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The Fate of the Crystal Ball, or, Talkin' Bout Playoffs

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Part of SMQ's "Farewell Week."
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Regular readers have been incessantly hammered with my criticism of the BCS as a soulless corporate cabal and unwavering advocacy for a true playoff, and within that argument my firm opinion that the sport has been defined over the last decade mainly by its acceleration toward that end: the Bowl Coalition beget the Bowl Alliance, which beget the Bowl Championship Series, an ostentatiously roped-off exercise that dramatically diminishes the relevance of every other bowl game -- the focus on the cushy confines of the BCS as much as "bowl glut" is responsible for rendering half of the postseason utterly meaningless -- and which itself has expanded to include a roped-off, corporately-dubbed "championship game" as a bridge to the inevitable "Plus One," a format that will either introduce a small playoff itself or soon evolve into one.

Ten years ago -- hell, two years ago -- no president, athletic director, commissioner or other establishment power broker would be caught dead considering the idea of a playoff in public. "They will never let it happen," yes? Now, in consecutive offseasons, a small insurgency of the men always said to be staunchly barricading the castle from the bracket-wielding barbarians has not only promoted the idea of a playoff on multiple occasions, in an official capacity, but declared a playoff an inevitability. Its time will come.

The specific format doesn’t matter much (it will almost certainly evolve and likely expand with time, anyway) but size, as in all matters, definitely does. It is not a legitimate argument that "the regular season is a playoff" -- that would make sense in baseball, basketball, or hockey, where teams play dozens of games against virtually identical schedules rather very few games against varying levels of competition, at least a third of which (for most championship contenders) can usually be ignored for failing to qualify as competition at all; that "regular season=playoff" argument goes out the window, too, when the last two and three of the last five BCS champions lost at least one game during the regular season, and the most recent winner lost twice to teams that finished outside of the final polls -- but it is a legitimate argument that a 12-team or 16-team tournament would devalue probably college football’s greatest asset, namely that there are no mulligans. Or very, very few, anyway, and only under certain, unlikely circumstances.

Six or eight teams is still exclusive enough to enhance the stakes of the regular season (probably two or three times as many reams would carry legitimate championship ambitions into the final weeks of the season as do now) without allowing a streaky fluke into the fray, a la the New York Giants, to use the most handy example, who finished three games behind the winner of their own four-team division and had no business competing for the same title as the far superior Patriots. The equivalent of a No. 5 seed winning the basketball tournament would permanently undermine the three-month marathon/battle royale that makes college football so fascinating now; a playoff is essential, but so is the necessity that it remain exclusive.

I haven’t always thought that, and I still lean towards a playoff of any feasible configuration over the arbitrary and overly-exclusive BCS "championship." When the day comes, though, it will be just as important to state certain objecives of the enterprise, and establish some kind of precedent for limiting expansion in the name of maintaining a tense, meaningful regular season. The best approach is a balancing act.

It’s also a fantasy, because this is America, and nothing is more American than the gusto of expansion -- in playoff terms, the college basketball and baseball tournaments, like the "second seasons" of the NHL and NBA, have pushed the velvet rope so far from the door that the bracket has become an end in itself, rather than serving the just purpose of crowning a deserving champion; chaos, drama, and undermining expectations based on prior performance is the point, and thus the prior performance is nearly irrelevant (as TV ratings in these sports can attest). The NFL, MLB, and lower divisions of NCAA football have more manageable formats but have all significantly expanded their postseason fields in the last three decades, too. Where money can be made, there are no bounds.

Along the same lines, another American tradition, sans intervention from above, is consolidation of power. The demise of the old Southwest Conference is still the only unmistakable step in the direction of the true "super conference," that long-imagined, NFL-style cabal of elite programs that further ropes itself off from the academically-oriented hangers-on and the directional rabble. Prognostications along these lines, though they briefly reared their head this offseason, are much farther off than the increasingly deafening calls for a playoff. But they are part of the same evolutionary branch, and the truly exclusive "super conference" also fits a long-term trend, begun by the split in Division I in the seventies and evident in the ever-swelling contracts for apparel, television, and especially the big money bowls; the Big Eight’s transition to the Big Twelve is the most unambiguous effort so far to cut the chaffe, but the ACC’s expansion at the apparent expense of the Big East four years ago was expected to be a similarly mortal wound to the Big East’s status as a major conference, and it might yet prove to be when Pat White graduates and West Virginia falls back into its historical pattern. One of the most interesting developments of the next decade will be the relative "ceilings" of Rutgers, South Florida, and Pittsburgh, the programs that seem best positioned to keep the league above water despite histories (or, in USF’s case, lack thereof) that suggest they’re more likely to sink it.

The point is, as the stakes and rewards increase -- and, as opposed to a decade ago, a playoff is now widely regarded as an unquestioned fount of lucre -- the number of legitimate aspirants inevitably shrinks. The college game can never compete with the NFL without retaining the elements that mark it as a unique animal. A playoff is not a threat to that distinction, as the huge swatch of sports on all levels thriving with a postseason tournament can attest (personally, I associate the exhilirating, unifying experience of advancing through a playoff with high school, not the pros, and this is a very key difference). But some of the trends that accompany the road to a bracket -- the growth and increased autonomy of athletic departments headed by sugar daddies/surrogate "owners" like Phil Knight and T. Boone Pickens; the overwhelming media saturation, corporatization, and unstoppable commercial/logo creep; the never-ending facilities race and the further separation of the haves and have-nots -- do threaten the distinction. Progress on one front (a playoff) also requires deliberation and foresight to fend off the creeping corruption of the board rooms and marketing departments. They portend the wholescale commodification of tradition, and for a sport that thrives on organic loyalties, the shared experience of the campus, and simple, common bloodlust, nothing could be more fatal.