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Playoff Dispatches, Part Four

There can be little doubt that, of the numerous perennial debates that divide college football fans, the most heated is the question of whether a Division I-A playoff ought to be implemented. Sunday Morning Quarterback and I agreed to tackle this question on behalf of our respective constituencies, as he strongly favors a playoff and I staunchly oppose one, for reasons I have enunciated previously.

In an effort to have a cordial conversation upon the subject, SMQ offered some preliminary thoughts, to which I responded in a manner that generated some feedback from CW, 34hawk, and a most welcome first-time commenter, Red Blooded.

Now SMQ has answered the bell, as well, providing further grist for the mill and calling upon me to offer an additional reply.

To: Sunday Morning Quarterback
From: T. Kyle King

Later this week, the Phi Kappa Literary Society, a student debating society established at the University of Georgia in 1820, will celebrate the 187th anniversary of its founding with a series of annual commemorative festivities, including what amounts to a "homecoming" meeting for the Society's alumni.

Some years ago, at one such alumni meeting, a fellow Phi Kappan from a prior generation made the cogent observation that, in every debate, there comes a point at which all discussion is ended by the incredulous asking of the question: "Well, what's your definition?" I fear we are approaching that point, if we have not arrived at it already.

You note the distinction between being "the best" and being "the champion." For you, this mitigates strongly in favor of a playoff, because it crowns a clear champion by predetermined means. The problem is that this logic becomes circular; we decide upon a mechanism, then we step aside and allow the mechanism to work its wonders, by whatever means we have decided upon, and, when the end result emerges, whatever form it may take, we declare---quite correctly---this is the champion, because . . . well, the designated championship selection process reached its conclusion, so, by definition, the conclusion is the champion.

There is no refuting this argument, because it is simply a matter of how we define the term. If we agree in advance that a cake is that which we pour into a pan and bake at a particular temperature for a predetermined period, then what emerges from the oven is a cake, irrespective of whether its ingredients were flour, sugar, and eggs or motor oil, duct tape, and ground glass. My brain may accept the definition, but my gut knows the difference.

One of Doug Gillett's three-layer chocolate-raspberry truffle cakes? Si! A Division I-A college football playoff? No!

Accordingly, I am unwilling to accept the cognitive dissonance of the results our championship-determining processes often produce and I am disinclined to concede the superiority of a system merely because it produces "a clear champion." Life is messy; sometimes there's not a clear champion, however hard we may try to force the square peg of our preconceptions into the round hole of reality.

As I indicated yesterday, the Bohr model of the atom (which tells high school students that we know where the electron is; it's that dot right there) has been replaced by the electron cloud model (which, somewhat unsettlingly, shows us shaded areas and tells us that there is a high probability of encountering an electron in that general vicinity) because the former's certainty came only at the expense of the latter's accuracy.

If we are prepared to swear our blind allegiance at the altar of a playoff and to vow never again to use our critical faculties to evaluate the course of a college football season, we will be spared such uncertainty as the question whether Colorado or Georgia Tech was the better team in 1990, Miami or Washington was the better team in 1991, Michigan or Nebraska was the better team in 1997, or L.S.U. or U.S.C. was the better team in 2003.

Even leaving aside the matter of where the fun would be in that, there is the very real question whether such split titles paint a truer portrait of the actual state of affairs than does the slavish devotion to determining a single unified champion, at the expense of all other considerations. You are a nuanced thinker, SMQ, and I try to be one, as well (although 34hawk might tell you otherwise); I would hate to see college football adopt a system which would foreclose all further possibility of subtle reflection upon what you characterize (probably correctly) as the sport's fundamental driving question.

This is why I agree with you that we have peeled away enough of the onion's layers to have reached our areas of fundamental divergence of opinion. The following passage illuminates one such irreconcilable division:

I'm not sure where the reference to unintended consequences comes from, as the consequences of a playoff are hardly unknown - there are playoffs in high school, there are playoffs in the pros, there are playoffs in the Olympics, in the World Cup, in Wimbledon, in every team sport the world over and every sport of any variety sanctioned by the NCAA, including football in four of its five divisions. We know the effects of a playoff. There are dozens of precedents for a playoff, all of them, as far as I can tell, successful.

Well, of course, they're successful. How could they not be successful? If we define the word "champion" to mean "the team that wins these three designated games," and we play those three designated games, then we have succeeded in producing a champion . . . but, then again, the same could be said for any number of perfectly illegitimate methods of crowning a champion---pulling the names of college football teams out of a hat, for instance---so a system that succeeds at being what it is has not necessarily succeeded at its most important particular; namely, producing what might fairly be called a champion according to the actual historic definition of the word and not just our fanciful crabbed definition of the term.

For instance, we wouldn't want to make "champion" synonymous with "Grammy winner."

Viewed in that light, playoffs produce unintended consequences with appalling regularity. Surely no one would argue that the men responsible for corrupting major league baseball's postseason through the introduction of three unevenly-constituted divisions, wild card teams, and five-game divisional playoff series intended that a team that won 83 regular-season games would be the world champion.

Granted, the Cardinals meet the definition of a major league baseball champion---namely, winning the 11 to 19 games that count---but surely even the most devoted baseball fan must feel a twinge of embarrassment that a team of such meager achievements over the course of 162 games between April and October would get to call itself the world champion. No one would claim with a straight face that the Cardinals were the best team in the major leagues over the course of the entire season, which is, of course, not problematic if we in no way intend to conflate being "the champion" with being "the best" . . . but what good is a championship if it is not at least plausibly analogous to being, in some meaningful sense, the best?

This brings us to my fundamental problem with all playoff systems in all sports, which you "intentionally avoided talking about," but which I consider absolutely critical (hence, my question about the legitimacy problem): the unavoidable diminution of the importance of the regular season. You asked:

[W]hat about of the week-to-week scheduling of the games, and of interest in the games themselves? How would a playoff effect the intensity or interest or importance of a certain set of games (most games have only the most indirect championship implications, anyway) when more teams are vying for just a few slots?

The second question is easily enough answered by recourse to the events of last November and December. Michigan's game against Ohio State and Southern California's game against U.C.L.A. turned out to be---and, to varying degrees, were understood in advance to be---single-elimination games for inclusion in the national championship mix.

While I am not (and I hope that you believe that I am not) one of those fans who "are content to crawl into a shell and focus on a single team or conference while only grudgingly recognizing an ever more cohesive national environment," I do place great emphasis upon traditional rivalries, so I would not go so far as to suggest that a playoff would have rendered the Michigan-Ohio State and U.C.L.A.-U.S.C. games entirely inconsequential; clearly, the partisans of the respective contenders would remain passionate in their disdain for one another, regardless of the national ramifications of those contests.

Nevertheless, an added dimension of significance was present precisely because a few teams were vying for just two slots. Had an eight-team playoff been in place in 2006, the national importance of those contests would have been reduced, because Michigan, Ohio State, and Southern California all would have been assured of tournament berths already. No, the coaches would not have rested their starters. Yes, winning or losing might have affected the seeding, but a bit of the luster would have been taken off of those grudge matches.

Granted, the setting of extra places at the table might have conferred heightened importance upon some other games; for instance, the Big East round-robin between Louisville, Rutgers, and West Virginia very well could have acquired further grandeur had a postseason shot at the national title been on the line, but two of those three games had that already and, besides, who among us was not riveted by each of those three games on their existing merits? That state of affairs being unbroken, I dispute vigorously any claim that it needed fixing.

Obligatory Kristin Davis photograph to accompany the foregoing mention of Rutgers. (Image from Yahoo! GeoCities.)

As for your first question, I believe the virtue of the present system over a playoff format is that each game possesses greater significance. When Lindsay Scott caught Buck Belue's 93-yard touchdown pass in Jacksonville in 1980, it kept Georgia in the chase for the top spot in the final rankings. When Gerry Thomas's field goal attempt went wide right at Miami in 1991, Florida State was out of the national championship hunt and the Hurricanes were vaulted into the driver's seat. When Shevin Wiggins's foot knocked the ball into Matt Davison's hands in the end zone at Missouri in 1997, Nebraska's title hopes remained alive. When Clint Stoerner put the ball on the ground while running out the clock against Tennessee in 1998, the Volunteers preserved their shot at the crystal football.

Had Division I-A college football implemented an eight-team playoff in 1979, those thrilling finishes still would have been exciting, but they simply would not---they simply could not---be as much the stuff of legend as they are today. Had Belue been sacked on third down, had Thomas split the uprights, had Scott Frost's pass fallen harmlessly to earth, and had Stoerner kept the pigskin in his grasp in a college football world saddled with a postseason tournament, once-beaten Georgia, Florida State, Nebraska, and Tennessee squads would not have lost their shot at the national crown.

Having a playoff in place would not have caused those outcomes to mean nothing, but not having a playoff in place caused those outcomes to mean everything. Diminishing the significance of such games, even marginally, would be a large sacrifice and, rather than take such opportunity costs lightly, we would do well to pause and consider how much of the game's rich heritage we would be surrendering in the exchange. I, for one, do not think it would be worth it . . . and I fear that too many playoff proponents are not paying heed to this consideration at all.

As you say, the present system is quite imperfect, as the "every game counts" mentality is not applied as evenhandedly as it ought to be. This is a flaw in need of addressing; in my own BlogPoll balloting, I have endeavored scrupulously to follow your resume ranking method in response to this very real problem. The effects of this problem may be ameliorated, though, and wholesale changes would be overkill.

The drive for a "true" champion produces results which simply are non sequiturs. The 1997 Florida Marlins became the National League champions without first becoming the champions of any of the National League's three divisions. The 1997 Arizona Wildcats became the national basketball champions without first becoming the champions of their conference. If the acceptance of these irreconcilably oxymoronic outcomes does not constitute cognitive dissonance, then our narrow definition of a championship has become so attenuated as to be virtually inconsequential. I do not want that for college football.

I likewise do not want college football to become more like its less interesting cousin, the N.F.L. (This is why I prefer a return to the traditional bowl tie-ins, because I believe the B.C.S. championship game bears too great a resemblance to the Super Bowl already.) You expressed surprise at my criticism of the Super Bowl, but I consider that contest the embodiment of much that is wrong with sports generally. The Super Bowl is a spectacle; it is an event; it is an excuse to throw parties; it is a celebration of the commercial (literally); it is, in short, about everything else except the game.

I want the game. I want the whole game, from beginning to end, from Labor Day to New Year's Day. Some have praised, and you might praise, a playoff for rewarding late-season improvement, but I would rather crown a champion of the entire season, not just the last part of it.

Rather than dilute the significance of the season in its totality by transforming college football's postseason into a N.A.S.C.A.R.-style "chase for the championship," the sport properly attaches importance to the complete campaign. Had there been a playoff in 1989, Florida State would have been a top contender, as the Seminoles ended the regular season on a nine-game winning streak that included convincing wins over Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Miami, and South Carolina.

In the actual event, F.S.U. pummeled Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl but failed to capture the national crown because an 0-2 start had the 'Noles out of contention in mid-September. I like the fact that Southern Mississippi's thrilling 30-26 win over Florida State in Jacksonville on September 2 was as crucial in determining the national championship as any of the major bowls.

The foregoing example was a shameless attempt to appeal to SMQ's rarely-revealed homerism.

Along those same lines, I like the fact that a 24-22 loss to Fresno State on August 26 proved critical in determining whether Colorado could compete for the national championship. A playoff format would have reduced those exciting and important games to mere footnotes, as trivial as South Carolina's regular-season sweep of Florida in basketball.

I believe a simple example will suffice as a summation of the chasm that yawns between our respective camps. Let us suppose that a National Football League team competing in the N.F.C. wins a regular-season game against an A.F.C. opponent and the N.F.C. team goes on to finish the season at 14-2. Let us suppose that the defeated A.F.C. team nevertheless succeeds in posting a 12-4 record. Both make it into the playoffs and negotiate the perilous path to the Super Bowl, where they meet for a second time on the appointed day. This time, the A.F.C. team beats the N.F.C. team to which it fell in the regular season, by a score comparable to that by which it lost the prior meeting between the two combatants.

We both agree that the A.F.C. team has earned the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Where we differ is over what that bauble ought to signify. For the believer in a playoff, the matter is simple; indeed, it is predestined: the A.F.C. team has won the Super Bowl and winning the Super Bowl is what makes a team the champion, so this team is the champion, no questions asked. All of the complexities of football are cast away and we are given an answer as forthright and uncomplicated as the "Gilligan's Island" theme song.

For the opponent of a postseason tournament, it is not so easy. There are questions to be asked. Perhaps satisfactory answers may be given, but still the inquiries must be raised before they may be assumed safely to be settled. The anti-playoff fan says, "Wait just a minute. . . . The A.F.C. champion went 15-4. The N.F.C. champion went 16-3. Each team went 1-1 against the other. I'm sure that the A.F.C. champion was better than the N.F.C. champion on this day, but I'm just as sure that the N.F.C. champion was better than the A.F.C. champion on another, equally representative day. I also know for an objective fact that the N.F.C. champion has a better won-lost record."

It is still possible for the reasonable football fan to conclude that the Super Bowl champions are the best team in the sport, but it is also possible for the opposite conclusion to be reached. I'm not prepared to concede the importance of every game in order to inflate the importance of some games.

I'm not prepared to forfeit my right to think freely and judge for myself based upon all of the evidence just so I can be spoon-fed a definitive answer that might not be right, particularly not when that affirmative assertion is offered in the name of "deciding on the field" something that, at 1-1, was a push on the field. I'm not prepared to give up discussions like this one so that the greatest sport in the world can be tied up neatly with a bow and viewed through the same fuzzy lens with which Barbara Walters specials are shot.

College football isn't so easily sanitized and packaged for easy consumption; it's messy, it's gritty, and it stirs primeval passions. It deserves a system as earthy and jumbled and chaotic as the game itself. It deserves better than a system as sleek and streamlined and soulless as a Fox Sports N.F.L. broadcast of a playoff game not even Don Cheadle could wheedle me into watching.

It deserves a system that calls upon smart football fans like you, SMQ, to use their intelligence in evaluating games rather than forcing them to check their brainpower at the door, deny the obvious truth that everything worthwhile in life is qualitative as well as quantitative, and buy into a mechanistic outcome that must be accepted as "right" without a second---or even a first---thought.