Postseasonal food for thought

Damn, if Chris Brown hasn’t nailed the essence of the whole BCS vs. playoffs debate with this excellent post at his Smart Football blog.  Chris, who prefers a playoff over the BCS status quo, says this about what you get with a playoff:

… But the advantage the playoff gives you is not anything metaphysically correct. It probably does not crown the best team. And it does not reward the best season (sorry Utah).

It merely gives you relative certitude. It’s not perfect — some clunker teams can be crowned, some historically great teams will get the relative shaft — but, before the season, during the season, and in the playoffs, everyone knows what it takes to be the champion: you must get into the playoffs, and you must win every game once you’re there. The Patriots couldn’t lobby for votes, they couldn’t say that they got jerked around, and they even couldn’t say that they didn’t get their chance. They played and they lost. They were probably better, they might only have had a bad day, but hey, you knew what you were getting into.

Which is really the issue here. No one has any idea what being “National Champion” ought to mean — especially in college football where you have over a hundred D-1 programs and no team can come close to playing all the others. A playoff would simply lay some ground rules people could follow. As it stands, without a playoff, everyone may mount their high horse and argue past each other.

That’s really it in a nutshell, isn’t it?  For some, the uncertainty we’ve got now is a bug, for some it’s a feature, but that’s really what the debate is over.  Unless you’re one of those “is the cure worse than the disease?” folks like me.

Speaking of which, Chris’ reasoning gets back to my main concern.  Any D-1 playoff proposal which retains an element of subjectivity in how the participants are selected doesn’t eliminate uncertainty about how a school qualifies for the big dance.  Which means that the debate will continue to rage.  Which in turn means that the pressure to expand the postseason will continue to be there (and easier to comply with, since a playoff structure will be in place).

Money aside, that’s why March Madness is the 64-school monster it is today.  Because if you can’t come up with an objective standard, what you’re left with doing out of some sense of fairness is casting a wider and wider net to make sure you’re not leaving a deserving participant out of the postseason.  The resulting downside is that the postseason enlarges at the expense of the regular season until you get to a point where the latter is merely serving as a delivery system for seeding the latter.

That’s why the people I don’t get in this debate are the ones who, on the one hand, rage against the unfairness of the current set-up because matters aren’t “settled on the field”, but in the next breath are more than comfortable with a playoff format that uses the BCS formula or the polls to select some or all of the participants.

In my mind, if you want to structure a playoff that is stable for the long haul and avoids that risk, the best approach is one based on purely objective standards:  a conference-champions only format, or a tourney comprised of the schools with the best eight won-loss records in D-1, for example.  Granted, there would have to be some judicious tweaking of conferences and regular season scheduling to make this viable, but the end product would be far more likely to have little negative impact on the regular season, which is what makes college football special.

In the absence of that, I prefer the devil we know, folks.


UPDATE: Mergz provides some valuable perspective on the BCS title game here.  LOL.  How true.


UPDATE #2: And don’t miss statistician Bill James’ take on what’s wrong with the BCS.  (h/t Doc Saturday)


UPDATE #3: More rationality at Rocky Top Talk. (h/t Smart Football)


Filed under BCS/Playoffs, The Blogosphere

24 responses to “Postseasonal food for thought

  1. MJ

    Or, put another way, the argument is about a preference of one form of postseason entertainment versus another… usually from people who are not actually paying a dime to watch the games.


  2. sUGArdaddy

    You’re exactly right, Senator, but we smart people in power to find the ‘best’ way, not just another way. That’s why I propose a 4 team playoff. You have to be a conference champion, and I’d use a committee with the BCS as a guide, much like the RPI. I think most years, w/ those rules in place, we’d get 2 pretty good matchups in the semis with teams that have a claim to be there.

    But…we’ve got to get all the conferences on the same page. We can’t have conferences determining champions different ways. And we’ve got to figure out where to play those games. I still contend that neutral site playoff games would be deadly to the sport, played in front of half-empty stadiums.


  3. Richt-Flair

    You’re right. Let’s not have playoffs in any sports. MLB, NFL, March Madness and baseball. What’s the point?


  4. Ed

    There’s a lot to the “conference champs only” argument that people throw out there that doesn’t get examined – it’s complex, just like any other aspect of the overall argument. Sure it would place a premium on winning your conference, but that’s already there with automatic BCS berths. The biggest problems it doesn’t solve are

    1) what about top teams that aren’t conference champs?
    2) what about conferences that have co-champions?
    3) what about non-BCS conferences?
    4) what about the two BCS conferences whose champs get left out every year?
    5) what about the independents, specifically Notre Dame?

    Here’s what we’re looking at with a Top-4, conference champs only setup…

    1998: #1 Tennessee v #5 UCLA, #2 Florida St v #4 Ohio St
    Issue 1: the Big12 is left out, since #3 Kansas St wasn’t champ & Texas A&M was #6
    Issue 2: undefeated Tulane is left out
    Issue 3: what about the co-champs of the Big10, Wisconsin & Michigan?
    Issue 4: the BigEast are left out too

    1999: #1 Florida St v #4 Alabama, #2 VA Tech v #3 Nebraska
    Issue 1: why make the undefeated Seminoles & Hokies play another game?
    Issue 2: undefeated Marshall is left out
    Issue 3: the Big10 and Pac10 are left out

    2000: #1 Oklahoma v #4 Washington, #2 Florida St v #3 Miami
    Issue 1: rematch – Miami beat Florida St in September
    Issue 2: Oregon and Oregon St were co-champs of the Pac10
    Issue 3: the SEC and Big10 are left out

    2001: #1 Miami v #8 Illinois, #3 Colorado v #4 Oregon
    Issue 1: you take #8 over #2 Nebraska, #5 Florida, #6 Tennessee, and #7 Texas
    Issue 2: the ACC and SEC are left out

    2002: #1 Miami v #4 USC, #2 Ohio State v #3 Georgia
    Issue 1: why make the undefeated Hurricanes and Buckeyes play another game?
    Issue 2: #5 and co-champion Iowa is left out, as is #6 and co-champion Washington St
    Issue 3: the ACC and Big12 are left out

    2003: #2 LSU v #7 Florida St, #3 USC v #4 Michigan
    Issue 1: the #1, #5, and #6 teams get left out
    Issue 2: Miami (OH), also with one loss, gets left out
    Issue 3: the Big12 and BigEast get left out

    2004: #1 USC v #8 VA Tech, #2 Oklahoma v #3 Auburn.
    Issue 1: #8 gets in over #4 Texas, #5 Cal, #6 undefeated Utah, and #7 Georgia
    Issue 2: the BigEast and Big10 are left out
    Issue 3: undefeated Boise St gets left out

    2005: #1 USC v #7 Georgia, #2 Texas v #3 Penn St
    Issue 1: #4 and co-champion Ohio St is left out
    Issue 2: Notre Dame doesn’t even have a shot
    Issue 3: why make the undefeated Trojans and Longhorns play another game?
    Issue 4: the ACC and BigEast are left out

    2006: #1 Ohio St v #6 Louisville, #2 Florida v #5 USC
    Issue 1: #3 Michigan gets left out and #4 LSU gets left out
    Issue 2: undefeated Boise St gets left out
    Issue 3: Co-champ Cal gets left out
    Issue 4: the Big12 and ACC are left out

    2007: #1 Ohio St v #4 Oklahoma, #2 LSU v #3 VA Tech
    Issue 1: rematch – LSU crushed VA Tech in September
    Issue 2: undefeated Hawaii gets left out
    Issue 3: the Pac10 and BigEast are left out

    2008: #1 Oklahoma v #8 Penn St, #2 Florida v #5 USC
    Issue 1: #3 Texas, #4 Alabama, and #7 Texas Tech are left out
    Issue 2: undefeated #6 Utah is left out
    Issue 3: undefeated #9 Boise St is left out
    Issue 4: the BigEast and ACC are left out

    Sure we’d have great semi-final matchups, but as we’ve seen clearly this year, it’s not about who gets included – it’s about who gets excluded. Too many issues every single year.

    Forcing all the conferences to conform, to whatever design, would solve some problems but it’s unrealistic – it takes away too much of their autonomy and they’re not gonna go for that. Either you include the conference champs and leave out some of the best teams, or you include just the best teams and leave out some of the conference champs – that’s the way it has to go. Conferences won’t go for their champs getting left out, so the best teams get the shaft.


  5. sUGArdaddy

    Pete Carroll & USC will be the biggest catalyst for making this happen. Sooner or later, the Pac 10 will get tired of getting its champion left out of the mix, but the computers are going to continue to punish them because of their weak conference. When you have to play 9 conference games each year, and 2 of them are against 2-10 Wash. St. and 0-12 Washington, that kills your computer ranking.

    Ed raises good points, but the answers are simply that the conferences must align themselves w/ some sort of similarity. Utah & Boise St. in the Pac-10 and Notre Dame in the Big 10. The Big East & Conference USA should join up to form a 12 team conference and we’d have 6 12-team leagues. That’s 72 teams that have a legitimate shot every year at a 4 team playoff. That’s only about 50 that don’t. They’d need to schedule better and get lucky. If Michigan was 10-2 this year w/ losses to Utah and Penn St., we’d see that Utes team much differently and they’d probably have gotten a shot at the ring.

    Conferences that get left out would still get a BCS bowl, which is a really big deal.


  6. Ed

    But that’s the thing, sUGArdaddy, saying that “the conferences must align themselves” is like saying that Congress must balance the budget, or that CEO’s must accept the same pay as normal workers, or that Florida fans must stop wearing jean shorts. Could it happen? Sure, but the chances are slimmer than an Olsen twin turned sideways.

    I realize that there was a ton of conference movement in the early years of the BCS. But that’s stopped, and most of the conferences (expecially the BCS conferences) are stable and aren’t changing anytime soon.

    (Sorry if I keep linking, Senator – it’s easier than typing over again. If it’s annoying, just let me know.)


  7. Dan

    Only thing that needs to done is to use the damn playoff system that NCAA uses for Div I-II-II.


  8. stick jackson

    Yes, yes. that’s it exactly, Senator. Rules and (especially) competition, not politics.

    That’s why going back in time to show that a playoff wouldn’t have produced the “best” champion in a given year is beside the point. I know the Patriots were the best team, and the Giants didn’t win their division. So what? That’s how the game played out.

    Everyone knew the deal going in. Which is why your point about the Patriots this years was pretty wide of the mark.

    I personally would have no problem with an 8-team field seeded like March Madness by a quasi-transparent committee. Anything other than the regional bias and corporate deal-cutting that drives the current process.


    • Everyone knew the deal going in. Which is why your point about the Patriots this years was pretty wide of the mark.

      Well, yes and no. I’m not questioning the legitimacy of the Giants as Super Bowl champs. As you say, everyone knew the deal going in.

      What I have a problem with is how the NFL structured the process that allowed the Giants to get to that spot. That’s a completely different issue, IMO.


  9. sUGArdaddy

    Don’t be so fast on the conference realignment, Ed. The Big 10 and Pac 10 are taking major hits in the media because of their softness. Getting shut out of MNC games will start to fuel the fires of making those conferences stronger.

    I don’t see why you can’t take the top 6 conference champions and #1 & #2 get first round byes. This year it would have OU & UF getting byes, w/ Boise St. @ USC & Penn St. @ Utah.

    I’m a huge regular season guy. I don’t want to take away from that. But for the life of me I can’t think how that would be bad for the regular season. You are highly rewarded for winning an elite conference w/ minimal losses. You are also rewarded for winning basically any BCS conference with minimal losses (i.e. 1 loss). And you are rewarded for going undefeated no matter what conference you’re in. On the flip side, you are not rewarded for winning crappy conferences with multiple losses (i.e. Va Tech & Cincinatti). Every year would be a little different, but let’s hope the powers that be get it all figured out.


  10. Ed

    Conference alignment doesn’t have much to do with whether or not the media likes you. It has to do with tradition, geography, other sports, and a host of other things. Plus there’s no monetary incentive for them to change – the Big10 is laughing all the way to the bank, since they’ll make over $20 million from putting two teams in BCS games this year. Might the conferences realign in the future? Sure, but not because of the BCS and certainly not because of the media.

    I’m not ragging on your system in particular – a 6-team playoff might be as good as any. But the point is that none of them are the perfect solution that people want them to be. They’re flawed, just as the BCS is.


  11. Tom

    So you don’t have a problem with the best team not being the champion, Stick? If the champion isn’t the best, then what are they? What good is a championship?

    Just because everyone agrees to a system doesn’t mean that system automatically or intrinsically is able to choose the best team. Everyone can agree that cheese eating should be part of the BCS, but that’s not gonna help us figure out who’s best.


  12. stick jackson

    The champion is the team that won on the field of competition. They are the best. All those teams that lost? They are not as good. So they are not the best.

    What’s that? One of the teams that lost is better than the team that won? Oh, OK then. Just tell me who is best and we won’t have to bother with the games.

    The logic of the “best” team pushes back to the pre-BCS system of just voting. In their collective wisdom, the voters will divine the “best” team. Except, as with the BCS, politics and money drove the process, not the noble search for the platonic ideal of bestness.


  13. sUGArdaddy

    But ESPN set the bar high when it comes to money. How much do you think a network would offer the Big 10 if Notre Dame were part of the package?


  14. Sorry, the Patriots were not the best team. Period.

    They barely beat the Giants in week 17 when they had everything to fight for and the Giants had NOTHING to fight for.

    When the game mattered, the Giants won.

    End of story.

    That’s the beauty of a playoff. There’s no legitimate argument. The Giants won. They are the champs. The Patriots lost.

    18 and 1 baby.


  15. kckd

    The Patriot argument is a dumb argument to make in my opinion. In college football, even a team as dominant as the Pats would have to play one game for it all where they might be matched up with someone who in comparison wasn’t deserving.

    Had the Pats lost to anyone in the SB, even the second best team, most would’ve felt the best team didn’t win.

    Arguing the Pats, you might as well argue playing the regular season and then picking a winner.


  16. kckd

    No. 1, I don’t really think you’ll ever see that happen in college football, if it does, it will be rare with an expanded playoff.

    This year, if any of the top 8 teams would’ve gone won three games in a playoff, they would’ve deserved it. And in general I think a four to eight team playoff in college football is not gonna give you a NY Giants type champion.

    Even that 64 team basketball one has not really produced a shocker champion since Villanova. And that was in 1985.


  17. Tom

    Muckbeast, it you define “the best” as the team that won the playoff, or won “when it counted”, then sure, the Giants were the best. But if you see “the best” as the team which had the best overall season, then from an objective standpoint there’s no way you can say the Giants were better than the Patriots. 18-1 is better than 14-6, any way you slice it. By your definition, “the best” is not the same as “the champion”, which is the whole problem – people obviously don’t want a “champion” in college football, they want to know who’s best. And though the BCS doesn’t determine that most years, a playoff wouldn’t either.


  18. JaxDawg

    I think at least 2 things need to happen

    1. A playoff system that is based on conference champions. you wn your conference your in then it`s Win or go home. …Join a conference if you want some respect Notre Dame HINT, HINT

    2. Re-align schedules so non conference games are only with BCS conference teams that are ranked. This might help solve the bickering about strength of schedule some. for example ,let the Boise States and the Utahs prove they belong by playing more than 1 SEC opponnent a year just because certain teams go undefeated does not mean they earned it all year USC `s last 4 games were against UNRANKED teams and yet they say they are the best team in the land? I don`t buy it.


  19. Hackerdog

    Realigning conferences and dictating strengthened schedules is akin to sitting around bitching about frogs not having wings. Sure it sucks, but it’s never going to change.