clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Playoff Dispatches, Part Two

The game is afoot! After the fine fellows at Burnt Orange Nation provided excessive pregame hype for "The Great Debate," Sunday Morning Quarterback has provided the initial dispatch in our conversation---sorry, guys; it's not a smackdown---and it falls to me now to respond.

Like SMQ, I doubt whether I will add much that is novel to the anti-playoff position I have enunciated previously, but I am looking forward to this intellectual exercise, nevertheless . . . so here we go:

To: Sunday Morning Quarterback
From: T. Kyle King

I should begin by clearing up my earlier animadversion against Conan O'Brien, of whom I am not a fan, but whose television program is not among those worthy of excessive bashing. Basically, Conan O'Brien was in the Kristin Davis picture I was using at the time and I had to explain away his presence somehow. (I hope it does not come as a startling revelation to you that I have no earthly idea whether Kristin Davis is a college football fan and my captions are completely fictitious contrivances formulating flimsy excuses for posting pictures of her.)

For instance, a strained Ferris Bueller reference ordinarily would accompany a picture such as this one. (Photograph from Yahoo! GeoCities.)

You began by conceding that, "without a doubt, selecting the participants of a tournament is largely an exercise in subjectivity on the same order of selecting teams for one end-all mythical championship game." Leaving aside my disdain for the use of the term mythical, I agree that the likelihood of error and the consequences thereof are less when differentiating between the 16th- and 17th-best teams, or between the eighth- and ninth-best teams, than when distinguishing between the second- and third-best teams . . . although the differences between an eight-team playoff and a 16-team playoff are far from trivial, as we shall see.

Whichever system we choose to use, though, I am largely all right with the intrusion of subjectivity into the assignment of significance to particular objective outcomes on the playing field. Life is qualitative as well as quantitative; our brains are analog, not digital. To the extent that we replaced subjectivity with objectivity when seeding a hypothetical playoff field, we likely would lessen the quality of that field.

Suppose, for instance, that the six major conference champions automatically qualified for the postseason Division I-A college football tournament. That hardly represents a far-fetched surmise, as any playoff format that won the approval of the powers that be almost certainly would have to guarantee inclusion to the first-place finishers in the six B.C.S. conferences.

That would mean being stuck with the likes of the 1996 Texas Longhorns rather than that year's Nebraska Cornhuskers, the 1998 Texas A&M Aggies rather than that year's Kansas State Wildcats, or the 2003 Kansas State Wildcats rather than that year's Oklahoma Sooners. Such are the perils of objective criteria that elevate a single postseason outing over a series of regular-season results.

Ere we delve too deeply into the details, I should note your second concession, which eschewed specificity not evasively, but pragmatically. As you noted, you are "advocating a playoff in general, not a specific format or method of filling the bracket." That is a fair position to take, as we are debating overarching principles of playoffs versus bowls, not a particular method of structuring either system.

While I agree that we are arguing at a high level of generality, I must add a pair of caveats. First of all, it is noteworthy that playoff advocates share something in common with the postmodern literary critics who are unanimous in their conviction that the works of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare, but who cannot agree with one another who actually put pen to parchment.

I find it hard to share the playoff proponents' conviction that A is inherently better than B when the opponents of B can't even agree over what A is. I will concede that principled playoff advocates such as you are nobly echoing Bobby Kennedy's frequent citation of George Bernard Shaw's dictum about men dreaming dreams of what never was and asking, "Why not?" I, however, am fond of quoting Lord Falkland, who asserted that, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.

Bobby Kennedy . . . possibly a playoff advocate.

I agree with Lord Falkland because I believe in the Law of Unintended Consequences. It is easy to criticize what we know, because nothing wrought by the mind and hand of man is perfect. This is why the most popular player on any football team is the second-string quarterback: being untried, he remains flawless, unlike the fellow actually lining up under center, whose performance must be judged by the harsh facts of reality.

Donald Rumsfeld was right, though: there are unknown unknowns . . . things we don't know that we don't know. All change produces side effects which are unforeseen and unforeseeable, so we would all be wise to be careful for what we wish. Critics of the B.C.S.'s constant fine-tuning, as the major conference commissioners act like old generals always fighting the last war, should not deceive themselves into believing that such annual tinkering would not accompany a playoff, as well.

You may rest assured that, if an eight-team playoff were to be implemented, the first sign of trouble would cause the 16-team advocates, the four-team champions, and the plus-one defenders to denounce the existing format as lustily as they now decry the Bowl Championship Series. In matters of religion, such pursuit of perfection is admirable, if unattainable; in sports, it is merely a case of choosing the source of your perennial frustrations.

I would add, as well, that, no matter what format we were to choose, Senator Blutarsky is right to fear the threat of "bracket creep." I recognize the ominous reality that the fifth B.C.S. bowl game represents the thin end of the wedge that will become the plus-one game that will, in turn, become first a four-team playoff, then an eight-team field.

The same money-driven impetus that leads to the proliferation of minor bowl games also led to the expansion of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament field from its original eight teams, up to and including the preposterous play-in game pitting (theoretically, though rarely in reality) the nation's 64th- and 65th-best teams. Knowing what we know about the greed-propelled machinations of intercollegiate athletics, we have no reason for doubting that the Division I-A football playoff will expand steadily, perhaps making the aforementioned differentiations between the sport's 16th- and 17th-rated teams easier, but simultaneously diluting and delegitimizing the field with each metastasizing outward lurch.

With those preliminaries now out of the way, SMQ, I would like to turn to our first really substantial point of contention. You wrote:

I've always heard in the way of opposition to a playoff this tendency to defend bowl games for the purposes of tradition or day-long couch potato binges or giving more than one team an opportunity to end the season on a high note (no one ever addresses the risk of so many teams closing the year as dispirited losers, but I digress). Barry Alvarez specifically made this latter argument on a radio interview in December, but I've heard each of them a number of times. And I think they make no sense. In no way does a playoff on one end diminish the significance of a the Motor City Bowl on the other, certainly no more than the very roped-off BCS sets itself apart now. As I've already suggested, bowls can be incorporated into a tournament format without much imagination, and TCU and Northern Illinois can continue to slug it out in whatrever venue will have them in the meantime.

I strongly disagree. Even were we to adopt the neither-fish-nor-fowl arrangement of having a college football playoff that did not disrupt the existing lower-tier bowl order, the pre-New Year's Eve bowl games would be relegated to the shameful status of the N.I.T., which no one watches unless they have a dog in the fight. The general college basketball fan mocks, but does not watch, the N.I.T., but, while the general college football fan may belittle the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, he watches every minute of it. I know I do, SMQ . . . and don't try to convince me that you don't, too. Heck, you broke the darn thing down!

Any college football is better than the alternative.

I have been criticized for defending lower-tier bowls as a reward for lower-tier teams by folks who think I am advocating an "every kid in Little League gets a trophy" form of self-esteem simulation, but this is untrue. Every team in Division I-A doesn't get a trophy; 32 out of 119 teams do . . . and the alternative to busting up the B.C.S., which supposedly was contrived to let the rich get richer, is to eradicate even those meager rewards and eliminate the 100 or so teams that have no realistic shot at a national championship under any system we might devise from receiving recognition for any attainment whatsoever. This is to be done in the name of leveling the playing field for all participants?

This brings us to your reflections upon the ruminations of Burnt Orange Nation's BillyZane regarding the resume ranking method, which begin to inch us ever closer to the heart of the matter. It must be conceded, SMQ, that your posting on the methods of ranking college football teams stands alongside LD's "The Narrative," The Lawgiver's "Official Ethics of MGoBlog," Fightin' Amish's "Blog-ifesto," and Orson Swindle's "52 Reasons ESPN/ABC/Disney Sucks" among the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere's definitive documents. (Alas, my own Weblogging Disclosure Statement failed to catch fire, although my E.S.P.N. "College GameDay" Drinking Game received some nice compliments.)

You drew close to the crux of the issue when you wrote:

A playoff completely does away with the need for any sort of final opinion ranking at all, because a playoff applies the single, ultimate objective standard the limited regular season never could: just win, baby.

(No, this is not the only standard of the regular season: Boise State, Auburn, Boise State again, Tulane, Marshall, Arizona State, Toledo, and Penn State in the last 12 years have each met it by finishing the regular season undefeated, but none appeared in a designated mythical championship game. In the same span, seven teams - Florida, Florida State, Florida State again, Nebraska, LSU, Oklahoma and Florida again - have appeared in mythical championship games with one loss, a list that does not even include 2003 AP Mythical Champion USC. Neither Nebraska nor Oklahoma even won the Big XII before playing for the nominal national title, and many, many pundits argued last December Michigan shouldn't be held to any such requirement, either. So there are a number of other standards at play, none of them necessarily agreed upon. But there is only in a playoff, and that is the point.)

That is the question, isn't it? Can it be---should it be---solely and simply a matter of "just win"? Of necessity, the playoff advocate must answer affirmatively, but can other factors be kept out of the mix to an adequate extent? Should we aspire to exclude such criteria from consideration?

It must be conceded by all concerned that this distillation down to the sole determinant of winning is exceedingly difficult in college football, perhaps more so than in any other major sport. Because college football has the shortest regular season, it provides the smallest data set with which to align the participants in the postseason. This makes seeding much more difficult than that for the N.F.L. (which has a formula which, as nearly as possible, takes all human judgment out of the mix) or for college basketball (which assembles a large tournament field using a deluge of data).

Perhaps some would argue that this dearth of comparable information between two teams from different conferences mitigates in favor of a playoff, but I believe that factor cuts the other way. Because there are so few games upon which to base a decision, it is better to use the polls, bowls, and resume ranking to incorporate the entire season from beginning to end, rather than to rely upon a handful of postseason games that could not help but be seeded either rigidly (through ironclad automatic conference championship bids of the selfsame sort that B.C.S. critics so strongly denounce) or haphazardly (by comparing apples to oranges).

Paul Cezanne . . . possibly a playoff detractor.

If it comes down to "just win," with no outside judgments permitted, how, precisely, would the 2004 tournament field have arrayed Auburn, Boise State, Oklahoma, Southern California, and Utah . . . undefeateds all? If evaluating such factors as strength of schedule is an illegitimate basis for crowning a champion after the postseason, why are we to trust a playoff format whose seeding necessarily assumes the legitimacy of using the identical factors to make decisions before the postseason?

It would be simplistic to argue that it is because they "just won," because they didn't "just win" . . . they won in a particular format seeded in a specific manner. An alternative arrangement might well have---likely would have---produced a different result, so we are right back where we started, deciding what to evaluate, and how, and when. Given that there is no way to get around that problem, I would rather base the evaluation upon 12 or 13 or 14 games than upon three or seven.

As you have demonstrated ably, SMQ, we all will always get hung up on the question of which team is "the best," which no system can answer satisfactorily. This is why I prefer the old system of postseason tie-ins (which sent the S.E.C. champion to the Sugar Bowl, the S.W.C. champion to the Cotton Bowl, the Big Eight champion to the Orange Bowl, and the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions to the Rose Bowl every single year) to a playoff, and why scientists prefer the electron cloud model of the atom to the Bohr model of the atom: clarity sometimes may be purchased only at the expense of accuracy.

Finally, you close with an intriguing question: "[S]hould college football crown a 'national champion' at all?" I must confess that I have never considered the issue in precisely that light, but my preference for the old bowl tie-ins offers some hint of my answer. (Incidentally, I quite agree that the "plus-one" model, which I oppose, makes much more sense under the pre-Coalition/Alliance/B.C.S. system than it does in the present state of affairs.)

I am not opposed to the declaration of a national champion per se, but I definitely consider it to be of secondary importance. I find decidedly distasteful the obsession with the national title as the be-all and end-all of college football, as it detracts from historic rivalries and conference championships to a detrimental degree. If the pursuit of the crystal football is diminishing the value placed on traditional trophy games, it is doing a disservice to the sport, its heritage, and its fans.

While I look forward to the day when---not if---Mark Richt brings a national championship to the Classic City, my goal for Georgia every year is for the Bulldogs to win the Southeastern Conference title. Oftentimes, achieving that objective will place a team in contention for the final No. 1 ranking in the B.C.S. standings, but an S.E.C. crown is not devalued in my eyes simply because the luck of the draw kept Georgia's 2002 season from receiving the same national accolades as L.S.U.'s similar 2003 campaign or Florida's comparable 2006 achievements.

The Red and Black have won 12 S.E.C. championships, but I do not prize the 1948, 1968, 1976, 1981, 1982, and 2005 league titles less highly than the 1942, 1946, 1959, 1966, 1980, and 2002 conference crowns merely because the former six Georgia teams lost their bowl games while the latter half-dozen Bulldog squads won theirs. By contrast, the Atlanta Braves' string of first-place finishes in their division rings hollow in light of their marked lack of postseason success . . . and I reserve special disdain for the 1997 season, when the Braves won their division but the second-place Florida Marlins won the World Series.

This is the playoff game that matters.

Unquestionably, it matters less to me for Division I-A college football to determine a definitive national champion than it does for us to preserve the sport's unique ability to retain fan interest, as evidenced by the fact that we are having this debate in February. One of my major gripes about the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament is that March madness invariably gives way to April apathy because a consequence of unassailable certainty is subsequent boredom. These are not matters of life and death; games serve to entertain, enrapture, and illuminate, so they might as well be interesting.

As you left me with a thorny question with which to contend, it is only right that I return the favor. Accordingly, I pose the following inquiry: "How do you deal with the legitimacy problem?" Whatever criticisms one may offer of the Associated Press poll, it has not produced a national champion with more than one loss since 1960, and then only because the final vote was cast before Minnesota lost the Rose Bowl. In every other instance, you can argue that another team should have won it, but it's darned hard to argue that the No. 1 team shouldn't have won it.

The Super Bowl, by contrast, routinely crowns a champion that did not have the best regular-season record. Last fall's World Series yielded a top team that won 83 games during a 162-game schedule. Last spring's N.C.A.A. tournament champion was swept by the N.I.T. champion earlier in the year.

All of these sports choose their champions based solely on postseason results, producing some incongruous outcomes that are difficult to square with the realities of the regular season. Are we simply to accept this as a cost of doing business or is it possible to add what you consider a legitimate approach to the postseason without detracting from the legitimacy of the regular season?