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Playoff Dispatches with DawgSports, Part Five

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 its disregard for regular season results. SMQ asked in turn why there is any problem with the `legitimacy' of a playoff winner as champion. Kyle responds by reiterating his preference for judging performance over many games rather than automatically rewarding success in a few. Here, SMQ gets very fundamental:

To: Kyle King
From: SMQ

Messy, gritty, earthy, jumbled, chaotic, stirs primeval passions...I think the same description applies to my hair most days, Kyle. It also applies to this debate, I think, which is reaching its nadir as I sense us moving further apart and more rigid in our positions (again, apt adjectives for my hair). You wrote

I'm not prepared to forfeit my right to think freely and judge for myself based upon all of the evidence just so I can be spoon-fed a definitive answer that might not be right, particularly not when that affirmative assertion is offered in the name of "deciding on the field" something that, at 1-1, was a push on the field. I'm not prepared to give up discussions like this one so that the greatest sport in the world can be tied up neatly with a bow and viewed through the same fuzzy lens with which Barbara Walters specials are shot.

We're at irreconcilable odds if recognizing the results of games is to be regarded as "spoon-fed" but honoring the opinions of a certain set of onlookers is not. Again, I must say it appears on some level you aren't concerned with naming a champion at all if it means blurring the inviolable truth of the regular season, which is actually a position whose consistency I can respect, but which I must also repeat seems untenable in today's environment, and in fact would have probably seemed untenable decades ago, as the desire to crown a national champion has a very long history. I'm proceeding on the presumption a sport must have a champion, or at least is made better by having a champion as the logical conclusion of its fundamentally competitive nature. If there's no agreement on that presumption, we're back to the adage I used to introduce my second dispatch, because we have reached a dead end.

And if a sport must have a champion, it can't be awarded by a committee. This is not figure skating. Sports are about winning and have objective criteria for winning, and therefore a sports championship must be won by the actual playing of the sport. Here, you've made an effort to undermine the "legitimacy" of a playoff, but no corresponding attempt I can discern to defend polls as an institution. Here is the much greater "legitimacy problem." You've defended your right to a critical opinion of a team's performance, to which you're obviously entitled and should exercise well after a championship has been procured by any mean (as should we all), but you've made no argument as to why anyone should care; that is, why should any opinion of performance have official standing in sport? Opinion may be valuable as a means of learning, communication and entertainment - and hopefully this debate qualifies as the latter, regardless what my hit counter is telling me - but it is not basis for issuing a trophy in sport. In fact, I would probably go so far as to say the concept of a champion via poll - whether or not I agree with the poll, my opinion being as officially irrelevant as any voter's - fundamentally violates my understanding of the purpose of sport as a purely competitive exercise. Football has its aesthetic pleasures, but it is not art to be judged. It has its pageantry and off-field excitements, but as you say, it is not a party or parade. Like you, I've expressed disdain for people who treat it as such, because athletic competition is at root about winning. An athletic championship cannot be voted, it must be won. I know you agree with this concept in the case of an individual game, but if we can't also agree about establishing the larger order on wins and losses, then we've gone as far as we can go in this vein.

I do not believe your broader anti-playoff remarks are indication at all you'd prefer baseball or pro football or any other competitive entity scrap all tournaments in deference to the inherent anarchy by which it is most accurately defined. We're back to Lord Falkland, and your de facto opposition to "unnecessary" change, a result of your deep respect for an entity's historical evolution and unique tradition as the elements that define it, that make it what it is. My view is more idealistic, and willing to overturn an existing order to meet the ideal. This includes respect for tradition, but only in the historical sense if it happens to conflict with the broader ideal. It includes compromise, such as the unavoidably subjective nature of a playoff selection process among teams that have generated so little and such disparate data, but only if the broader ideal remains intact. This is why, as I indicated above, I believe it is necessary for college football to change, to achieve the competitive ideal, and reject the notion that "unintended consequences" is a sufficient reason alone for resisting change. Unintended consequences can also be good.

Change means tradeoffs, to be sure, but I reiterate that I don't think a playoff would dominate the national structure any more than the BCS already does (I use the BCS as a point of reference because we both know your stated affection for the old Bowl Alliance is hopelessly nostalgic). My alma mater and favorite team is Southern Miss, and a playoff represents no discernible effect on its season, other than increasing the odds the once-in-a-lifetime dream season might result in a championship opportunity. This is true for much of the country, even BCS conference teams like Vanderbilt, Duke and Rutgers, which is realistically out of the big money race before the first practice. Is your "National Game of Disinterest" suddenly less interesting? So we are only talking about the half of Division I-A that regularly exists on a plane in which the BCS is an achievable goal to begin with. Where those teams are concerned, there would perhaps be a shift of the memorable moments to which you refer with such reverence from the regular season to the playoffs. I have my doubts this would actually occur, as each of the plays you specify would apply the same weight to teams struggling for a playoff berth, but certainly I find the tradeoff acceptable if it does.  Some games would have less long-term importance - your examples from the past season, USC-UCLA and Michigan-Ohio State are the same ones I would have used, and the only games whose broader, championship-directed significance would diminish with a playoff looming in front of them - but many others would have far greater importance than they do now. There are no "footnotes," because two losses - in some cases, a single loss - is near death in a playoff with dozens of teams competing for a few spots; there is nothing reserved for the equivalent of a 9-7 team in the NFL. More is at stake in a playoff than in the BCS, losses are magnified, more teams must still walk on eggshells to avoid being knocked out.

But the real reason I don't believe in the decay of the regular season is that I respect the game enough as a game to believe it endures regardless its broader significance. If there is one element we can agree on, I hope that's the one. It would be disingenuous to pretend some games aren't more interesting because they carry some greater, big-picture weight, but they are only interesting at all because they are college football games. I consistently expressed disgust with the current championship format this fall, yet continued to watch, rapt, and to watch where the format hardly mattered. As I said Tuesday, I watched much of UL-Lafayette and Florida Atlantic last October. I watched most of the Poinsettia Bowl. I watched Cincinnati-Pittsburgh and practically all of Iowa-Iowa State. Ohio State-Michigan is more interesting than Mississippi State-Ole Miss nationally because it promises a higher level of play, not because there is a national championship at stake. I think that's the standard by which the vast majority of games are judged, and will still be judged no matter what potential reward is waiting in January. My home state will still stop for two 3-8 teams in the Egg Bowl, merely because it's the Egg Bowl. If the game has any meaning in itself, that sort of tradition is not at stake.

So what is really at stake in the regular season for enslaved partisans like us, Kyle? Ad revenue? Highlights on ESPN?

PS: Look what we haven't talked about: classes, travel, the number of games players are asked to play, money. Canards all! I think this is an achievement.