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More Minus Than Plus: Why an Extra Game Would Solve Nothing

[I]nstead of talking about this Fiesta Bowl like it was some one-in-a-million event, we probably ought to be asking, "Should Boise State have an opportunity to play Ohio State?"

Peter Bean, Burnt Orange Nation

Unsurprisingly, Peter has identified a legitimate question, to which I (with apologies to Sunday Morning Quarterback for providing an early preview of our upcoming postseason playoff debate) shall endeavor to provide a partial response in a manner worthy of Peter's effusive praise, for which I remain most humbly grateful. (Try diagramming that sentence!)

Based upon his belief in the necessity of objectivity in sports, LD takes the position (which he defends with an extremely well-articulated and nuanced argument) that any undefeated Division I-A college football team legitimately may claim a championship, since that squad was not beaten on the field. (I am oversimplifying LD's thoughtful and sophisticated position considerably and I would encourage everyone to read his essay, which was written in response to my own posting upon the subject and to which I offered a brief reply, in its entirety.)

While I respect LD's perspective, I do not share it wholeheartedly, as I believe in resume ranking, which takes into account not just wins and losses, but also other pertinent factors such as strength of schedule and margin of victory, applying subjective judgments to glean the significance of those objective facts. For this reason, I believe Boise State deserves consideration as a national championship contender, but I am reserving decision until all of the games have been played.

There may be more than one team clad in orange and blue standing between you and this, bub.

Those wishing for a definitive answer who are sufficiently realistic to acknowledge that a playoff will not come, if at all, for many years have a solution, the compromise commonly called "plus-one." The existing bowl structure is preserved, complete with the existing B.C.S. tie-ins, and, after the dust has settled, the top two teams in the country compete in a post-postseason mini-playoff to determine the national title.

A Buckeye victory in next Monday night's game would produce suitable circumstances for the plus-one scenario to be played out, as Ohio State and Boise State would be the only remaining Division I-A unbeatens. This, the plus-one advocates contend, would be a situation ripe for a final, definitive national championship showdown between the Broncos and the Buckeyes.

The problem, of course, is that, short of Xon's committee structure being implemented, schedules are set in advance but hindsight is 20/20. If a plus-one format had been implemented for the 2006 season and Boise State and Ohio State both won their bowl games in the desert, the proponents of the plus-one system would have appeared prescient.

What if another outcome came to pass, though? The Broncos beat Oklahoma on a two-point conversion in overtime; realistic scenarios under which the Sooners emerged victorious abound. What then? Under those circumstances, a Buckeye win in Glendale would have left Ohio State as the lone unbeaten team . . . to face whom in the remaining plus-one game? 12-1 Boise State? 12-1 Louisville? 12-1 Wisconsin?

Ladies and gentlemen, the plus-one national championship game . . . between Big Ten champion Ohio State and Big Ten second runner-up Wisconsin! (Photograph from Sports Illustrated.)

Doesn't that put us right back where we started? Aren't there strength of schedule arguments then to be mounted on behalf of 12-2 Florida and 12-2 Oklahoma, of 11-2 Michigan and 11-2 Southern Cal, of 11-2 Auburn and the 11-2 Sugar Bowl champion? If the Gators won in Glendale, would the Buckeyes get a rematch?

The plus-one proposal looks great on paper, as long as there are two undefeated teams once the bowl games are over . . . two and only two, no more and no less. The plus-one solution would have solved nothing in 2004, when three teams (Auburn, Southern California, and Utah) remained unscathed even after the bowl games.

The plus-one scenario wouldn't have helped last year, either, when the Longhorns stood alone atop the heap in the aftermath of the Rose Bowl and the second spot in the extra one-game playoff bowl would have been up for grabs among 11-1 Penn State, 12-1 Southern California, 11-1 Texas Christian, and 11-1 West Virginia. Should the Trojans really have gotten a rematch? If so, and if U.S.C. won the second time around, why should the Trojans' loss in the Granddaddy of 'Em All have counted less than the Longhorns' loss in the Red-Headed Stepchild of 'Em All? Should another contender have been given a shot? If so, which one? Isn't this the very controversy the plus-one concept was designed to alleviate?

More to the point, should Texas really have been forced to prove itself again after beating what E.S.P.N. had proclaimed the greatest team of all time? Had the 'Horns been made to play one more game---exhausted, exhilarated, spent from celebration and exertion, or just plain unfortunate victims of the percentages---and had they lost to, say, the Nittany Lions, wouldn't the national title have been tainted? Wouldn't that spectacular Rose Bowl have been diminished? Wouldn't Texas have deserved a second shot thereafter?

The 2006 Rose Bowl, Part II . . . because the sequel is always as good as the original! (Image from The Z Review.)

Plus-one proponents point to 2003 as the clearest case for their cause. Had Southern California, the No. 1 team in the sportswriters' poll, played Louisiana State, the No. 1 team in the coaches' poll, following the Rose and Sugar Bowls, we would have had a clear-cut national champion . . . but would we have?

Didn't Miami (Ohio), led by future Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, go 13-1 in 2003? Didn't Boise State also finish that campaign with a 13-1 record? The Broncos were thought unworthy then, but B.S.U. might have surprised us at the end of the 2003 season, just as the team with the blue field surprised us at the end of the 2006 season.

The plus-one option is no solution; in its effort to find middle ground, it succeeds only in reaching a muddled compromise which is neither fish nor fowl. Those who favor a postseason tournament believe the plus-one scenario is not playoff enough; it matches two teams rather than the 16, eight, or four preferred by advocates of a tourney-style system.

We who oppose such a radical transformation of the game, on the other hand, believe a plus-one approach incorporates too many of the elements of a playoff format, creating problems which would only be multiplied by the inevitable creeping expansion of the field to include basketball-style brackets that merely caused us to exchange one set of arguments for another in order to achieve an ersatz certitude that served the interests neither of the fans nor of the game.

You know what would make my argument complete? Why, a Jimmy Smits quotation, of course! (Photograph from NNDB.)

Perhaps two undefeated Division I-A teams will remain after all of the games have been played . . . although a national championship-clinching upset in the desert in a game involving Ohio State hardly would be unprecedented. If we are left with a pair of unbeatens and the need to choose between them, then that will be the hand we have been dealt and I find nothing in the least unsatisfactory about taking a final vote to decide between the last two contenders remaining after a series of skirmishes in the initial series of contests.

That, after all, is how we decide such mundane matters as selecting leaders of the free world, through primaries to narrow the field and general elections to settle matters once just two prospects remain. If I am not mistaken, we employ a similar system to pick the winner of "American Idol."

In an episode of "N.Y.P.D. Blue," Jimmy Smits's character told an old friend who had fallen in with a bad crowd that, if he wanted to be a wiseguy, he needed to be a wiseguy instead of being half a wiseguy. The same holds true for the college football postseason.

If you want a playoff, have a playoff---though be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it---but the plus-one proposal is designed to produce half a playoff. That is half a playoff too much for me, half a playoff too little for many of you, and the wrong amount of playoff for us all.

Go 'Dawgs!