid big money for a true playoff. CFB is the 2nd biggest sport in America behind the NFL, and is #1 in the South.


  12. Xon

    The point, Sam, is that the playoff won’t stay at 4 or 8 teams. The Senator was very clear on this, I thought. You are attacking a straw man: nobody is saying “4 team playoff=diminished regular season”. What we are saying is that a 16 team playoff would diminish the regular season. And once the playoff is put into place, there are no brakes. This is human nature.

    They will want to add a little more money by expanding the field so the whole thing lasts a week longer. Then they’ll do it again a while later. Then the reg. season will be officially encroached upon, and it won’t be quite the cash cow it used to be. So they will make up for it by increasing the playoff again.

    We see this all the time in life. People know that they can’t be trusted. Owners of pro sports teams fight for salary caps b/c they know that with no cap they will all be too tempted to spend themselves into debt. When the NBA had the rule that you could draft players straight out of high school, a lot of teams lined up to take incredible risks on 18 year old kids who needed more seasoning…because they just couldn’t help themselves. If the NFL suddenly allowed anybody to be drafted at any time after high school, an idea everyone acknowledges is terrible, teams would do it. Teams would want to grab Knowshon, even though he’s probably not ready. How do you NOT take him if he’s available? Etc. etc. ad nauseum. This is human nature. Self-destruction happens all the time.


  13. C

    Okay, Sam, I’ll explain the reasoning. Any system that would take away from the meaning of regular season games diminishes the regular season. Your scenario of conference champions going to an 8-team playoff would be deadly to college football. So, what if we have the Dawgs have the East locked up and are staring down a war w/ Auburn or LSU the first weekend in December to get that spot as SEC qualifier. Do we rest our starters against Tech. That’s what they do in the NFL because it’s the smart thing to do. You have to, because the game essentially doesn’t matter.

    Moreover, games like Pitt vs. WVU from this past season would be meaningless. WVU had already locked up the Big East, but the whole nation watched in awe as a bad Pitt team knocked it’s rival out of the MNC game. With an eight team playoff you don’t get any of that.

    A 4-team is workable, because there would be no automatic bids. But there’s still trouble. Do we want the 4 best teams (which would have included UGA this last year) or the 4 best conference champions (which would not have included UGA this year). What I think the Senator is saying is that it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. It’s very complicated when you start thinking about the implications of what playoffs mean.

    For instance, if you are number one and clinched your conference going into the last game of the season and even a loss wouldn’t knock you out of the top 4 because you’re the only undefeated team and everyone else has 1-2 losses, why not rest your team, especially if you play in neutral sites and being #4 is no different than being #1. Neutral sites would absolutely devastate the system. Imagine telling the Patriots they have to play the first round of the playoffs in a neutral site after going 16-0. Whether it happens or not, it’s just a messy process.


  14. Jim from Duluth

    One problem with any type of proposed playoff is what time slots are available that would bring in the money proponents think it would. Get past New Year’s and prime weekend slots are now taken by the NFL playoffs.

    In theory, I could see a 4 or even 8 team field that focused on high ranked conference champs. But I think two changes to the current system would benefit it greatly.

    First, pass a rule that an at-large team from one of the BCS conferences (i.e. – team that did not win its conference) is ineligible for the title game.

    Second, provide for some kind of oversight within the BCS for putting together the best possible matchups among the other BCS bowls, including swapping teams within the pool if necessary. For example, UGA-Southern Cal in the Rose and Illinois-Hawaii in the Sugar were potentially much better matchups than the blowouts that actually occured.



  15. Sam

    Sorry Xon, that is no ppoint at all. Nothing HAS to go beyond eight teams. That is plenty to establish an adequate climax to the CFB season. Will there be attempts to expand, and grumbling by some? Of course, but to use the NBA or say it’s human nature is not valid. It may be your opinion, and that is fine, but don’t put it out as a reason why 4 or 8 will not work.

    C, that situation with the GT game already exists and we have faced it. I could care less about the GT game whith a potential SEC title awaiting one week later. UGA hasn’t let down yet, but if we needed to rest a key player, I would hope CMR would do that. As for the Pitt/WVA, nothing was really lost beause there is no NCAA championship to be gained. They played in a slightly lesser bowl, big deal. They are rivals and will always play to win, unlike in the pros, just like UGA and GT will. Until we get to a point where a third, or more, of the teams are involved in a playoff, the CFB season is at no risk…..certainly not enough to offset the gain of deciding a true champion. After 100+ years, there is still no valid NC in college football. That is a sad commentary. I wonder how popular sex would be if there were no climax.


  16. Sam,
    What makes you think a four-team playoff would decide a true national champion?

    I’m not opposed to a plus-one scenario, but it wouldn’t decide a truer champ than what we have now.


  17. And ask WV if “nothing was really lost” by losing to Pitt.


  18. dean

    Quick someone tell me of any playoff, professional or collegiate, that has never expanded.


  19. Nothing HAS to go beyond eight teams.

    Seriously, Sam, when the decision makers are saying they don’t trust themselves to avoid playoff expansion, that’s a pretty good indicator that things wouldn’t stop with eight.


  20. Some of you dudes have way too much time to type. Geez.

    Senator, you know I’ve always wanted a playoff system – one for conference champions, that is. That being the case, you continue to make a persuasive argument for the devolution of ALL playoff systems. If we had more than eight teams, from eight conferences – it would be tragic.

    All good things, must come to an end, right?


  21. One problem with any type of proposed playoff is what time slots are available that would bring in the money proponents think it would. Get past New Year’s and prime weekend slots are now taken by the NFL playoffs.

    Jim, that’s a valid point.

    If the playoffs grew, I suspect that the problem would be ameliorated by reducing the time frame that the regular season occupies – most likely by reducing the schedule back to eleven or ten games to accommodate the postseason.


  22. Sam

    The reason I feel 8 is the max number is that a playoff can be done at that level with great credibility, and it is the most that can be done without a major overhaul of both the season and the bowls. There would be too much resistance above this number so I feel an 8 team playoff would be the “ceiling”. This is not to say some would not push for more, but since there is unlikely to ever be more than 4-5 teams that most fans think could possibly be a viable champion, this would stave of the expansion requests. As for why some think otherwise, they are the same group that give us other silly reasons for not moving forward (class time, diminished season, etc.) so I don’t take them to be anything other than obstructionists.

    As to Crimson, only people who accept the validity of the current system for determining a NC feel anything is lost. I don’t recognize any NC claims so nothing was lost. Sure, all teams want to play in the “grand finale”, but it still doesn’t make anyone a champion…….just a higher profile bowl. I can live with a 4 team “playoff” since it is better than what we have but it still means at least two BCS conference champs are excluded. Chances are they would not be the strongest candidates, but it leave the title open to dispute and there is no reason to not have four more teams to insure credibility. The first four games could be played in mid-December at the home field of the top four seeds with winners playing the next round in two of the traditional bowls. This opening round would provide a huge financial boost as TV would pay plenty of incremental dollars.

    Look, I know everyone has their own opinion and mine is just one of many options. I don’t think my opinion is any better than most, but I would like to see people address the problem for the good of the CFB fans and quit coming up with reasons to not get it done. I have thought this through from many different angles. I simply don’t see any obstacles that cannot be worked through if fans demand a solution. This isn’t a complex issue. All other NCAA sports, every single one, has gotten this accomplished. I do not accept the rationale of the naysayers.


  23. All other NCAA sports, every single one, has gotten this accomplished.

    Ever bother to check the size of the playoff fields in all those other sports?

    Once you do, maybe you’ll understand my apprehension.


  24. Sam

    Yes, and for the most part they are excessive in number. But like NASCAR, and tennis, there is only a handful who can win. In CFB, that number is somewhere between four and six most years. I feel there are about 7-8 starting out this season, and it will be down to under five by the end of the regular season. The four team would actually work except for leaving two conference champs out, and not including the chance for a team not in the “big six”.

    Football is automatically immune from the 30, 40 and 65 team fields by virtue of the logistics and the number of days rest required (although Sewanee [sp?] proved that wrong on their infamous train ride several decades ago!) I feel one of the criteria to meet is to minimize the disruption to tradition….the Almighty Rose Bowl excepted. As stated earlier, 8 is the max that gives you a bona fide champion, and allows minimal disruption of anything substantial. If every BCS champion is included, and you allow two”wildcards” there is no valid argument from 95%+ of the CFB fans. No need to go further, and who would want to. Keep the bowls and conference championships for those that want them. Could there be an isolated group complaining on a lonely roadside? Sure, they found 12 people who voted “not guilty” on OJ so you have to expect some folks who just don’t think very well.


  25. Football is automatically immune from the 30, 40 and 65 team fields by virtue of the logistics and the number of days rest required…

    Say what? A 32 team playoff takes up five weeks. Eliminate the twelfth game and conference championship games and you can get ‘er done in the same time frame the bowls currently occupy.

    There’s nothing particularly unique to football that prevents an extended playoff. Division 1-AA football, which generates little money in comparision to D-1, is currently headed towards a 24 school tourney.

    It’s ludicrous to ignore the forces that would push to expand the postseason once a playoff is in place.


  26. Sam

    First of all, there is nothing wrong with having differing viewpoints so it doesn’t bother me that you see this from another angle. That being said, my point is far from “ludicrous” just because it isn’t unanimous. What would be “ludicrous” is allowing , and bowing to, pressure from those who would seek to expand when the objectives of (1.) gettting all viable teams involved in the playoff, (2.) doing it within a timeframe that would not expand the season by more than one week for 2 teams while not increasing the number of games played by more than 2 for any team, and (3.) doing it for a big financial gain that could help all D-I A schools. How hard would it be to demand someone show what else is needed? Fact is, it wouldn’t. This is just a new excuse to not move forward by the “what about the time away from class”, and the “renders the season meaningless crowd”. Those were shallow arguments, and this is equally as shallow.

    Please note I said 8 teams is the max that accomplish the objective of getting all viable teams in while not upsetting the entire post season traditions that are in place. My plan would only involve minor tweaking. I also spoke to the “logistics” of having huge fanbases travel on short notice. The other Divisions do not face this, and the fans are not well-heeled donors who feel it is their birthright to attend every significant event at that university.

    Fans deserve better than this and should not allow a few obstructionaists to stand in the way. I am disappointed Slive didn’t take a stronger position. If the SEC doesn’t fight for this, it makes us no better than the Delany and Hansen types of the world. CFB fans in the Southeast need better representation. Billions are spent each year, and nothing is decided. Why?


  27. Sam, I’m not sure you’re getting the point I’ve made several times here.

    These guys admit that when it comes to playoffs, they won’t be able to resist an expanded format. Just because you find a four or eight school format reasonable (and, by the way, I don’t necessarily disagree) doesn’t mean that’s all we’ll get.

    When the history of every other tourney in professional and collegiate sports shows expansion and the suits calling the shots can’t guarantee they won’t do the same damned thing when the opportunity presents itself to D-1 football, it’s ludicrous to suggest otherwise, unless there’s something unique to college football that would insulate it from the same pressures.

    I have no idea what that might be, and I doubt you do either. The presidents and conference commissioners are the same for basketball and football, the potential media outlets that pay the money are the same and football playoffs in the other divisions have already followed the path to expansion. There’s nothing special about D-1 football in this regard.

    No personal disrespect intended here, but your argument boils down to little more than “I believe they can do better than that”. I’ve said this many times to other playoff advocates – you’re a reasonable person, and if you were calling the shots I wouldn’t worry. But you aren’t. So I do.


  28. Sam

    Senator, I read and understood that point every time you stated it. I just don’t agree with it. It is like: I will not learn to swim because a shark might eat me, or I will never drive a car because I may run a stop sign and die in an accident…..the list could go on and on. Not taking a positive action because you, or someone else, might do something silly later is simply not a reasonable justification for not taking action. I wouldn’t care if they passed a 4 or 8 team playoff with a stipulation that it can never be increased above that number.

    No need debating it further, we obviously see this “obstacle” differently. I confess I do not think that is a real problem, but someone on the committee feels differently. I personally think it is another trumped up reason to not give the fans what they want while letting the sacred cows keep their power base. I just don’t find this a credible argument. Enjoyed the exchange, and like the blog a lot….lots of good info.