The argument against a Playoff Model in College Football

There is something seriously wrong with a postseason tournament where a 7-9 team has more wins combined than the #1 seeds in each conference.

I offer you Exhibit A, the 2010-11 NFL playoffs.

As the Green Bay Packers get ready to play the Chicago Bears and the New York Jets pack their bags for the steel city, the NFL faces the possibility that for the first time ever two six seeds will square off in the game perhaps not so aptly named the Super Bowl.  Already, a 7-9 Seahawks team has tallied one more win than the top seeds in each league combined, the 14-2 Patriots and the 13-3 Atlanta Falcons—and that win came at the hands of the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints.  And speaking of that Seahawks team, they were given a ticket to the dance at the exclusion of five teams that had better records, including two that sat home despite the fact that they each won ten games this season (the New York Giants, and the NFC’s best team according to one partial observer, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), both in the same conference as the Seahawks.

And this result is not atypical, as a regular season 9-7 Arizona Cardinals team represented the NFC in a Super Bowl in 2008 while an 11-5 Patriots team was excluded from the playoff tournament, as discussed here and here.  And one only has to go back to 2005 when a sixth seeded Pittsburgh Steelers team won four straight games on the road to capture the franchise’s then fifth best NFL title, that year beating a 14 win Colts team on their home field along the way.  It is examples like these which suggest that college football should never use a playoff model to determine its champion.

Many are unhappy with the BCS, dubbed the Bowl Conspiracy Series and the Broken Cash Scheme by yours truly, and for good reason.   However, I am convinced that the vast majority of those advocating for a playoff format for college football have either never considered the problems associated with a playoff tournament or are intentionally ignoring said problems because the notion of a playoff tournament “open to all” sounds like the best way to crown a champion.  It is not.

I will not deny that the Cartel has used the BCS as a vehicle to distribute its hundreds of millions of dollars with the byproduct being the preclusion of access to the championship game for those deemed not worthy.  As difficult as this will be for me, at least for the moment, I will table the issue of the inequitable distribution of revenue, and ask, what is the fairest way to crown a champion in football?

Talk to those inside the game, to include the players, coaches, and front office people, and they will tell you that one of the most common public misconceptions is that there is a significant difference in the talent level of football teams, at least at the professional level.  The results of the 2010-11 NFL playoffs support this notion.  Here are the results thus far:

With conference championship week looming, six of the eight match-ups have resulted in the lower seed advancing, almost seven until the Baltimore Ravens blew a 21-7 halftime lead to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional round.  If Pittsburgh had lost that contest, the conference championship games would have included one two seed, one five seed, and two six seeds, meaning that all but one of the top four teams would have been eliminated from the championship tournament.   These results certainly support the notion that talent gaps may be exaggerated, along with the commonly held belief that any team can pretty much win one football game given a favorable bounce here or a favorable call there (it should be noted that the NFL even cashes in on this, advertising “any given Sunday!”).

This begs the question then,  if the lower seeds are advancing at nearly the same rate as the higher seeds, at least in some seasons, what exactly is the playoff tournament accomplishing?   The answer is very simple and straight forward–the winner of a playoff tournament is exactly that, the winner of a tournament and nothing more.  The trade-off of inclusion is the virtual evening of the playing field for those that “earn” a spot in the tournament—a two and a three loss team compete on almost even footing with five, six, seven, and this year, a nine loss team (the playing of an extra game has not proven to be the obstacle expected, as some have theorized that playing weekly actually helps to keep momentum going by mirroring the regular season whereby teams play a game each week).  When such a tournament is utilized, the value of the regular season is reduced to merely asking this question: was the effort good enough to be invited to the post season tournament?  The effect is to transfer a good deal of the weight in the championship assessment from a body of 16 games to a small sample of  just four games, artificially labeled the playoffs.  This problem is further exacerbated in the NFL by automatically awarding a playoff spot to a team that is deemed the best of a lot of only four teams—in any given year when all four of those teams in a division are not particularly strong, an unqualified franchise will be awarded a playoff spot at the expense of a team with a better resume, precisely what we saw this season (psst–I’m talking to you NFC West).  Conversely, if the four best teams happen to reside in one division, at least two will automatically be excluded.  In other words, the NFL model also has exclusion built into the process, albeit in a significantly different way.

While the Rose Bowl win was nice, TCU will always wonder what could have been.  A Plus one would have included TCU in the championship mix this season.

The college football system determines its champion by a complex formula of human and computer polls explained here.  The result each season is that the champion is essentially selected by vote, with only two teams qualifying to play in the BCS Championship game.  This results in a champion most seasons that is either undefeated or one that has but one loss.  The drawback to this model is exclusion of worthy teams from the “tournament,”as this year, for example, an undefeated Texas Christian University was left out of a championship game mix altogether (Auburn beat Oregon on a last second field goal 22-19).   The question, left unanswered for the ages is, could TCU have beaten Auburn if they played?

It is because of the problems associated with a playoff tournament detailed above that I will never support a playoff in college football.  I like that a team is crowned a champion based on its full body of work, and not because they got hot at the right time.  And as bad as the playoff model is for the NFL, it would be worse for a collection of confernces that feature 120 teams that play radically different schedules and levels of competition.  In order to avoid the exclusion problem currently present in the NFL system, every college football conference champion would have to be invited to a post season tournament, meaning that, for instance, this year’s 6-6 Sun Belt Champion Florida International would have to be invited to play, a team that is obviously not championship worthy no matter what definition you utilize.  A playoff format would further be fictional in that so few NCAA teams play each other out of conference (3 or 4 total games depending on conference guidelines), making comparisons for at large births nearly impossible (which is precisely the problem inherent in the polling system in the first place).  The result is that the exclusion argument will only shift from whether the third best team should have been given a shot to play for the title to an argument over who should get playoff spot #8 or 16, depending on which flawed playoff model is adopted.

All of that said, this author finds the preclusion of teams like TCU unacceptable, noting that the the increased parity in college football mandates adjustments to the present BCS model.  The solution, as most often is the case, is a compromise, most commonly referred to as the plus one model.   Though there are several proposals out there, the one I like best was detailed here in another piece, called the variable BCS plus one (essentially meaning that in those years where there is only two undefeated teams, the BCS will be used as is, but in those years where there are more than two undefeated BCS teams or a slew of one loss teams, an extra game will be utilized between the winners of matchups featuring teams ranked #4  v. #1 and #2 v. #3).   While I won’t repeat the analysis here, this model would have worked for every single BCS season except for the 2007 season, where in this author’s opinion, only a playoff model would have sufficed (that year a 2 loss LSU team played in the game ahead of a bunch of 1 loss teams, ultimately beating a one loss Ohio State team whose resume could not really be distinguished from other one loss teams).  So that I am clear, the primary purpose of the plus one model is to avoid the exclusion of undefeated teams who at least have a decent on the field resume (and thus, I am not concerned about the exclusion of teams like the 2007 Hawaii team as their competition that year was less than stellar), and not to create a playoff tournament of sorts in those years where it is clear one is not needed.  From this author’s perspective, one season that can aptly be described as an anomaly based on available evidence is not sufficient to implement a flawed NFL system that perpetually crowns something less than its best team the champion.

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  1. Death to the College Playoffs « The Pole's Position

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