Since a recent thread touched upon the issue of playoffs in college football, I've been thinking about some of the most common arguments I've seen for and against the idea. My apologies if these points have already been raised and debated ad nauseum in Dawg Sports' storied past. If that's the case, feel free to scold me for my inadequate research and direct me to the pertinent thread(s). I personally would love to see a limited playoff, (though the exact number of teams that should participate is a detail that can be worked out by far wiser individuals than I). I don’t claim to be an expert, and if someone here can show me where my reasoning is fallacious or my analysis incomplete, then I will (grudgingly) concede the point(s) and maybe even change my mind. Whether or not that happens, though, I hope to spark a lively debate that will help us all keep our minds off the fact that it is not college football season.
Let me first ask everyone to play pretend for a moment. Pretend that you have just been approached by an executive with Animal Planet, who tells you that a lot of their viewers seem fascinated by the question of which animal would win if a saltwater crocodile and a great white shark were to fight. He tells you that you have been chosen to speak for all television viewers, and he wants to know which of two options you think more people would tune in to see. Option 1: Animal Planet produces a one-shot special where they gather various experts to watch film, run computer simulations, and use all available data to predict which animal would likely be victorious. Option 2: Animal Planet produces a one-shot special where they capture a saltwater croc and a great white, stick them in a tank together, and let them fight to the death.
Now, if your choice would be option 1 because you reason that the result of one fight between two individual animals may not be a good indicator of each species' average abilities (perhaps because one of the animals is inferior or is just having an "off" day), then I respectfully suggest that you immediately contact your doctor and ask him/her to run whatever tests are necessary to confirm that you are not in fact an android in disguise. No human being I know would choose "expert" predictions over the opportunity to actually see a croc and a shark fight (except for animal rights advocates). I hope it goes without saying that option 2 is simply more fun. (Side note: Animal Planet has made some shows along the lines of option 1, and they're boring as hell. Don't waste your time.)
In spite of the fact that "fun" is college football's raison d'etre, it seems to me that this simple concept often gets lost in debates over "accuracy" vs "certainty." T. Kyle King* recently pointed out that whether or not we get the correct #1 and #2 in the National Championship Game is not nearly as important as many people pretend it is. I agree with this whole-heartedly. But with respect to TKK, I think that this is actually a better argument for a playoff than against one. Even if having a playoff means that the best two teams in the country miss out on the NCG due to "off" days against teams we believe are inferior, we fans are consoled by getting to see some of the best teams in the country face off against each other. Assuming I grant that polls are a more "accurate" way of choosing #1 and #2 (and I don't necessarily concede this point), I simply don't think it's important enough to pass up our chance at seeing the college football equivalent of "Croc vs. Great White" every single year.
"But Frost," you say (if you shortened my screen name to "Frost," which you're all welcome to do), "what good does it do to have a playoff when we'll be relying on the very same fallible voters we hate now to pick which teams get into the playoffs? This won't eliminate the whining and complaining at all!" My response to that is that we don't have to let the voters determine everything just because we accept that they must have some role in the system. After all, we'd be outraged at the notion of playing exactly one game each year and letting voters rank the teams from there, even though it would spare us all these messy, confusing "upsets" we see every year. I contend that polls are a necessary evil only, and we should limit their role as much as we practically can. A playoff is a marginally lesser evil than the current system.
Then some of you may say, "Frost, it's simply nonsensical for a team that hasn't won its conference to be crowned 'National Champion.' You can't logically be the best in the country if you're not the best in your conference, and we'll see this all the time with a playoff system." My rebuttal to this is, stop getting so hung up on terminology. It's understandable that everyone acts as if "SEC Champion" means "best in the SEC" or that "National Champion" means "best in the nation." But common sense and an honest evaluation of this year's Alabama team should be sufficient to show that "champion" does not always mean "best of." Being the "champion" only means that a team has fulfilled all of the requirements we've deemed to be necessary for that label (with the usual disclaimers about how teams get into the NCG…just for Tank). We hope that these requirements will lead to the "best" team being the "champion," but it's not guaranteed. If the term "champion" proved to be too confusing or too troubling for fans under a playoff system, then we could call the winning team the "Grand Poobah" for all I care. It's just a term, and regardless of which term we use, there are always going to be situations where we feel that the victor isn't really the "best" team. What matters is that we have a clearly defined system in place that makes a reasonable attempt to put the best teams in the NCG (or GPG) and (most importantly) that gives us as much high quality, competitive football to watch as possible. Besides, I've never in my life heard a fan of another sport say, "Gee, these playoffs are so dreadfully inaccurate at choosing a champion! I really wish [my sport] would switch to a system of polls like college football." I figure there's a reason for that. (Hint: It’s probably the same reason that no one wants Mike Bobo.) If fans of other sports can accept the apparent logical contradictions created by a playoff system, then I have faith that we can too.
Next you complain, "It'll just be the same teams in the playoffs over and over again! Who wants to watch that year after year?" My admittedly glib answer to this is, so what? It's usually the same teams in the SEC year after year, and we keep watching those games, don't we? We also see a lot of the same teams ranked in the top 25 each year right now. The only difference with a playoff would be that we get to see some of those teams play each other, with match ups determined entirely by how good the teams are, not which fan bases travel the best. (Also, if the Dawgs could manage to be in the playoffs over and over again, I’m pretty sure none of you would find that tedious.)
Finally you object, "But a playoff would devalue the regular season! How can we take the regular season games seriously if they're all meaningless in the playoffs?" My response to this is a bit more complicated (and, admittedly, less educated), but here's my best shot anyway. First of all, how many teams would make it into the playoffs? At most, maybe eight? (This is a number I've heard thrown around by wiser individuals than I.) The vast majority of teams aren't going to have their regular seasons devalued in the slightest, though the attempt to get into the playoffs could perhaps add excitement and drama to some of their games. For the few that do get in, we can give byes and/or home field advantage as rewards for those teams that had the best regular seasons, just as the NFL does. Is this perfectly sufficient compensation for a team like, say, this year's LSU? No, but it still gives them some incentive to keep trying to win even after they're pretty sure they're in the playoffs.
"And what of rematches?" you ask. Well, even if I grant that a guaranteed rematch will diminish overall fan interest in either game (and I don't know that that's true), we would probably see relatively few regular season match ups repeated in the playoffs anyway. And even if the teams play near the end of the regular season, how likely are we to know for sure that they'll face each other in the playoffs? Speaking for myself here, if I'm not sure that LSU and Bama will be matched up again in the playoffs, I'm inclined to watch their regular season game with great interest simply because they're two phenomenal teams. (For that matter, even if I know for a fact that they'll be playing again, I'm going to watch because...well, it's still a football game between two phenomenal teams.) Yes, during the second game in a rematch, we'll undoubtedly lose some viewers who are bored with the match up. But there are also fans like myself who are intrigued by the possibility of a revenge win for the previous loser. As we all know, that can happen...with a vengeance. Would the money that might be lost by decreased interest in the regular season really exceed the money that might be gained by the playoff games? I don't know, but I'm inclined to doubt it. And I think it's worth it to find out. We don't have to give up all of our bowl games to have a playoff, and it's not as if we'd be stuck with playoffs forever. If it turns out that it's just not lucrative and/or popular enough, we could always go back. But I really don't think we would.
In short (and for those of you too lazy to have read the whole thing), it comes down to college football being entertainment first and foremost. C'mon, y'all... "Croc vs. Great White!" "Lion vs. Tiger!" "Boise State vs. Someone Really Good!" How do you say no to that?
*TKK, I want you to know that I do not intend to mock or antagonize you by referencing you here. I hope you'll instead see this as a compliment to your pithy characterizations of the relevant issues.