Thursday, December 27

In Defense of the Bowl System

It is officially the season of the outraged interloper in college football. Pundits from all corners of the sports journalism profession love to spend their holidays complaining about the game so many of us hold dear. Whether they have written about or discussed the game at any point during the season is irrelevant and it’s time for everyone to jump on their soapbox. Permit me a moment to climb atop mine.

At the end of the most surprising and remarkable year on record, many have claimed that the bowl matchups leave much to be desired and that playoff brackets are the only solution. Even my friends over at SI.com devoted a series of columns addressing this supposedly broken system. Several weeks ago, they stated that pretty much every college football fan in the nation can agree on at least one thing: The BCS needs a makeover. What followed was an online symposium on how to fix it. But I must beg the question, how broken is this system?

First of all, we do have a playoff. It is a one game, two team playoff for which all I-A teams are eligible. As many people have pointed out, no matter where you draw the line, someone will gripe about their relative worth, saying they deserved to be above the cut line. The greater the number of teams included in a playoff, the more teams can reasonably argue that they belong. The BCS is now ten years old. In those ten years, there has been one and only one team that had a legitimate gripe at their exclusion. In 2004, Auburn went undefeated and finished third. Every other team that was “shut out” lost a game somewhere along the way. If they wanted to point fingers, honest people would have to start with themselves. Did Auburn “get screwed”? Probably. One can only assume they would have fared better against USC than Oklahoma did. But at least their fans didn’t have to sit through Ashlee Simpson’s halftime performance. Small consolation, I know. Adding even two more teams to the mix makes choosing the participants that much more complicated. If there were four this year, who would the other two be? Virginia Tech, USC, Georgia, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Kansas…? You get my point.

Due to its remarkable nature, this season should not be used to make any long-term decisions. That said, didn’t the BCS get it right? Does anyone really have a clear case ahead of the two teams we ended up with? Ohio State lost by one score to an (ahem) BCS bowl-bound team. LSU lost two games in triple overtime and has some pretty darn good wins on their resume. An argument for any other team would require some rather tortured logic.

Both SI.com and ESPN.com had a users “pickoff” where they set up playoff brackets and had people choose who would win hypothetical games. On SI.com, USC defeated Oklahoma. ESPN had the Sooners winning. Let’s say that this is what actually occurred. USC would have become the only team in college football history to win a national championship despite having lost a game at home in which they were favored by 42 points. Oklahoma's resume is hardly championship caliber either. My point is that allowing more teams a crack at ultimate victory is a fundamental change to a sport that has been awarding titles for over 100 years. To institute a playoff with more than two teams means that we are no longer awarding the title to the team that has had the best season, but rather the one that has had a good enough season and is playing the best at the end of the year. Like them or not (and most of you don’t like them), USC is not a title-worthy team. Not according to what the college football national title has meant for the last century. We’ll come back to this point.

In the course of my travels, I’ve met fans from 24 different I-A programs. I’ve been able to note some overarching trends. Regarding the prospect of playoffs, every single person I spoke with aged 28 and under avowed that “we need a playoff.” Fans 29 and older were split, with roughly 70% of them in favor of the current system and 30% demanding playoffs. (Note: At Auburn, it was pretty much 100% playoffs for obvious reasons.) What can we glean from this? Jon from Tennessee pointed out that when the BCS came into existence, people from the younger group were 18 at the oldest. They have essentially been raised in the era of the BCS. However, they’ve also been raised in the era of outraged interlopers. Have they been brought up as frustrated, tortured fans, or has the media persuaded them to be frustrated? Have they really given the concept proper consideration or are they simply repeating what Skip Bayless and Michael Wilbon have told them? It’s a chicken or egg thing to be sure.

A comment I heard frequently from pro-playoff fans was, “Look at the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s great! Who doesn’t think a football tournament would be great?” Certainly, a bracket full of football teams would be exciting. However, no one ever seem to mention the flip side to that coin. What about the basketball regular season? It’s on right now. Are you watching it? Does any of it matter? Compared to say, Rutgers/South Florida? Are you going to watch the Rutgers/South Florida basketball game this year? March Madness gives us all three weeks of excitement and makes Vegas a fortune. But its impact on the regular season cannot be underestimated. I was at LSU/Virginia Tech in Week 2. If we had an eight-team playoff, that game wouldn’t have really mattered. With the BCS, it served as the Hokies’ elimination. You don’t think that added to the excitement level?

What of the Northwesterns, Arizona States, and South Carolinas? Let’s be realistic. These teams will rarely, if ever make a playoff slate of 16 teams. A bowl game is their goal, and if they somehow make it to New Years Day, they’ve had a heckuva season. With a playoff tournament, the lower-tiered bowls would not only lose the small level of relevance they currently hold, the money for them would shrink to the point where we would lose them. Northwestern would have little to play for and their program would likely dry up. If you believe people would still tune in for bowl matchups, my counterpoint to you would be the NIT. It is completely ignored – a consolation game relevant to no one.

I close by simply stating, this is college football. It is different. Every game matters. It’s the difference that makes it the greatest sport on the planet. With even a four team playoff, Ohio State vs Michigan last year would have been just another rivalry game. Kansas vs Missouri this year would have merely been another border war. Ho hum. Interlopers may not understand that it is precisely what differentiates this sport from the others that makes it so incredible. But that’s because they don’t watch it. Not like we do.

Finally, check out this recent article from the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein in support of the same argument.

Please feel free to refute, discuss, and argue in the comments section.

5 comments:

HudiBlitz said...

I agree with you almost point-for-point, Andrew. A playoff would greatly damage the sport for about 80% of 1-A programs. You’d have about eight programs that would qualify for the tournament every single year with another ten to twenty programs rotating in and out of the other eight berths. The remaining programs, the vast majority of programs, would become the football equivalent of Northwestern basketball. As a Northwestern fan, let me assure you that it is infinitely more fun to root for the football team—seeing it play meaningful regular season games with the possible reward of going to a bowl game—than it is to root for the basketball team. Of course, the outraged interlopers and casual fans don’t understand that.

thdro said...

You articulated some points very well. However, I disagree with your conclusion. I don't like how one game can ruin a season for one team but not for another. I also don't think that a four to eight team playoff can ruin a regular season like it does for basketball. Basketball has 30+ games while football only has about a dozen. Losing only one game in college football does not make you a lock for a top eight finish. If anything, losing one game gives fans continued hope to watch the rest of the season. Who wants to watch the rest of a season hoping for the motor city bowl?

HudiBlitz said...

"Who wants to watch the rest of a season hoping for the motor city bowl?"

You mean besides every fan of every team which didn't make a bowl game?

Anonymous said...

"First of all, we do have a playoff. It is a one game, two team playoff for which all I-A teams are eligible."

Please explain to me how a two-loss team playing for the national title while an undefeated team does not exemplifies any sort of respectable "playoff."

College football's postseason is the biggest joke in sports. Does anybody even remember who won the national championship two and-a-half months ago?

Reed said...

So you're saying that Hawaii deserved their shot? The same Hawaii team whose signature win was at home over 4-9 Washington off of a freak bounce at the end of regulation? Please. This is college football. There are 119 teams and only 12 games. Style points have to count for something, even if you include as many as 16 teams. In a 16 team playoff, Hawaii still hadn't earned a spot in my book.

I could make a pretty strong case that college basketball's postseason is a bigger joke than college football's, not to mention the NHL or pro football. Again, college football has always been judged by a team's body of work, not merely who's playing the best at the end of the season. That is the unacknowledged issue whenever anybody talks about this playoffs issue. It must be acknowledged. It is the thing that makes each week so compelling. To me, that's easily worth the minor end-of-season ambiguity we have to deal with (which, again, only really mattered once since the BCS's inception).

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