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From the Archives: Bowls, the B.C.S., and My Thoughts on a Playoff

Can you believe college football season starts next month?

All right, it starts at the end of August and we're at the beginning of July, but, still, we're getting close, so now is as good a time as any to begin trotting out my greatest hits ere the 2006 campaign gets underway.

Of course, in my case, "greatest hits" is much more loosely defined.

As some of you may know, the original incarnation of what later became Dawg Sports was called Kyle on Football.

Since that fact no doubt is news to many of you, I have decided to exhume and republish some of the more memorable postings from my old site as we begin in earnest the countdown to college football season. As they say, if you haven't read it, it's new to you.

The following initially appeared at my old weblog on July 29, 2005, and I have since cited it numerous times here at Dawg Sports. Here is my unexpurgated take on bowl games, the B.C.S., and the idea of a college football playoff:

The weekend has come once more and we return our attention to the pressing questions of college football's ongoing offseason. Now that we are on the eve of the arrival of August, time is growing short before our beloved Bulldogs yet again take the field between the hallowed hedges.

There being no excuse for further delay, therefore, I focus my attention upon a question that has plagued college football fans for the last several seasons.

That question, of course, is this:

Is this the year that the B.C.S. finally gets it right or is this the year that the B.C.S. finally messes up so badly that it will put us on the road to a playoff?


This will require some explanation. Bear with me here.

As all of you are aware, I am steadfast in my opposition to a Division I-A college football playoff.

A playoff system favors only the top tier teams, whereas the bowl system allows deserving squads from lower level conferences to compete in postseason play, as well. The bowl system spreads the wealth, literally and figuratively, in much the same way that the electoral college allows small states, and not just major metropolitan areas, to have a say in choosing the president.

Anyone who likes our form of government, therefore, should like the bowl system for the same reason. Anyone who prefers a playoff, by contrast, ought to be subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, asked if he is now or has ever been a member of the Communist Party, and blacklisted. Oh, all right, that might be a bit harsh . . . but only a bit.

Under a playoff system, a team either fails to make the playoffs, loses in the playoffs, or wins the national championship. That means you either end up No. 1 or you end the season on a down note. Under the bowl system, nearly one-fourth of all the teams in college football get to end the season with a win. Some of them even get to finish the season with a dramatic win (such as Georgia, Texas, and Iowa) or an emphatic win (such as Tennessee, Utah, and Southern Cal).

A 16-team single-elimination playoff would produce 15 postseason games. The bowl system produces 28 postseason games. More college football is better than less college football, so the bowls are better than a playoff by thirteen games . . . and counting.

The bowl system favors tradition and emphasizes the importance of conference standing as well as national standing, so it has particular appeal here in the South, where we go for that sort of thing.

Playoff systems produce aberrational results (such as the 1997 world champion Florida Marlins), require cognitive dissonance (a college basketball team that loses its conference tournament but wins the N.C.A.A. tournament as an at-large team is declared the best team in the country, despite not even being the best team in its conference), and generally produce bad games (most Super Bowls are not competitive).

Furthermore, for all the importance that I attach to these contests, the fact remains that, at the end of the day, it's just a game. The difference between choosing a good college and choosing a bad college is the difference between education and ignorance. The difference between choosing a spouse well and choosing a spouse poorly is the difference between lifelong happiness and lifelong misery. The difference between choosing a good surgeon and choosing a bad surgeon is the difference between living and dying. The difference between choosing your religious faith correctly and choosing your religious faith incorrectly is the difference between Heaven and Hell. The difference between voting L.S.U. No. 1 and voting U.S.C. No. 1 ultimately isn't that big a deal.

The insistence upon determining a single definitive national champion also involves the error of elevating certainty over accuracy. In the last 16 seasons, there have been seven divided or disputed national championships, in 1989 (Miami or Notre Dame?), 1990 (Colorado or Georgia Tech?), 1991 (Washington or Miami?), 1993 (Florida State or Notre Dame?), 1994 (Nebraska or Penn State?), 1997 (Michigan or Nebraska?), and 2003 (Louisiana State or Southern Cal?). During that same span, there have been other years (including last year) in which there was controversy over who deserved to be in the national title game, even if (as was the case last year) there was no doubt after the national championship game.

Personally, I like the controversy, for reasons I will discuss in greater detail below. One of the reasons I prefer the controversy of the B.C.S. is that it matters more than the controversy of a playoff system. In the B.C.S., we argue over who is No. 2; in a playoff, we would argue over who is No. 16. If you're going to worry about the difference between 16th and 17th place in the standings, you might as well go watch the N.I.T. and find out who's No. 66, while you're at it.

Another reason I prefer the controversy, though, is that I believe it probably reflects reality more accurately than an ironclad guarantee of a single determinative national championship game.

Think back to your high school science class. (I asked you to bear with me here, didn't I?) You were taught the Bohr model of the atom, which showed a nucleus surrounded by a circle and on the perimeter of that circle was a dot, representing an electron. The Bohr model said, in essence, "We know where the electron is, and it's right there."

That is the level of certitude playoff advocates want; at the end of the season, they want to be told, "We know who the national champion is, and it's this team." That need for closure is appropriate in a game of Clue, where the players need to know whether it was, in fact, Colonel Mustard in the library with the wrench. In sports, however, such a demand for certainty in an uncertain world is unimaginative, unrealistic, and childishly simplistic. That's why actual scientists don't use the Bohr model of the atom and why real college football fans don't want a playoff.

Scientists use the electron cloud model of the atom, which shows a nucleus surrounded by series of concentric grey rings. Some grey rings are lighter and some grey rings are darker, representing, respectively, areas of lower and higher probability of finding an electron. A scientist will look at the electron cloud model of the atom and say, "We know there are electrons in there somewhere, and we know you've got a better shot at finding an electron in that darker area than in that lighter area, but, honestly, electrons are very small and they move very fast, so no one can tell you for sure just where the electrons actually are."

Life is like that. So I ask you, who was better in 1991, Miami or Washington? Who was better in 1997, Nebraska or Michigan? Who was better in 2003, Southern Cal or L.S.U.? Well, I have an opinion in each of those cases, but so do you and, in some cases, your opinion might conflict with mine. There's a pretty good chance that, if those co-national champions had met twice in each of those years, one team would have won the first meeting and the other team would have won the second meeting. Why are the playoff partisans so insistent upon there being only one right answer? Can't it be the case that there ain't no good guys, there ain't no bad guys, there's only you and me, and we just disagree?

We just don't know for sure, any more than we know exactly where the electrons are. The differences between the Huskies and the Hurricanes, between the Wolverines and the Cornhuskers, or between the Tigers and the Trojans were very small and moved very fast. As unsatisfying as it may be to people who want to be told a single right answer, even if that right answer is wrong, the fact is that split polls and co-national championships probably reflect the subtleties and nuances of the sport better than consistent definitive consensus results do. The high likelihood of a divided title also gives greater prestige to undisputed national championships when one team clearly stands head and shoulders above the others.

Most important of all, though, is the fact that playoffs diminish the importance of the regular season. An N.B.A. team that wins 70 games, or a major league baseball team that wins over 100 games, has accomplished something special, but it is all for naught if those teams don't go on to win the N.B.A. Finals or the World Series. 162 baseball games between April and September count less than eleven to 19 baseball games in October. A basketball team that plays well all season long is in a worse position than a basketball team that goes on a hot streak in late spring.

In college football, though, every game counts. In the 21st century, the outcome of an early-season game between Colorado and Fresno State decided who played for the national title. Buck Belue's 93-yard touchdown pass to Lindsay Scott in 1980, wacky plays near the goal line at Missouri in 1990 (for the Buffaloes) and in 1997 (for the Cornhuskers), and a whole host of missed field goals in Florida State-Miami games over the last 15 years all mattered because all college football games are significant under the present system.

If we had a playoff, though, none of those games would have mattered; Georgia in 1980, Colorado in 1990, Miami in 1991, and Nebraska in 1997 all would have made a 16-team playoff field, even if they had lost those games against Florida, Missouri, Florida State, and Missouri (is there an echo in here?), respectively.

This is why, whenever someone says to me, "We need a playoff in college football," my response is: "We have one. The first round takes place on Labor Day weekend and the semifinals take place right after Thanksgiving."

In college football, the playoff is the regular season. The college football playoffs take place every single Saturday in the fall, in Austin and Norman, in Auburn and Baton Rouge, in Ann Arbor and Columbus, in Tallahassee and Coral Gables, in Athens and Knoxville, in Dallas and Jacksonville, in Los Angeles and . . . well, all right, in the Pac-10, it's pretty much just in Los Angeles, but you get my point.

My preference, in fact, would be to go back to the way it was done before and restore the traditional bowl tie-ins. Let the S.E.C. champion go to the Sugar Bowl every single year; let the Rose Bowl always pit the Pac-10 champion against the Big Ten champion; let the winner of the Big 12 spend each New Year's Day at the Orange Bowl.

On January 2, 1984, there was no designated national championship game; there were three games---the Orange, Cotton, and Sugar Bowls---that had an impact on the national title. In Miami, an undefeated and top-ranked Nebraska squad was upset by a Miami team with one loss (to Florida). In Dallas, an undefeated and second-ranked Texas squad was upset by a Georgia team with one loss (to Auburn). In New Orleans, an Auburn team with one loss (to Texas) and wins over Georgia and Florida held off a solid Michigan team.

The final scores of those three games were 31-30, 10-9, and 9-7, respectively. Three national championship games were decided by a total of four points. It was the single most exciting day any sport has ever produced in determining its champion. To advocate dismantling the system that gave us such a day as that after having watched those three bowl games would be as foolish and indefensible as it would be to oppose allowing classic songs to be recorded by current artists after having seen the video for Jessica Simpson's remake of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made for Walking."

Still, I am a realist. We have the B.C.S. now and the alternatives are keeping the system we have or diving into the deep end of the playoff pool. Playoff advocates (of whom, I am sad to say, there are even some in the Georgia General Assembly, to our great shame as a state) spend every offseason crowing about how much of a mess the B.C.S. has made of things. These sadly misguided people are missing the point.

First of all, let us admit that, at the end of the day, the B.C.S. ultimately has produced the right result every single time, including the split championship of 2003. For all the griping about which team should have made it into the national championship game at the end of the season in, say, 2000 or 2001 or 2004, no serious fan could argue with a straight face that Oklahoma, Miami, and Southern Cal, respectively, were not each the nation's best team over the course of those campaigns.

The B.C.S. formula may be as convoluted as the Iowa caucuses, but the current system for choosing college football's national champion has a much better track record of success than the current system for choosing presidential candidates. Just as the Georgia Court of Appeals will affirm a trial judge's ruling if the judge is "right for any reason," the B.C.S. deserves credit for awarding the national championship to the best team in the country in each of the years of its existence.

Let us suppose, though, that you are not willing to give the devil his due by crediting the B.C.S. with accomplishing the right result after all the dust has settled. This may come as a shock, but the folks who run the Bowl Championship Series are running a business. Their business is to get people to watch college football. Folks are watching college football when they're talking about college football and folks are talking about college football when they're complaining about college football.

Controversy generates interest. The B.C.S. isn't harmed by public outrage at the results it produces; the B.C.S. is helped by all that passionate outcry. The B.C.S. doesn't care what you say about it in the papers, just as long as you spell its initials right.

Everyone who thought Auburn got hosed last season tuned in to watch the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl. Everyone who thought Southern Cal got hosed the year before that tuned in to watch the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl. To borrow a phrase from 1980s economic theory, there is a trickle-down effect to this, as well: everyone who took part in the argument over whether Cal or Texas was more deserving of an at-large berth tuned in to watch both the Holiday Bowl and the Rose Bowl.

Now think about the N.F.L. The N.F.L. has a playoff. The only time there's any controversy is when an official blows a call and they have instant replay for that. Otherwise, one team wins and advances, while another team loses and goes home. It's as simple as that.

Everyone in America watches the Super Bowl . . . but, despite Don Cheadle's best efforts to wheedle us into watching through an excellent series of advertisements, only the truly dedicated and hard-core fans watch every game on wild card weekend. Where there is no controversy and no argument, there is no debate and no interest. No one tunes in to see what all the fuss is about unless there is first some fuss.

Controversy is good for the B.C.S. and good for the sport of college football. One of the things that makes college football so much fun is that it is constantly open to debate. If I asked you to name the teams that made it into last spring's Final Four, many of you would have to take a moment to think about it. If I asked you who deserved to win the college football national championship in 1966, though, I bet you'd have an opinion about whether Ara Parseghian was right to play for the tie with Michigan State or whether northern attitudes towards Alabama's resistance to court-ordered desegregation deprived the Crimson Tide of the No. 1 ranking.

What makes college football great is the fact that I can start sending out postings about it on the Fourth of July and people are glad to have the chance to start talking about a sport that won't play its first game of the season until Labor Day weekend. Try starting a discussion about baseball on Christmas Eve, about college basketball on Memorial Day, about the N.B.A. on Independence Day, or about hockey on any day ending in "y" and see if you can generate that kind of passion.

So, no, the B.C.S. will not give us an uncontroversial national championship game at the end of this season and, no, that fact will not move us a step closer to a playoff and, no, that will not be a bad thing.

There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, which will keep us warm through the long, cold winter of 2006 and get us through the offseason until we can greet yet another college football season with renewed passion the following fall. That is a good thing, which I will not see ruined by unimaginative Philistines who are no more capable of accepting the idea of more than one national champion than Fidel Castro is capable of accepting the idea of more than one political party.

What a wonderful sport this is, to evoke such emotions and provoke such discussion. Any college football fan who cannot appreciate that fact deserves to be sentenced to spend the rest of his life watching soccer. Oh, all right, that might be a bit harsh . . . but only a bit.

Look for another resurrected posting from my earlier site within the next few days.

Go 'Dawgs!