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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

One. Since we are in the post-season pre-bowl window and this is an year ending in an even number, the BCS has screwed up or not screwed up but chosen some team over another team for reasons that aren't very good at all and everyone wants to talk playoffs.

Two. I've already said my piece on this once twice thrice. No latecomer to the side of Do It On The Field (hur hur) am I. This is not a we got screwed thing.

General Outline of various arguments.

A. Bowls schmowls. The BCS has already rent the traditions of college football. Arguments that posit the loss of bowl tradition as a major hazard assume that there is much of one anymore. Agreed that returning to the pre-BCS days when everyone understood the "M" in "MNC" was so so very real would be nice. Agreed that dropping all that for a playoff system would be a choice that, at the very least, would be difficult. But we don't have that. Also, a small playoff would not significantly impact most bowls. No one watches the Poulan Weedeater Bowl because of the distant possibility that it will have an impact on the national championship. These are the reasons you watch the Poulan Weedeater Bowl:

  • Evil hospital janitor has stolen remote.
  • Close relative of player or coach.
  • Run college football blog from mother's basement.
That is all. The only bowls harmed by a playoff are the big ones, and seriously: who cares about the fate of games played in the Superdome or Arizona or the rickety Orange Bowl?

Rose excepted; you'll see later.

B. This is a playoff. It is a stupid playoff. But it is a playoff. There are two teams. They play. Then there is off, or whatever. Stealing from myself:
The situation reminds me much of the old... well, it's not really a joke, but, you know, the canard where a man asks a woman if he would have sex with him for a million dollars and she says "yeah, I guess." The man then asks her if she would do the same for five dollars and she asks, "what do you think I am?" to which the man replies: "We've already established what you are, now we're just haggling over the price." The BCS and the bowls have already established what they are. Now we're just haggling over the number of teams.
At the end of the Not Fiesta Bowl on January 8th, some team will lift a championship trophy. They will put on hats that say "national champions." Ohio State fans will mortgage their Trans Ams to buy leather-bound encomiums to the '07 Wonderboys that relatives who live out of state will read to them during holidays or whatnot. The BCS is trying to have it both ways but it only has it one very stupid way.

C. A playoff is not perfect; do not pretend that this disqualifies it. Common argument:
An 8-team playoffs [sic] sounds good in theory, but in reality you are creating yet again another problem by having teams laying legitimate claims on one of the top-8 spots and being left off. What about a Texas squad with a healthy Colt McCoy? Is Boise State really going to be [+at, sic] the Longhorns if McCoy is healthy?
To take an extreme example, there is controversy when Air Force gets in or Manhattan is left out in the NCAA tournament, but no one really cares as soon as the games start because they're obviously not the best team in the country. Meanwhile, Auburn and Michigan and Oregon (etc.) fans will go to their grave complaining about the damn voters or the damn formula. (Disclaimer: god no, we don't want "January Madness." A playoff's size is a tradeoff between acquiring every available contender with a legitimate argument and preserving the importance of the regular season, and anything more than around 8 teams sacrifices way too much of the latter for way too little of the former.)

Anyway, arguments like this are akin to turning down surgery on a gangrenous limb because you don't want to have a peg-leg (hhhhyyyyarrrr!). Just because a playoff is still a little broken does not mean that it is not a preferable option to something that is almost always broken.

D. Yes: Irony. Used correctly, even. European soccer has no need of playoffs. Each team plays each other team home and away. They have a perfectly balanced schedule; whoever emerges with the most points is crowned the champion. Europeans, when quizzing Americans about the sports across the way, invariably express shock and dismay when it's revealed that after 80 or 160 game regular seasons the results are basically thrown out and then teams play a few games to determine who gets all the glory. Why bother playing? I don't know. You have all this data that suggests Team A has accomplished so much more than all the other teams in the league, then you ignore that in favor of an unpredictable crapshoot. See: World Series, 2006. This is what anti-playoff advocates hate. The idea that this year's Ohio State team would be put into an eight-game blender that may anoint a two- or three-loss team national champions is an anethma.

But... really, what has Ohio State proven? Little. They have suggested much, surely. This isn't a shot at Ohio State, but rather a simple observation that the Buckeyes have played 12 games and only two of them have come against ranked teams. Evidence suggests that they would finish with the best record if they were to play some magical round-robin against all of I-A. But it's a flimsy assumption that has precious little evidence to back it up. We have no way to reasonably compare Ohio State to anyone in the Pac 10 or SEC or ACC. College football's addiction to creamy nonconference nougat drives down the number of comparison points to almost nothing and leaves us guessing. The irony is this: college football, the sport that could most use a playoff to resolve its champion, is the only one that does not.

Properly constructed, a playoff that features a two-loss team winning it all could very well justify that team's national championship in the traditional vote-for-the-best-team (unless that would make a rematch) fashion, as they would have slogged through three games against premiere competition and won them all. More on this later.

E. Save The Children. You are a bad person who needs to be spanked if you bring up academics. Tell that to every other level of football or basketball or hockey or whatever, all of whom have vastly longer seasons than NCAA D-IA.

Three. Current theory.

A. Yes. Yes, yes, yes, a playoff.

B. The utmost priority is maintaining the importance of the regular season. Losing = bad. Berry, berry bad. Not so bad that a team like Michigan 2006 or Auburn 2004 (who didn't even lose) or Oregon 2002 sits at home pounding sand, but bad. Tier seeds such that there's a big difference between scraping in at the back end and dominating college football.

C. No Jim Walden. Or anyone of his ilk. No current coaches. No dug up old fossils who can't tell a football from World War I. Instead, a small group of smart people who love college football and can think rationally about it with a clear mandate.

D. Mandate. Pick the best teams based on accomplishments on the field. Heavily prioritize schedule difficulty, especially in the nonconference. Treat close losses to quality competition as evidence of suitability. Look past the number in the loss column.

Four. Current proposal.

A. Six teams. Six is a good number. Six teams means two byes for the top two teams in the country and makes one loss a big deal and a second loss a bigger deal.

B. No autobids. As a natural consequence of things there will often be conference champions in the playoff, but as much as I think Wake Forest is a cute story, they would be dead weight in a tightly constrained playoff field like this one.

C. Home games. Eliminate ludicrous travel requirements and up regular-season importance in one fell swoop. If you're higher ranked you get to play the game on your home field in the first two rounds.

D. Pick your poison. Seed only as far as you have to, then let teams draft their opponents. In this current format, the #3 team would have a choice between the 5 and 6 teams with the #4 getting the leftovers. The #1 team would get its choice of the first round survivors.

E. By committee. A dedicated team of people who do this year-round who are geographically distributed.

F. Final. At the Rose Bowl.

Five. Hypothetical this-year bracket.

#1 Ohio State versus #4 USC / #5 LSU
#2 Michigan versus #3 Florida / #6 Louisville.

Interchange Florida and Michigan if you so desire.

Point on two loss national champions promised earlier: if USC or LSU slogs through 1) USC or LSU, 2) Ohio State on the road, and 3) Michigan/Florida/Louisville, than they would have a mountain of skulls unmatched by any of its competitors. Keeping the top two seeds out of first round games is a mighty incentive to finish in the top two that also provides the neat service of damping any claims of robbery should those teams lose by preventing them from claiming another victory over top competition.