Thursday, April 1, 2010

Should There Be A College Football Playoff?

The NCAA basketball tournament has almost run its course and by sometime Monday night we will have a new national champion. It is taken as given that the NCAA basketball tournament is a legitimate method of determining the champion.  So, naturally, sports reporters and many fans think that a playoff is just the ticket for college football as well.  Understand one thing, the call for a football playoff is not about Truth (finding the "true champion"), Justice (opening the process to the little guys like Boise State, Utah and TCU), and the American Way (giving the people what they want.)  The clamor is simply about a desire that universities create a football extravaganza for sports reporters to opine about, watch, and then report on.  And for fans to watch as well.

The people who call for a playoff don't give a damn about universities and what is in their best interests.  College football is a great sport second only the professional football in the united states in popularity.  The schools that built college football into what it is today are not the little guys like BYU, Utah, and Boise State.  These programs are little more than a sideshow attraction.  It has been built by the BCS schools.  There can be no doubt about that.  I would argue that we should leave college football in the hands of the those who created it and these good people don't want a playoff.  That's good enough for me.

Some reporters seem to think that the BCS schools are run by village idiots since, as seems quite obvious to them, a playoff would bring in huge amounts of money universities are currently "leaving on the table" (as is often said).  They point to the NCAA basketball tournament as the model for their financial imaginings.  There are two problems with that.  First, the BCS schools do not want to share the money they have earned the way the NCAA currently shares basketball tournament revenues. The NCAA dispenses the CBS money to a very large number of schools.  I have no proof that the NCAA might try to grab control of any Division 1 football playoff but the fact is that they control all of the other playoffs.

The second problem with the financial imaginings of reporters and fans is that bowl division schools receive a great deal of money from bowls.  It is very likely greater than what a playoff would bring in but that misses two key points.  First, while the NCAA tournament has just one team that ends its season with a win, the bowls allow for a very large number of winners.  Moreover, it provides exposure to a very large number of schools, albeit not always a great deal of exposure.

The only genuinely compelling reason to have a playoff would be that that is the best way to find the best team in the country, the "true champion."  This is, of course, perfect nonsense. The notion that basketball playoffs reliably find the "best team" in the country is refuted by the facts.  Does anyone really think that North Carolina State was the best basketball team team in 1983 when it beat the Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougars by a fluke basket in the last seconds of the game?  Did Dereck Whittenburg make a beautiful last second pass to Lorenzo Charles for a dunk or did he throw up a desperation air ball that Charles fortuitously happened to be in position to pluck out of the air and toss down.  Anyone who say the play knows that it was the latter.  Was NC State the best team that year?  The Sporting News calls it the biggest tournament upset ever.  The fact that NC State won 7 of its last 9 games that year coming from behind in the last minute supports the view that while gritty this team was not the best team.  And, the 8th seeded Villinova team that beat Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA championship game was manifestly not the best team that year.

This year, we have two 5 seeds, Butler and Michigan State, a 2 seed in West Virginia, and a 1 seed in Duke.  Butler got to the Final Four honestly -- it beat a 1 seed and a 2 seed to get there.  Michigan State beat a 4 seed but the rest of the work was done by others.  Tom Izzo was characteristically honest about the situation.
"I don’t know how many of those teams lose if it’s a best-of-three or best-offive,” Izzo said. “But that’s the excitement of the tournament.”  
Is any of the teams in the Final Four the best team in the country?  Very possibly not.  How would we know?  How could we prove it? If we let the tournament decide then we will have to accept that NC State was the best team in 1983 or or Villinova was the best team in 1985 and if Michigan State wins this year we will have to accept the manifest falsehood that it is the best team.

The problem with the basketball playoffs is that who wins is too much a function of seedings and the match ups they generate.  This would be no less true of a football playoff.  A question of real interest to me is how the 8 teams that would play off the championship would be determined?  Ironically we would have to use the BCS formula, possibly tweaked a bit.  Though no one would say that the humans that vote are objective or that they can remember key stats, we have the computer polls for that.  But if we are going to do that then we might as well accept the current system where the BCS determines which two teams will play in the national championship game.  There is no way to prove that the BCS winners are not the best teams of the years they win.

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