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Playoff Dispatches with DawgSports Part Three

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In Part One of his debate with Kyle King on the efficacy of a college football playoff, SMQ conceded a few points out of the gate but also advanced his preference for the objective standard of a playoff (Just win, baby). In response, Kyle wondered how so many disparate playoff proposals could ever cohere into any workable solution free of its own internal idiosyncrasies, and whether a playoff is inherently unfair in disregard for regular season results. Here, SMQ responds in kind.

To: Kyle King
From: SMQ

There's the adage that real argument may only occur among those that really agree on some fundamental level, so I'll start this round with where I agree with your first post: sixteen teams is too many cooks for the broth in my opinion, and there is a likelihood any playoff could "creep" to that level to add an extra week of revenue. We both seem to think this is how a playoff will eventually come to form, through the expansion already underway with the addition of the fifth game as the championship and the recent chatter concerning a sixth, of the "plus one" variety, in a few years. I dislike the byes inherent in a six or twelve-team system, and consider four teams too small a field, so although I eschewed specifics last time, I will relent enough to admit a strong advocacy for an eight-team format, with the understanding it would be subject to change at the same whim as the BCS (and probably the same sort of grumbling criticism from me to get it right, "right" defined as my personal preferences).

But I am in fact convinced A - any feasible playoff format - is inherently better than B - the existing orthodoxy sans playoff - whether or not the opponents of B can agree on how A should be specifically enacted, as long as it is enacted. And that, besides being worded in confusing fashion, is apparently where we part ways. I am perfectly comfortable with change within a playoff system in the form of regular tweaking as needed (again, I state this blanket right to complain solely in the name of possibly getting it right by my personal sensibilities).

I disagree first about the analogy that compares lower tier bowl games that could coexist with a playoff to the basketball NIT, because those games are already on the level of the NIT. Maybe lower. Last year, I watched Rice play Troy in the New Orleans Bowl, albeit halfheartedly. But I also watched UL-Lafayette play Florida Atlantic to a near-scoreless tie earlier in the season, and I didn't really differentiate between the larger meaning behind the former because it had a big logo painted on the field. People who like football pay a little attention for the simple fact it is football (I assume this is also the case with serious basketball fans and the NIT, though I have no evidence), and everybody else could care less. How could a bowl game between Troy and Rice, or Central Michigan and Middle Tennessee, or San Jose State and New Mexico, lose significance by the moves of richer games already roped off into their own official club? They don't have any significance now, except as football games that are on TV, and they are not remotely the same entity as the Rose Bowl. One of your commenters suggested the NIT comparison might actually be giving too much credit to the Bowl as it currently exists, and he may be right to the extent that the game couldn't possibly generate any less interest than it did last year. Personally, I think the NIT analogy is extremely apt already.

Where Lord Falkland is concerned, I think it is necessary to change, and this is another gap where we seem to fundamentally disagree. It's not really tenable to follow college football in general without paying a tremendous amount of attention to the national championship; I doubt someone who found the national emphasis misguided to a greater extent than you seem to would be able to take it, frankly, because contemporary college football is irrevocably national sport. It maintains regional rivalries, and if individual fans are content to crawl into a shell and focus on a single team or conference while only grudgingly recognizing an ever more cohesive national environment, that's their choice, but if there is going to be a widely recognized national champion, it should come from a system that allows teams to play on an equal footing, when no opinion - of writer, coach, panel or machine - has any sway. So if college football insists on crowning a national champion (and it very obviously does), that champion should be legitimately crowned based on its play rather than any entity's opinion of its play.

Which brings us to the "legitimacy problem." I have my own problems with legitimacy in that I think - and Saurian Sagacity has written about this, too - that the real authority for establishing a system and recognizing a champion rests with the NCAA, the sanctioning body under whose governance the sport exists. But the Association has no control over the postseason in this single, solitary instance, and isn't going to wrest it from the presidential-corporate cabal, so we'll have to take what we can get.

Further along the same note, you said this about resolving the differences between regular season and playoff results:

It would be simplistic to argue that it is because they "just won," because they didn't "just win" . . . they won in a particular format seeded in a specific manner. An alternative arrangement might well have---likely would have---produced a different result, so we are right back where we started, deciding what to evaluate, and how, and when. Given that there is no way to get around that problem, I would rather base the evaluation upon 12 or 13 or 14 games than upon three or seven.

Here we are back to whether a champion should be crowned at all. If "a particular format seeded in a specific manner" is an inadequate or unfair basis for determining a champion (not "the best," we seem to agree, but a champion), how is 12 or 13 or 14 games in a particular format scheduled in a specific manner - a manner with far, far more inequity than the three or seven at question in a playoff - the preferable option? I'm also puzzled by the knock on the Super Bowl, which I have never heard nor considered. Every playoff format gives an advantage to the team regarded as having had the best regular season performance (the NFL does this through byes; there and in other pro sports with a smaller sample size, this can be based impartially on win-loss record, but as you agreed, the number of teams and obvious disparities in scheduling mean some degree of subjectivity is a necessary evil in all college sports), which makes that team's path to a championship ostensibly smoother, and the lower-seeded teams' more difficult; that is the "reward" for the regular season. But it also evens itself out in the end. The Pittsburgh Steelers, earning their way into the mix as the lowest seed from the AFC two years ago (earning is the critical term there), won the championship by beating each of its conference's top three regular seasons seeds on the road and then the top seed from the NFC in the finale. How is that not a championship-worthy performance? On a completely level playing field, with every team charged with meeting one standard, the Steelers - like the 1997 Florida Marlins - are the only team that met it. It sounds as if you would have preferred to award the Super Bowl to the Chargers last year after Week 17, or at least sit around waiting for a while to play the Bears for it.

So I don't think we would be "stuck" with any conference champion that earned its way into the tournament by meeting preexisting requirements (i.e., winning a conference championship). On the one hand, there is no way to create a field large enough to facilitate an upset winner on the magnitude of Villanova, NC State or Arizona in the basketball tournament. On the other, the mere fact of surviving a tournament makes any winner ipso facto deserving of a championship. Under the basis that all participants must meet a basic, evenly-applied standard for inclusion (I would prefer all conference champions be held to a certain entrance standard as well as at-large teams, rather than automatic, but that's hardly a requirement, and it would likely apply in the BCS era only to 2004 Pittsburgh if it were), the winner of a playoff has won in the only completely fair fashion.

I'm not sure where the reference to unintended consequences comes from, as the consequences of a playoff are hardly unknown - there are playoffs in high school, there are playoffs in the pros, there are playoffs in the Olympics, in the World Cup, in Wimbledon, in every team sport the world over and every sport of any variety sanctioned by the NCAA, including football in four of its five divisions. We know the effects of a playoff. There are dozens of precedents for a playoff, all of them, as far as I can tell, successful. To paraphrase Frank Deford, no one has ever argued for a sport to suspend a tournament in favor of a month-long layoff to play one more game for pride. The fact is, in an eight-game playoff that incorporated the existing BCS sites, an additional six games count directly to determining a champion. So a playoff doesn't diminish the regular season; it magnifies the postseason. If the postseason format is the only opportunity to judge contenders by the same impartial standard, as I outlined in my first entry, then the team that meets that standard is by definition the most deserving.

I've intentionally avoided talking about a playoff's impact on the regular season, because this is getting on in length (and my brain on late afternoon, sleep-deprived drowsiness). But I know from some of your past comments you believe a playoff diminishes the regular season. Clearly, I disagree when it comes to the issue of "results," but what about of the week-to-week scheduling of the games, and of interest in the games themselves? How would a playoff effect the intensity or interest or importance of a certain set of games (most games have only the most indirect championship implications, anyway)  when more teams are vying for just a few slots? And why would the potential harm - which I do not concede - not be worth the tradeoff that comes with a more relevant and exciting (and almost certainly profitable) postseason? I leave you with the fact that ratings for BCS games outside of the championship continue to go down, down, down.