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Playoff Dispatches, Part One

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Last summer, SMQ flippantly offered in the middle of advocating a playoff format for Division I-A college football - rather descriptively known these days as the "Bowl Subdivision" - to debate playoff opponent Kyle King on the matter. And, to his surprise, the Mayor very un-flippantly took him up on it. So here we are, as agreed, entering the reality of the offseason's long, deadening lull with a series of messages during the week to flesh out the issue. This is the first part of the series.

To: Kyle King
From: SMQ

Well, this comes with a little more fanfare than I think either of us had planned, Kyle, and my sense is we're both looking forward to approaching this as a couple of partisans shooting the breeze, albeit in a very detailed fashion. But I also doubt we're going to say anything particularly new.

First of all, do you really think Conan O'Brien is an "untalented dufus"? Or is this only in relation to the admittedly un-doofus-like resplendence of Kristen Davis to his right? If we want to have a really tense argument, I'll go to the mat for Conan. He wrote the best episodes of The Simpsons and also this.

Moving on: my first playoff-related missive here is only intended to scratch the surface, get the ball rolling a bit, and therefore isn't going to contain much in the way of logistics. My arguments are in a rather skeleton form, but I have some initial questions about your premises. Since this is such a well-worn issue, though, I wanted to start with some aspects of the discussion I hope we won't be dealing with, so we can get the fat out of the way and hash it out over the meat:

Concessions: First, without a doubt, selecting the participants of a tournament is largely an exercise in subjectivity on the same order of selecting teams for one end-all mythical championship game. Some pretty good teams will be left out. I readily recognize this point, and don't plan to counter it beyond my opinion that arguing over number eight and number nine, or especially over sixteen and seventeen, is many times preferable to arguing over number two and number three. I don't know of any comparable enterprise where there is no debate or frustrated thrashing along the margins. That statement includes pro sports whose participants are selected foremost by win-loss record, too, when a team like, for example, the 2004 New Orleans Saints is eliminated by a mystifying set of tiebreaker rules. This debate exists, has existed and would continue to exist ad infinitum, far as I can tell, and since it's a circular argument that cuts both ways, there's no particular reason to dwell on it. The selection criteria should have some straightforward standards, and those who are excluded will have to deal with it. Again, same as now.

No Specifics: Once it's settled the sport's top division is adjusting to a tournament, there are the formative issues to contend with concerning format and selection of teams. That's a big deal. But since the matter definitely is not settled, I won't get into either of these areas except as an aside, and probably a useless one at that. I'm advocating a playoff in general, not a specific format or method of filling the bracket. There are myriad playoff formats on all levels of all team sports, and they work just about the same way everywhere. So we'll jump that ditch when we get there, as they say.

Personally, for the record, I favor an eight-team format that maintains the upper tier bowl games as playoff sites and uses the pre-2006 BCS formula for selection (that formula constantly changed, but in terms of admitting six conference champions and two at-large teams was consistent enough). I don't particularly care if this is actually called a playoff or tournament or not, if its corporate handlers would rather continue calling it the "Bowl Championship Series." With the talk of a "Plus One" format in play when the exisitng BCS contract expires, I can see a gradual evolution into a playoff rather than a fiat overturning the whole shebang, which I am fine with. (And for which I suspect some columnists may be filing away stories for 2012 as we speak:

"So, fans, you want a college football playoff?

Guess what.

Wish granted.

Already got one.

Had one, actually.

Since the BCS...")

Since I mentioned "Plus One," at some point I'll probably get around to detailing aspects of a potential playoff system to which I'm absolutely opposed, the "Plus One" idea being foremost among them (because it's not a playoff and in fact is a phantom limb where the BCS is concerned in any year but 2003. I would take the old Bowl Alliance over a "Plus One," which is the only time such an idea has made sense) and the possibility of an NFL-style "bye" in one round being close behind. I also oppose any format that changes year-to-year based on how the season plays out, but that's neither here nor there where this discussion is concerned.

I Want My Li-ber-ty: Anecdotally, I've always heard in the way of opposition to a playoff this tendency to defend bowl games for the purposes of tradition or day-long couch potato binges or giving more than one team an opportunity to end the season on a high note (no one ever addresses the risk of so many teams closing the year as dispirited losers, but I digress). Barry Alvarez specifically made this latter argument on a radio interview in December, but I've heard each of them a number of times. And I think they make no sense. In no way does a playoff on one end diminish the significance of a the Motor City Bowl on the other, certainly no more than the very roped-off BCS sets itself apart now. As I've already suggested, bowls can be incorporated into a tournament format without much imagination, and TCU and Northern Illinois can continue to slug it out in whatrever venue will have them in the meantime.

Otherwise, I'd love to come to the podium here completely fresh and am disinclined to crawl into rhetorical and jargon-filled wormholes. At the same time, since I'm intrinsically linked in the tiny world that pays attention to such things as a proponent of what's come to be known as the "resume" method of ranking teams, there's no way to avoid responding to reader BillyZane's characterization of that perspective as it relates to a playoff on Burnt Orange Nation last week:

On a purely resume-ranking analytical level, the old bowl system provides the most ideal system for determining the "best" team in college football because it does not insist on the winner of one single game being named the national champion, as the BCS system does.  For instance, if the #1 team (A) was undefeated and unchallenged during the regular season, and the #2 team (B) had 2 losses and B won the BCS championship game, B would be the national champion automatically whereas a resume ranker would prefer to take that game into consideration in determining whether a 1-loss A was the "best" team over the course of that entire year over a 2-loss B that beat A.

I couldn't disagree more with the idea a "resume" voter would favor the pre-BCS randomness. The point of resume voting as I see it is that other objective measures - like straight win-loss record, for example, in every pro team sport - are inadequate for differentiating among 119 teams playing schedules of extremely varying degrees of difficulty. Its only goal is to develop a standard that applies equally to every team in spite of those differences; if a team's fate is to be decided by opinion polls, as it currently is in college football, those opinions should be determined in a methodical, consistent, systematic fashion. But that doesn't eliminate the fundamental flaw of determining fortune by opinion to begin with. So the "resume" method as I think of it only is relevant as far as polls are relevant, not as an overarching philosophy in itself. It's a makeshift design for the existing, poll-dominated order.

A playoff completely does away with the need for any sort of final opinion ranking at all, because a playoff applies the single, ultimate objective standard the limited regular season never could: just win, baby.

Understands the appeal of a playoff. Also, a nice monochrome jumpsuit.
- - -

(No, this is not the only standard of the regular season: Boise State, Auburn, Boise State again, Tulane, Marshall, Arizona State, Toledo, and Penn State in the last 12 years have each met it by finishing the regular season undefeated, but none appeared in a designated mythical championship game. In the same span, seven teams - Florida, Florida State, Florida State again, Nebraska, LSU, Oklahoma and Florida again - have appeared in mythical championship games with one loss, a list that does not even include 2003 AP Mythical Champion USC. Neither Nebraska nor Oklahoma even won the Big XII before playing for the nominal national title, and many, many pundits argued last December Michigan shouldn't be held to any such requirement, either. So there are a number of other standards at play, none of them necessarily agreed upon. But there is only in a playoff, and that is the point.)

I do sympathize with another of BillyZane's ultimate points, though, because it's one I've made before, regarding anyone's ability to determine which team is "the best" beyond a comparison of resumes (that is, the appropriate question is not "Which team is best?" as if teams existed as consistent machine-like entities with an inherent value that never fluctuates, but "Which team has been the best so far?" with a recognition this conclusion could change at any point, as it did so dramatically during Florida's mythical championship rout over "the best" of the regular season, Ohio State). Futile as such an effort is, it does serve at least to strip any illusions that crowning a champion is a means of the impossible feat of recognizing "the best." Rather, as the culmination of a playoff format that includes the teams having turned in the best performances over the regular season (determining those teams is the extent of the reach of any ranking methodology), it means recognizing the only team that met the objective standard of winning a short series of games within that format. Any playoff format would practically achieve this, which is why I'm not so hung up about specfics.

But I'm also not debating BillyZane, who is a fellow playoff advocate, so I'll send the debate your way, Kyle, with the charge of providing your thoughts on a key distinction, one I've come to think of as the Klosterman Question: should college football crown a "national champion" at all? I'm trying to get at the root of your opposition - I'm not sure whether it stems from a de facto defense of the existing order (or the previous one, pre-BCS or Bowl Alliance) because it's just the way college football is "done," or if there is a larger philosophy that rejects the notion of crowning a champion altogether. That is, are playoffs bad in general, or only for college football? If neither of the above scenarios is true, meaning you think the sport should crown a champion and the existing system (or the old system) is the preferable method of accomplishing this, I'd like to hear your defense of the influence of opinion polls as opposed to the playoff formats in every other team sport I'm aware of.

There's a lot more to flesh out, obviously, but - and this will get back quickly to my first concession above - no matter where else this leads, I imagine champion by AP ballot is going to be a sticking point for me. Re: a defense of the existing order, I'd bet our arguments here hew pretty near to our respective political opinions and attitudes towards authority in general, but probably best we keep developmental psychology on the proverbial sideline here.