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A Modest Proposal, Part I :: We're All Wrong

C&F has never been a big fan of a college football playoff. He kind of likes the eccentricity and lack of resolution in the college football postseason. And he kind of likes watching "random SEC team" beat Ohio State by 20. Or 40.

But C&F also realizes that the tide of college football fandom's opinion is against him. And perhaps it's time for someone who's not a proponent of the playoffs to design a playoff system that combines the great part of college football's current system -- the importance of the games, the significance of a Week 3 upset -- with the virtues of a playoff.

This is an attempt to bring both college football factions to the table -- to give both sides something to talk about.

It is "A Modest Proposal."

(Yeah, the title's a bit cliched.

But at least C&F's doesn't require cannibalism.)

This proposal, though, comes in two parts.

Before college football fans can resolve their differences over a playoff, both have to be able to admit the half-truths, shortcomings and outright failures of their arguments. So in Part I, we take a look not at what could be, but at the problems with the arguments so far.

NOTE: These are not meant to be exhaustive lists, but to tackle the most common arguments.

PROPOSED: That college football fans agree to the following debunking of the arguments of playoff supporters:

1. The myth of a 'mythical national champion.'
This is one of the golden oldies for supporters of a college football playoff: The champions we have right now are "mythical."

It's a nice slogan. But it's simply not true.

Back when the polls decided everything, Schembechler was right.

If they choose to vote you number one, then you're the national champion. But a national champion is a mythical national champion, and I think you guys ought to know that. It's mythical.

Back then, it was just a varying number of polls with nothing tying them together and no attempt to match the No. 1 with the No. 2 team.

It's different now. There is an organization -- supported by all the major conferences -- that attempts to put the top two teams in the same game.

Is the system perfect? No. But if Major League Baseball decided tomorrow that the team with the greatest run differential throughout the year was going to be declared the season champions, I'd recognize them as champions. I'd say it was an incredibly stupid way to choose a champion, but that doesn't make that champion "mythical."

The only way to claim today that the champion is mythical and still have any credibility is to say that it's not officially presented by the NCAA. There are two problems with that, though. The first is that playoff advocates like to fancy themselves as anti-establishment, which complicates an embrace of the ultimate establishment in college football. And the second is that the NCAA could shut the BCS down if it were so inclined. But if anything, the association has implicitly given the BCS its blessing.

But don't say a championship is "mythical" because you don't like the method for deciding that championship. It's the rhetorical equivalent of taking your ball and going home.

For the rest -- including what's wrong with playoff opponents' arguments -- follow the jump.

2. Does "unique" mean "wrong"?
Talk with some playoff advocates, and you'll soon here the argument that "No one else in sports does it this way." Which is essentially true. And completely irrelevant.

Just because something is unique doesn't automatically mean it's wrong.

But the argument is historically flawed, as well. Playoffs, at least as we know them, are relatively new creations. The first baseball season with a multi-round postseason format was 1969. Before that, the best team in the NL played the best team in the AL. Even when, as in 1908, that was disputed -- in both leagues. (Does that mean the Cubs were "mythical World Series champions"? Crap; now it's been 101 years!) The NFL's first postseason game came along in 1932, but a multi-round playoff didn't emerge until 1967. Yes, these were professional leagues with different circumstances than a sport with 11 conferences. But the fact remains that the idea that Moses brought down a copy of the Ten Commandments and a copy of the modern playoff format is just wrong.

3. The importance of the games.
There is really no dispute that changing formats would make the games less important. Argue all you want, but answer this question: In a playoff with, say, eight teams, how is Southern Cal's loss to Stanford a season-defining moment? Simple answer: It isn't. Southern Cal gets in anyway, even with the later loss to Oregon. The drama of those games doesn't just come from David taking down Goliath; it also comes from Goliath watching his whole season flash before his eyes.

Peter Bean, usually of BON has written the most eloquent defense of the importance of regular season games in a playoff world while filling in one day over at EDSBS:

As a fan of a Texas team which dropped its first two conference games before winning five straight, I can assure you that our season finale would have taken on a great deal more importance if there was a playoff berth -- as opposed to a Fiesta or Orange Bowl appearance -- at stake. Adding a playoff would make create more meaningful games, not fewer.

True -- to a point. But, and C&F is well aware that this guy isn't popular in the blogosphere right now, we must consider what Bob Costas has said about baseball's wild card.

"Whatever excitement the wild card brings is not added to the pennant races; it comes at the expense of the pennant races. The teams sometimes are deserving, but the cost is too high because you take away the high-end drama that only true pennant races produce. You've added a couple hamburger dishes to the menu but taken filet mignon off."

In other words: Yes, more teams are involved with a wild card, and more games are therefore "meaningful." But those games are each less meaningful than the meaningful games they replace. Or: yes, Texas-Texas A&M would have meaning under a playoff system. But the bottom-line question -- whether a team that would probably have been a lower-seed contender gets into the playoffs or not -- is not nearly as weighty as the Big XII Championship Game between Missouri and Oklahoma, which decided whether the national front-runner (Missouri) had a rare chance to play for it all. There would be more games with some degree of meaning, but it's a lower degree of meaning than the important games we have now.

4. 'It's only x number of rounds with x number of teams. It won't change much about the season.'
I was taught in philosophy class that slippery slope arguments aren't logically sound. The problem is, they're often true.

And so it is with this argument about tournaments: They often expand, with or without virtue. For example, the NCAA baskeball tournament has gone from eight teams to 65 over the years, and some want to go further. And the FCS playoffs are about to go from 16 teams to 20.

The reason this happens is one of the very "virtues" that playoff advocates tout: Any disputes become less important the further you move down the chart. For example, it's less important to get No. 8 right in an eight-team tournament than to get No. 2 right in a two-team tournament. The problem is that there is often less difference between No. 8 and No. 9 than between No. 2 and No. 3 -- so, now that No. 8 is in, it's harder to build a coherent case for keeping out team No. 9, meaning the field now needs to be 10, or 12, or 16. "Playoff creep" is born.


PROPOSED: That college football fans agree to the following debunking of the arguments of playoff opponents:

1. 'The BCS works itself out.'
No. No, it doesn't.

It didn't in 2003, when Southern Cal should have played LSU. It didn't in 2004, when Auburn should have played Southern Cal. Time after time, the BCS has failed to present the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, and has to be bailed out by the top-ranked team, a scenario that proved impossible in 2003, when the top-ranked team wasn't even in the national championship game.

The BCS has broken the hearts of almost as many college football fans as erratic quarterbacks, and with less justification for the end result. And every heartbreak has created an endless stream of changes to the formula: take this computer out, put this one in, throw out this poll, add this one in, change this weighting, put in strength of schedule, take out strength of schedule...

There might be a way to have a No. 1 vs. No. 2 system. The BCS isn't it. It never has been; it never will be.

2. The 'tradition' of the bowls.
Ah, the pomp, the circumstance of the Rose Bowl (presented by Citi). So perfect, so noble, so aimed at infusing millions of dollars of tourist money into the Pasadena economy. Peter in EDSBS again:

As the Sports Business Journal explains in great detail, any notion that the current bowl system serves anything other than profit is simply nostalgic wishcasting.

Now, with some bowls, like the Rose, there is a degree of pround tradition there.

But there is no tradition to the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.

No matter how many posters you make.

In fact, so steeped in tradition is the TBNCG that it won't even come around again for another couple of years. This past year, it was the AllState National Championship Game. We still have to go through the FedEx National Championship Game and the Citi National Championship Game before getting back to Tostitos. What grandeur. What memories.

Let's not even get started on the tradition of the International Bowl, an abomination that has to qualify as a war crime against the nation of Canada.

3. Is controversy good for the sport?
To an extent. But only to an extent.

Sure, it's nice to argue about who should have won the national championship in such-and-such a year, when UPI picked this team and AP that one, etc. But when you have a "national championship game," this is nonsense. In fact, to exclude a team like 2003 Southern Cal from the mix isn't just controversial; it's manifestly unfair. It's against the values of fair play and sportsmanship that are supposed to lie at the heart of any sport. Put the way we like to say it in the South: It just ain't right.

4. The lies of plus-one lite.
The "plus-one" proposal favored by some traditionalists, or what C&F likes to call "plus-one lite," would do little more than reshuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic. (Let the cliches flow like waterfalls!)

This version of plus-one would take the rankings, redo them after the four (or five) BCS bowls and then seed No. 1 and No. 2 all over again.


So who, exactly would you have chosen as the teams to play after this past year's BCS events, dear traditionalist?

Georgia vs. Southern Cal -- the "hottest" teams in the land! (This was nonsense, but anyway...) But LSU beat the No. 1 team. Don't they deserve a shot? Georgia, after all, lost to South Carolina and got blasted by Tennessee. Southern Cal couldn't beat Stanford, for crying out loud. What about the Kansas Jayhawks, they of the lightweight schedule, heavyweight coach and significant victory over Virginia Tech? Or West Virginia, who rolled over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl?

Same problems, same controversy. It's just adding another game to get the same argument.

5. The BCS isn't the only non-playoff solution.
True enough. But what do you replace it with?

The old bowl system? Well, you could, and that's certainly logically consistent. But then we do have a mythical national championship, based on nothing more than the polls. If you think the sport doesn't need a true champion, that's fine. But it's unfulfilling for most fans.

And if you're going to create another one-shot championship game, how exactly do you do it? A selection committee, which can impose common sense but only by using human subjectivity? Drawing names from a hat (which, in fairness, might actually yield better results than the BCS)? A secret ballot by some bigwigs?

Habemus match-upam!

The BCS is replaced by a playoff, another flawed championship formula, or no champion at all.


This post is an attempt to show that the ways of thinking about a playoff are flawed. But there needs to be something to break the logjam. Something that can satisfy the need for more than two teams without eviscerating the regular season.

It can be done.