Wednesday, January 7

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

It feels like so many aspects of college football have been changing lately. It's been over a year since I finished my big journey, and in that time, we've become acquainted with so many new names, teams, and rules. A few weeks ago, the folks from Stone Station made their annual trek to Salem, VA for the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. In 2007, even though my itinerary was complete, I decided to brave the winter weather and make an extra road trip to Virginia at their invitation. Obviously, that would have been darn near impossible from Buenos Aires this season. I chose to only be there in spirit.
Hmmmm. These teams look familiar.

At Auburn, the richest boosters finally got rid of Tommy Tuberville, and not because he nearly trampled me at the Iron Bowl. Apparently, Tommy never licked the right boots in Auburn, but as the trees at Toomer's Corner were loaded with toilet paper, no one in attentance could have imagined that he'd be gone a year later.
Tommy's second-to-last Iron Bowl

Meanwhile, across the nation, everyone from Barack Obama to the lowliest intern at ESPN has been weighing in on whether we need a playoff. Blah blah blah. So maybe things haven't changed so much. Actually, my opinion has been altered a bit since I wrote about the topic last time, partly due to my interview with Lloyd Carr. His main point - right now, we're deciding a champion, but not letting it be decided by what happens on the field. And that's pretty right, especially to fans who today happen to be in Austin and South Central.

Still, I can't help but be filled with uneasy trepidation about the topic. When at Wisconsin, I interviewed a man named Ken Simmons who'd played for the Badgers as a walk-on. He'd been a part of the team during their only winning season between 1963 and 1981 when they managed a 7-4 record in 1974. Decades later, he was able to see his son walk on and a daughter play for the softball team. He continues to work with the athletic department. Like many veterans of the game, he held a long perspective on things. The last thing he said to me in our interview was "Look at why there is the passion there is for college football. You don’t want to change that a whole lot. I think that’s why they’re moving as slowly as they are."
Not Ken Simmons

Over at, Stewart Mandel recently recounted the story of his first trip to the Rose Bowl. It was a visceral reminder of mine two years later. That's a tale I've planned to tell in this space for a while now. I hope to share it soon. Needless to say, it was one of the highlights of my life. The point is, so many of the people who offer their expert opinion on bowls, playoffs, and championships don't really know anything about college football. It's not the NFL. And in fact, that's a big part of why we like it.

Clearly the BCS isn't working. We were told it would provide a definitive answer on the National Championship. Like many newfangled doo-dads, it failed to deliver on its promises, but we all should have known they were too good to be true. Now fans are left with unattainable expectations. One day, the NCAA will institute a playoff. It is inevitable in the long run. But since they have totally botched the BCS since its inception, do we have any faith in the idea that they won't completely botch a playoff, too? The BCS is terrible, but it's still better than a wrong playoff would be. 16 teams? Welcome to the NFL minor league. As Ken said, if they're not careful, they could ruin the game completely. With ESPN and Fox having as much control as they do, it's more fragile than you think. Besides, if the NCAA isn't going to address the issue of cupcake non-conference scheduling, then I don't trust them to tackle this with the good of the game in mind either.

When you see the games live and in person, you catch a lot more than you can over TV. That's just the way it is. It's how I was able to identify Ohio State's weaknesses on defense just days before Illinois exploited them last year. But when you can't see the games at all, it's like you're watching everything underwater, depending on blogs and youtubes and choppy Slingbox connections to capture the moments for you. You're that much farther removed. That's how this season has been for me. Honestly, I miss Saturday. And whatever changes occurred were far away. With Michigan this year, maybe it was for the best. But it's still my favorite sport, the game I can't get enough of. It's been hard not to be close to it after my year "on the ground." But with a National Championship(ish?) game to be played tonight, let's just pause a second to remember how special it is. No amount of controversy, even it comes via executive signing statement from the White House, can trample that.


Joe said...

Part of the problem with the BCS is that you're trying to identify the best teams after they've played only 11-13 games. Plus, elite teams from different conferences rarely have common opponents.

How about a playoff with the 11 conference winners and five at large teams? Sure, maybe some of the gotta-win-every-week-or-else intensity goes down, but only five at large spots would still keep a heck of a lot of interest, no?

With the BCS there is a playoff, it's just that it only includes two teams. That leaves far too many teams claiming superiority and no way to prove themselves.

In addition, teams like Utah this year (with a reasonably strong schedule) have virtually no chance because they are not in a BCS conference. Maybe if they'd started the season ranked highly, but they weren't, so tough luck for them.

Reed said...

Joe, I think the big problem is that after, as you say 11-13 games, we don't know how good these teams really are sometimes. That is a product of the decline in competitive scheduling more than anything else. Just taking Michigan as an example, they used to regularly play Florida State, Miami, Virginia, Colorado, and strong teams from the Pac Ten. This year, it was Notre Dame, Utah, Toledo, and Eastern Michigan. And it was considered laudable compared to the majority of BCS teams. The NCAA is more to blame with this than anyone. Now that teams can play a I-AA team every year, most of them are doing it and finding other cupcakes wherever they can. (Bill Snyder also deserves a significant portion of the blame here, of course). I believe this is a fixable problem if enough monetary incentive is put behind it. How to do that - tough question because right now they rake in so much dough by playing Chattanooga Tech...

I am dead-set against any 16-team playoff. In fact, I think 8 is far too many. No matter where they set the bar, teams will claim they're left out (as they always do in hoops). As you said, the playoff itself would keep a heck of a lot of interest, but looking at another NCAA postseason with a heck of a lot of interest, college basketball, one can definitely argue that its regular season doesn't hold much interest, even for the most die-hard fans (when compared to the median college football regular season fan).

I do wonder if Utah was last year (with no legitimate "national title" contenders to be found), would they have gotten their chance? Unfortunately for them, their big non-conference win was Michigan's worst team since the 1930s and the game was really close. Had they taken out, say, a Missouri, would they have been better off? Style points count in this game, and never seemed too flashy until Jan 2.

The main thing is, it used to be OK for some ambiguity to exist and to share titles or let the thing be mythical. Thanks to the BCS, we're told that those days are behind us (especially since the coaches are not allowed to vote their own choice in the matter - which is ludicrous). Of course, they're not.

Rob said...

Reed, great post. As usual - top notch writing. And I agree with your statement that the BCS isn't working, and I agree that it did not deliver what was promised. But that is where my agreement with you ends. That should come as no surprise. You and I have had this playoff debate for several seasons. I suspect we will continue to have it. Here are my thoughts:

Crowning a definitive champion is not an "unattainable expectation." Its an absolute requirement toward assuring the legitimacy of this sport. College football has changed over the years, and we need to respond. This is an undeniable fact. How has it changed? First, so much more parity exists between conferences then what existed in previous decades. In decades past, how often did you have teams like Utah going 12-0 in 2 out of 4 seasons, or teams like Fresno State, Boise State, and all these other "BCS Busters" show up to play such competitive ball season after season. Now more then ever, any given team can show up and upset a traditional elite program (i.e. Michigan or Ohio State), or a modern-day darling (i.e. Florida). Second, college football has been adversely affected by the media. The likes of ESPN, ABC, and FOX rule the game, and have so much influence. They have corrupted the games' virtues. Their effects are felt not only on the current BCS system, but in the hearts and minds of those voting. Only a system that allows the players to battle it out on the field toward crowing a new champion will balance the growth and changes of this sport, and to counteract the media’s power and influence. The game cannot exist the way it did in the 1960's, 70', 80's, and 90's.

So what can we do? Do we ignore the idea of a playoff and keep the current system as you propose, no mater how destructive it is to the game. No matter how flawed and unjust? Or do we implement an alternative approach? I say if the system is flawed, or if it hurts the game, the idea of keeping it is untenable. And there are only two alternatives.

The first alternative is to banish the BCS and go back to the way it was pre-1998. Obviously, this alternative would be an appropriate course of action if the powers-that-be in NCAAF decided to just give up on the notion that we need a national champion. While I would not be happy with this decision, at least we would shift NCAAF emphasis toward the truest traditional notions of college football and stop obsessing over determining who is the best. College football would then morph back into emphasizing who is the best in a conference-by-conference basis. Co-champions would take place more frequently, but it wouldn’t matter because a conscious decision would have been made to shift focus away from determining a national champion. Its fair to the players, its fair to ALL the conferences, and its fair to the fans.

However, if its decided that a national champion must be crowned, the second alternative is a playoff. Play it off on the field! Where there is a will, there is way. Start the season a week earlier, eliminate a non-conference game, do what needs to be done. Warning to the conferences = there is a hell of an opportunity to make some serious money with a playoff system. And warning to the fans = it would be pretty damn fun to watch...

Both of these options are superior to the current BCS system.

I also disagree with your statement that since the NCAA totally botched the BCS, that we should deduce they will botch an attempt at a real, legitimate playoff. There is no basis for that. That’s just analogous to saying we screwed it up once, so we might as well just quit and live with our mistakes because we are going to keep screwing up anyways. No way! Thats not the spirit we need! And so what if a perfect playoff is not achieved from the start. It would be far more workable and exciting then a computer generated cluster-F like the BCS system. If one can rationalize tweaking the BCS system, what is wrong with tweaking a more workable playoff system over time.

And as for the age-old retort that a playoff will tarnish the heart-and-soul of traditional college football, and the importance of winning each and every game, do not forget who won the national championship last year in our current system = a 2 loss LSU team from the ESPN beloved SEC conference.

Putting aside my diatribe, take a step back for a moment and look at what has happened to college football in recent years. I do not know how most people feel, but ever since the game we love was placed in the grimy hands of the BCS system, the play on the field has had to share center stage with all the controversy and all the nonsense that comes with this system. Instead of talking about the world’s best student athletes, and the heroic stories of battles won and lost on the field, the media is compelled to focus far too much attention on inane BCS analysis, and it is getting boring. Very boring... College football better watch out. I could see it losing its momentum with fan bases one day soon if they do not fix this mess...

Reed said...

Rob, I think we're either splitting hairs here or I wasn't clear enough. As I said, I've changed my mind, largely thanks to comments from Carr about settling it on the field, not in newspapers, um, the internet.

My point was not that we can't have a playoff because the BCS has been so poorly designed (and remains poorly designed - the BCS's choices and constraints regarding the computer rankings are atrocious) for its entire eleven year history. They have consistently let public opinion affect the rules, when the majority of that public opinion doesn't really care about the sport in the first place. The Skip Baylesses and Rick Reillys of the world think that this should be just like the NFL. Honestly, as bad as the BCS is, the worst thing that could happen to the game would be a 16 team playoff. That's what Barack Obama wants. That's what Rick Reilly wants. It's what every fool who still thinks Sportscenter is a good show wants. With 16 teams, it would completely unravel the fabric of the game.

My point is the same as yours. That the game is at risk, and if the NCAA leadership doesn't take any move to a playoff with more care and consideration than they did with the initial BCS and each successive tweak when they looked to quell complaints rather than come up with an actual solution. If they listen to Fox or ESPN (people who stand to profit from more games), we might as well just go with a 32 team bracket and kiss our sport goodbye.

So then, what do I think would work? Of all the ideas I've heard, I like Brian's 6-team plan the best (top 2 seeds get a bye, home games until the championship). It keeps the value of the regular season intact, keeps the bowls viable (16 teams would destroy them), and allows for some margin of error instead of having a 2-team playoff that simply can't do the job. But we're sure going to have to hear that 7th team wail...

And I still don't trust the NCAA at all not to screw this up. It's going to exist eventually. It would be nice if a Myles Brand were replaced beforehand.

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