July 4, 2012

This Is Not a Playoff

While the nation was focused on the Supreme Court and the fate of health care reform last week, another long simmering conflict came to a sort of resolution. As Fletch would say, it’s a smaller story, but I’m sure you were following it.

I’m speaking, of course, about the death of the Bowl Championship Series and the announcement of a college football “playoff,” to kick off in 2014:
Conference commissioners met with an oversight committee of university presidents and chancellors here Tuesday to approve the four-team seeded playoff, consisting of two semifinal games in bowls and a national championship game that will be put up for bid.

* * *

And the presidents endorsed the idea of a selection committee for the playoff teams, which would end the combination of computer and human polls that have been lightening rods for criticism since the BCS began.

* * *

The committee will rank playoff teams based on won-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head and if a team is conference champion.
I put “playoff” in scare quotes because, whatever this four-team arrangement is (and “better than the BCS” is probably one of them), it is not a real playoff or even a facsimile of one. It’s a small invitational tournament, nothing more. Perhaps that’s why, at the end of the day, there still will not be a true NCAA-sanctioned champion in big time college football.

In my mind, a key feature of any playoff system are objective criteria for selection of at least some of the participants, arranged in such a way that everybody who starts the season has a path to participation. The NCAA college basketball tournaments do that, but setting aside automatic bids for teams that win conference championships. A selection committee rounds out the field, but every team starts the season with a way into the tournament. If they don’t make it, they’ve got nobody to blame but themselves.

That allows for smaller teams, underdogs and such, to have as much a chance to win the prize as anybody else. That’s the essence of a true playoff. This arrangement doesn’t do that, as Stewart Mandel admits:
Not to be condescending, but of all the reasons college football fans have clamored for a playoff, fairness to the little guy was generally pretty low on the list. I've never sensed the same love affair with Cinderella in football as there is with March Madness. If anything, it's quite the opposite, as evidenced by how Boise State unwittingly became a national villain two years ago when pundits had the audacity to consider the Broncos a national title contender. First and foremost, people want to see a more conclusive ending to the season, which they're going to get. They want to see at least two more exciting, high-stakes games between the nation's best teams. They want to see Ohio State play Alabama or Florida play Texas. They don't want to see USC play Louisiana Tech in the Southwest Regional semifinal.
In other words, it’s not about the best teams competing, it’s about the most popular very good teams that can draw fans and TV audiences playing. That’s a fine principle for arranging an invitational tournament – see all the early season basketball tournaments, for instance – but it’s not a playoff.

Mandel gives the game away in another column, in which he tries to look at the 2011 season and figure out who would have wound up in the big six bowls (the selection committee will select the 12 teams that participate, as well as the 4 “playoff” teams). That field includes ACC champion Clemson, but not Big East Champion WVU. Remember, friends, that WVU embarrassed Clemson in the Orange Bowl last year, 70-33. Heaven forbid Louisiana Tech had the chance to do that to LSU.

Look, I’m not wedded to the idea of a playoff in big time college football. The bowl apparatus and tradition of settling things by consensus makes it unique. And let’s face it, fans like nothing better than a good argument about which team is better, which college football fuels more than any other American sport.

Let’s just not fool anyone into thinking that this new four-team shindig actually changes anything. Come 2014, the national championship will still be mythical and still be the result of informed opinion about who’s better than who. It’ll just work a little different and have a different name. And it will still be unlike anything else in American sports.

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