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Pound Pound Pound: The 2007 Playoff Post

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Bowls are only a day away, and contrary to most of the pro-bracket rhetoric you'll find around here eleven and a half months out of the year, SMQ maintains a strict enthusiasm for the bowl season. Ludicrous previews will follow accordingly.

Before that, though, one good, quick pound on the nail. Millions of people, apparently, with at least a million different plans, think a playoff is a good idea. But before any of the specifics have a leg to stand on, it's important to articulate why any kind of playoff is in and of itself the only legitimate method of awarding a championship. Kyle King and I hashed this out earlier in the year in a back and forth that laid the foundation for the worst week of traffic at SMQ since it moved to the current site, but again: pound pound pound on that nail.

This is not about why a playoff will or will not ever happen (it certainly will, after a brief debacle with the "pus one" compromise, and will grow quickly to the grossest, most unwieldy proportions), or any kind of specific format. They're all brilliant plans, in the sense that any playoff = brilliant relative to the Bowl Championship Series, which is, for the hundredth time, a flagrant corporate marketing cabal that hurts the sport. All of these arguments are tired and, from the opposition, ultimately failures. One argument against a playoff is valid - who needs a national champion, anyway? - and the rest are destined for the dust heap.

At this stage, though, when the idea is just beginning to make real headway with some of the people powerful enough to make a playoff reality, it's still worthwhile to get to the heart of the argument. The party line is that a playoff determines a champion "on the field," which is true, but this is an inadequate slogan - the BCS purports to determine its champion "on the field," too, in its end-all championship game. There is a lot of rhetoric about deciding "the best" team, but the first concession must be to the fallacy of this notion to begin with: there is no inherently "best" team, when performances fluctuate week to week and the team that is the "best" one day, under one set of circumstances, will not necessarily be the best the next day. If there is anything to being "the best," it's only in assessing an entire body of work, the "average" over a long period of time filled with peaks and valleys.

This is a critical distinction. A complaint (I heard this on the radio Tuesday) that follows along the lines "How did Ohio State go from the seventh-best team after its last game to the best team without even playing?" is a pathetic grasp at the point of polls, which is not to line teams up and gauge their overall, inherent strength, how good a team is, as if there were ratings attached to them like in a video game. Ohio State moved up because its entire body of work was better in relation to the bodies of work of the teams around it, because so many of those teams started losing. But losing does not really affect "how good" a team is, inherently; USC, for example, lost to a clearly inferior Stanford team in October, the Trojans' third loss to a double-digit underdog in twelve games dating back to last year, and Vegas would still make SC the favorite right now against anyone on any neutral field, because the public that votes with its dollars at the sportsbooks thinks USC is "the best," in spite of its glaring past flaws. Clearly, this is not the standard for any legitimate champion - wins and losses do matter, but not because of what they say about what might be expected to happen in the future, pure speculation at best. In sports, competition that produces clear, unalterable - if sometimes conflicting - results, speculation has no official standing next to the "evidence." A team is only what it has done, according to the results, over its entire schedule. The "best," then, the champion, is the team that has performed the best over the entire period of time measured (the season). It's a result of consistency and accumulation, and certainly not of mere potential.

The problem - and this is the fundamental point of all those conference strength arguments, and the barbs against the alleged "mediocrity" of the Big Ten from the South, and the weary campaign to expose the SEC's shortcomings in out-of-conference scheduling from the West, and everybody's kneejerk reaction against the upper tier credentials of the Big East, all these hopeless debates - is that there is no adequate standard by which to measure the best performance. Every contending team plays a very limited schedule, with (unending arguments to the contrary notwithstanding) only very minor differences in overall strength therein, and typically a few indiscrepancies along the way (is Oklahoma really the team that beat Texas and took down Missouri twice, or the team that lost to Colorado and Texas Tech?). Because of these differences, there is no legitimate standard to apply that can adequately differentiate among any given set of comparable teams - certainly the overwhelming opinion is that the BCS formula, or any formula employing opinions and algorithms, is woefully inadequate - and therefore no way to legitimately exclude any of those teams from the opportunity to be awarded a championship in favor of any of the others. There may be differences in the bodies of work of Oklahoma, LSU and USC in 2003, or of Oklahoma, USC and Auburn in 2004, or of Florida and Michigan last year, or of Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, Georgia, Virginia Tech, Missouri and USC right now. But those differences are too small and too arbitrary (my god, look at the wild array of results in the final computer standings) to impose on matters of physical flesh. The primary function of the BCS is exclusion of all but the top two teams as determined by an arbitrary, ever-changing set of figures, and if there is any real interest in distinguishing among the best resumés, there is no basis for exclusion. Nothing is settled by the "championship" because the standard for selecting the teams in it is a farce.

The virtue of a playoff is that it applies only one, very unambiguous standard under uniform circumstances, and a very adequate one: win. The team that accomplishes this has performed the best, and therefore is the champion. Ipso facto.

Enjoy your bowl games.

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The first commenter will say: "Yeah, but if there's no basis for exclusion, how do you pick the teams, huh? How do you pick the teams?" To which I say: whatever. The unfortunate plight of No. 9 is an acceptable sacrifice.