Category Archives: BCS/Playoffs

The meaning of meaningless

I’ve got a follow up to my posts last week about the inevitability of postseason expansion.  Some of the comments I read in response harped on how the regular season is already meaningless for many football teams, so it’s irrelevant to argue that a larger playoff will render college football’s regular season less meaningful.

I say this with a total lack of snark:  I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

Yes, the typical Sun Belt team enters each season with vastly different hopes and goals than Alabama does.  And that couldn’t be less relevant to the point I made.

What is relevant is the example set by Louisville’s loss to Houston last week.  In the BCS world, of course, that game wouldn’t have had an impact on the championship picture because Petrino’s team would have already played its way out.  It was a relevant game in a four-team playoff setting.  In a run towards an eight-team playoff, it would have left Louisville gasping for air and hoping for a little help.  In a sixteen-team playoff world, it wouldn’t have had the slightest impact on Louisville’s playoff hopes.

When I talk about playoff expansion devaluing the regular season, that’s exactly what I mean.  Troy entering the top 25 isn’t.

The reason this matters to me and should matter to you is because of one simple matter.  There is less parity in college football than in any other major organized team sport in America.  The professional leagues have drafts and salary caps that serve to restrain talent accumulation.  Men’s collegiate basketball teams are relatively small in size; that, plus the one-and-done rule serve to spread the talent around, although not to the extent you see in the pros (because there are a lot more college basketball teams than NBA squads).

But college football, with its huge resources gap between the haves and have-nots, its recruiting wars and its 85-scholarship rosters, is structured in a completely different way from the rest.  The absence of parity is a big deal.  That’s why we don’t care about a MAC team’s chances to win the national title.  It’s a waste of time to be concerned.  It’s why college football, more than any other organized sport, should be focused on a playoff format that is constructed to deliver its very best teams, and those teams only, in a national playoff setting.  It’s also why comparing the size of CFB’s postseason field relative to the total number of participating teams to those in other sports is a complete red herring.

The reality is in any given college football season there are not very many teams worthy of playing for the national championship.  Outside of 2007, I can’t point to a year in the BCS era where there were more than five or six who legitimately deserved to be included in the discussion, and in many of those years, it was a stretch to get past four, or even to four.

That’s why playoff expansion shouldn’t be welcomed.  In that regard, college football isn’t on a level playing field and hasn’t ever been.  All the brackets and Cinderellas of the world won’t change that, either.

If you’re motivated by a desire to see more teams have a chance to win it all, expanding the playoffs isn’t the answer.  Sharply reducing the number of scholarships a D-1 football program can offer is.  The irony is that when postseason expansion really gets rolling and college football teams face a sixteen or seventeen-game season on a routine basis, you’ll hear coaches demanding larger scholarship limits.  The more things change…

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Why I continue to despair of the rebranding

May 11, 2012:

Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany has been at the forefront of talks to bring a playoff of some sort to college football for quite some time now, but he doesn’t believe that teams that don’t win their division should be included in a four team playoff.

”I don’t have a lot of regard for that team. I certainly wouldn’t have as much regard for that team as I would for someone who played nine conference games in a tough conference and played a couple out-of-conference games on the road against really good opponents. If a poll doesn’t honor those teams and they’re conference champions, I do.” Delany told the Associated Press.

October 14, 2016:

Delany thinks it’s “far too early” to talk about the potential for two Big Ten teams to make the Playoff.

“We have two years of experience, and I think champions have always been a powerful tiebreaker,” Delany told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. “For a non-champion to be included in the field, that non-champion would have to be unequivocally better. Which means, to me, that’s a very high bar. That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen.

“But with teams with similar records and similar resumes, a conference championship is the tiebreaker. Is it impossible? No, because we’re looking for the four best teams.”

Delany said that, during the creation of the Playoff model, it was always very important to stakeholders that a conference championship carry great weight.

“So a conference championship would win most tiebreakers — unless it’s crystal clear,” he said.

November 16, 2016:

How does Delany square those remarks with Ohio State today? Delany said it’s up to the CFP Selection Committee to decide and he won’t say now or later if he thinks the Buckeyes deserve to go as a non-Big Ten champion.

“The debate was the four best teams without regard to anything else, or the four best champions,” Delany said. “Really, we ended up with a compromise — the four best teams but taking into consideration things like strength of schedule and conference championships won. The only way anybody goes as a non-champion or an independent is really if they do awfully well. We’ll see. There’s a lot of football left to be played.”

So, Delany reveals himself to be a full-fledged adherent of the Herbstreit Doctrine, which should come as no great surprise.  It certainly doesn’t to me, anyway.

But it does serve as a good jumping off point to organize my thoughts on why I believe further postseason expansion for college football is inevitable, and that it’s highly unlikely the people running the sport will settle at eight teams for good.  Here’s why:

  1. The history of collegiate and professional sports in America suggests one inexorable trend:  playoffs always expand.  That they do so isn’t due to some never-ending search to refine excellence.  They grow because there’s more money to do so.  They only stop growing when the money cuts off, as we saw when the NCAA sought to expand the men’s basketball tourney to 96 teams but couldn’t find a willing broadcast partner to foot the bill.
  2. College football has been unique for most of our lifetimes in resisting that path due to two historical anomalies, its strong regional appeal and the bowls.  In its short existence, the four-team playoff has weakened the effect of both.  Bowls are now clearly in a subservient position to the semi-finals and national championship game.  The Big 12’s fumbling around with conference expansion and its clumsy adaptation of a championship game after a round-robin regular season is only the most obvious example of how the sport’s focus has shifted to a more national orientation.  An eight-team playoff will likely deal a mortal blow to the big bowl games, especially if the move is made to play the quarterfinals on the campuses of the higher seeds, and accelerate the shift away from regionalism.  As a result of that, going from eight to sixteen in the playoff field will turn out to be an easier move than going from four to eight.
  3. Also greasing the skids for expansion is college football’s playoff structure.  Conference champions are decided on an objective basis.  Win your division and you play for the conference title.  However, the CFP field is filtered through a selection committee that, for all its highfalutin claims of following certain performance standards, acts in a subjective manner to determine the postseason participants.  That’s not going to change, either, as Jim Delany’s evolving standards demonstrate.  The power conference guys love subjectivity when it suits them.  But they also hate it when they’re in the conference on the outside looking in.  The solution to make them all happy is pretty obvious.  It’s also easier when the standards are as amorphous as they are and will continue to be.  After all, who among us doesn’t love a good number eight versus number nine debate on SportsCenter?
  4. Coaches aren’t going to complain about expansion, because in their hearts they know Jim Boeheim is right.  Let’s face it — if we’d had a sixteen-team playoff for the past 20 years, Mark Richt would still be coaching in Athens today.  A second reason coaches at the power schools won’t complain is because they’ll likely use expansion as an excuse to lobby for an increase in the number of scholarship players a program can enroll.
  5. Those of you who continue to insist that there’s some kind of natural barrier when college football hits an eight-team field are missing something. (NFL percentages?  Really?) You don’t think the way the people running the sport think.  Jim Delany is already used to advocating for expanded playoffs in other sports.  He’s come on late to college football for one reason, and one reason only.  Regular season broadcast revenue is the golden goose Delany and his peers don’t want to kill.  Any future playoff growth will be done with an eye towards calibrating the sweet spot where the conferences maximize postseason revenue without harming what they’re already raking in during the regular season.  That’s the only consideration that will be in play.  I don’t know about you, but I take little comfort in those people being skilled enough to balance those interests.  More likely is that they’ll cross a tipping point without realizing they’ve done so until it’s too late, and from there, it’ll be all about whatever the playoff market will bear.

I don’t write any of that with some savage hope of vindication in mind.  Quite the contrary, I fervently wish to be wrong about all of it.  But as someone who watched the NCAA steadily dilute the relevancy of the men’s college basketball regular season over the years by growing March Madness eight-fold, it’s impossible for me to discount the same people doing exactly the same thing with college football.  Some people will no doubt welcome it.  I mock brackets, but there’s no denying their popularity.

It won’t be a happy day for me, though.  I feel more than ever that I’m living on borrowed time in my relationship with the sport I love.  If I get five more good years out of it, I suppose I’ll take it gratefully.

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If four is good and eight is great, what would sixteen be?

Well, gosh darn it, who among us could have seen this coming?

C’mon, man, what about pride?  You gotta give the Gus Bus some kind of fuel to run on.

Actually this was coming a week ago, as everywhere you turned in the media — including Finebaum’s employer, by the way — you heard the Georgia-Auburn game described not as the next installment of the South’s Oldest Rivalry, but as Auburn’s next stepping stone in its march towards making the CFP.  That narrative worked out well.  Who needs regional rivalries when you’ve got a selection committee bringing the excitement?

The bigger picture isn’t any more attractive.  Just ask Stewart Mandel.

I’ve long believed, and still do, that an eight-team playoff would severely harm the regular season. But four teams was such a relatively modest change I figured it would have only a minimal negative effect, if any. And the first two years bore that out. If anything, it made those regular seasons more compelling.

But the muted impact of last weekend’s upsets was definitely vindication for the old BCS proponents/playoff opponents. I’ve found myself thinking back this week to Nov. 17, 2012, when No. 1 Kansas State (against Baylor) and No. 2 Oregon (against Stanford) both lost on the same night, turning the BCS title race on its head. No. 3 Notre Dame went from possible championship game snub to lone remaining undefeated team. K-State and Oregon were essentially done.

Compare that level of upheaval to the much quieter aftermath of Nov. 12, 2016, when No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Washington all lost, and only the Huskies suffered even mild consequences.

But this is the trade-off we accepted by expanding the field to four. Were this the BCS, the No. 5 and 6 teams from last week, Ohio State and Louisville, would move up to Nos. 2 and 3, no questions asked. And if Alabama and Ohio State won out, they would meet in the BCS championship game, albeit with no shortage of hand wringing if the Buckeyes don’t win their division.

But also under that scenario, the only remaining games with national title implications would be the Iron Bowl, the SEC title game and Michigan-Ohio State. As it is, we’ll also be paying close attention to any games involving Clemson, Washington, Louisville, Wisconsin and Penn State, including likely all four conference title games.

If anything, the field widened, not narrowed last weekend.

And we all know there’s only one way to fix a widened field.  Brackets, baby!

Make college football great again.

I, for one, welcome our new Cinderella stories overlords.

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Every time Bill Hancock speaks…

… an angel cringes.

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Rest easy.

Before you dismiss this suggestion entirely out of hand (rivalry game!), remember that Nick Saban’s coached in the NFL before.

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Finally, the regular season starts being meaningful.

Ranking day.  I think I’ll go back to bed, thanks.

Wake me when it’s over, ESPN.  As in December.

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Filed under BCS/Playoffs, ESPN Is The Devil

“… but I don’t see anyone beating Alabama in the regular season.”

I have no idea if Finebaum’s right about that, but check out Sagarin’s ratings today.  There are four SEC West teams in his top ten, but the gap between #1 Alabama and #7 Auburn is wider than the gap between Auburn and #32 TCU.

‘Bama has already beaten four top 30 teams.  If the Tide rolls Auburn and LSU, that would make six. (Throw in the SECCG, and that’ll likely make seven.)  No other D-1 school has more than two such wins.  I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty convincing case for the best team in the country to me.

Purely as an intellectual exercise, what would be the point of putting Alabama through an eight-team playoff?  Besides giving college football the opportunity to make more money and some folks a chance to scratch their Cinderella itch, that is…

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