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Playoff Dispatches, Part Six

All right, for the moment, I'm done talking about the debut of EDSBS Radio, hosted by America's ninth most influential sports blogger. (That distinction is less impressive than it sounds, by the way; look at how big a dufus checked in at No. 8!) It's time to get back down to business.

As I promised I would to Sunday Morning Quarterback before he went on vacation, I am at long last writing to wrap up our college football playoff exchange, in which SMQ fired the most recent previous salvo.

Here goes:

To: Sunday Morning Quarterback
From: T. Kyle King

In your last dispatch, you noted that our debate was "reaching its nadir as I sense us moving further apart and more rigid in our positions." As this is a fair criticism, I would like to begin my summation by noting what you wrote in your postscript:

Look what we haven't talked about: classes, travel, the number of games players are asked to play, money. Canards all! I think this is an achievement.

I concur. We are both purists, each in his own way---I, in my preference for preserving those historic aspects of college football which, in my view, define the game and set it apart as unique among organized sports; you, in your desire to see the gauntlet of the regular season reach its culmination in a definitive method for determining an undisputed champion---and, although we both know money always has played and always will play too great a role in the sport's decisionmaking, it should be no part of our conversation (although Senator Blutarsky makes a halfway decent point in rebuttal of our shared position).

Devoted college football fan Kristin Davis thoroughly enjoys the spirited give and take between the competing sides of the playoff debate.

Likewise, the straw men trotted out by university presidents (not, it should be noted, by college coaches or football fans) about classes and numbers of games are obvious nonsense. One cannot simultaneously wring one's hands about extending the season while voting to add an extra regular-season contest, nor can one claim that a playoff would interfere with classes when every other college sport (including college football at every other level of play) manages to negotiate a playoff.

Pious presidents who offer such rationalizations would do well to recall the words of Southern California's Howard Jones: "Those who say players spend too much time on football when they should be studying should remember that a student who lets the game come between himself and an education wouldn't study anyway." These insipid arguments are mere chimeras and I would not risk doing damage to our level of discourse by treating them seriously.

Aside from that small area of consensus, though, where are we left? It seems, as you say, that we are clearer in our views than before, but no nearer to one another than we were at the outset. You asked me, for instance, whether it really mattered to me whether college football even crowned a national champion; I had never approached the question from that angle, so I suppose I was somewhat surprised to learn that, at the end of the day, I consider the national championship to be of decidedly secondary importance.

I have written before that Georgia's 2002 season was identical in all meaningful respects to L.S.U.'s 2003 season and Florida's 2006 season, with the lone difference being that the luck of the draw---there being two undefeated teams from major conferences in 2002, as opposed to none in 2003 and one in 2006---caused the 'Dawgs to finish the season ranked third.

I cherish the achievements of Georgia's undefeated 1980 team, but I have no less respect for the 1946 Bulldogs, who likewise produced an unblemished record. The once-beaten 1942 squad is credited with a national title, but the one-loss Red and Black unit of 1982 occupies an equally special place in my heart.

Gratuitous Herschel Walker photograph.

I can't claim that a national championship doesn't matter---it would bother me to think (as I most emphatically do not think) that Mark Richt would never win a national title as Georgia's head coach---but, when the question was put to me last spring by A Sea of Blue ("Which is more important, beating Florida or winning the BCS title but NOT beating Florida?"), my answer was unequivocal:

Not a tough call . . . beating Florida. As much as I would like to win another national championship, and as confident as I am that, within the next five years, Mark Richt will guide Georgia to a No. 1 ranking in the final polls, I place greater importance on rivalry games and conference honors. Finishing first in the Eastern Division, beating Georgia Tech, and winning the S.E.C. championship game all are prerequisites to getting a shot at the national title, but, even if they weren't, I'd rather have a run of dominance over the teams I know and dislike.

The Florida situation is particularly maddening. After Georgia dominated the first 85 years of the series, the Gators have owned the 'Dawgs since Steve Spurrier left Duke to return to Gainesville. From 1990 to 1997, Florida was 7-1 against Georgia. From 1998 to 2005, Florida also was 7-1 against Georgia, but the second eight-year run was a bit different.

In the first eight-season stretch, Steve Spurrier's Gators generally demolished the Bulldogs, winning by scores such as 38-7 in 1990, 45-13 in 1991, 52-14 in 1994, 52-17 in 1995, and 47-7 in 1996. Even the Red and Black's lone win during that period was by a convincing margin (37-17 in 1997). Since then, though, Georgia has changed coaches once and Florida has changed coaches twice. Although the Gators' run of Cocktail Party success has continued, the games have been much closer; in fact, the last four games (including the lone Bulldog win during that period) have been settled by a total of 21 points.

Moreover, the Evil Genius's Florida squads of 1990 to 1997 finished first in the S.E.C. six times, captured five straight Eastern Division crowns, and competed in two national championship games. Seven of those eight U.F. teams were ranked in the top 10 at the time of the game in Jacksonville. From 1998 to 2005, on the other hand, the Gators finished with a single-digit win total five times, represented the S.E.C. East in the league championship game twice, and won fewer conference crowns (1) than Georgia (2). None of the last four Florida teams have gone into the Georgia game as a top 10 team. In short, the 1-7 record from 1990 to 1997 was excusable; the 1-7 record from 1998 to 2005 is inexplicable.

Historically, Georgia has had Florida's number and it has only been in the last 15 years that the tables have turned. As dominant as the Gators have been since Darth Visor's homecoming, the Orange and Blue still have an all-time losing record against the Red and Black. It's more important to me to restore the natural order of things and have the Bulldogs, whose tradition dates back to the 1890s, go back to beating the Gators, whose tradition dates back to the 1990s, than it is to finish first in the coaches' poll.

In the four seasons from 2002 to 2005, the Bulldogs were ranked fourth, 11th, eighth, and eighth, respectively, in the final regular-season sportswriters' poll. Depending upon the format adopted, Georgia would have been a playoff participant in at least three of those four years and a tournament contender in all four . . . yet the Red and Black, winners of three division titles and two conference crowns in those four seasons, were 1-3 against the Gators in that span.

Would a national title shot have taken the sting out of those losses in Jacksonville? Sure it would have . . . but I don't want the importance of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party to be minimized. I don't want losing to Florida to be a matter of only minor importance. I like the fact that the outcome of that rivalry game is vital, not incidental, to my team's chances of finishing the season ranked No. 1.

I like the fact that the national championship, while no mere afterthought, occupies a somewhat marginal position in the sport, allowing local affiliations and longstanding rivalries to flourish. (You suggested at one point that our opinions regarding college football seemed to mirror our political views, which probably is true. As a Constitutional strict constructionist, a Fugitive-Agrarian localist, and a states-rights opponent of centralization, I believe the focus of sports, like the focus of government, ought to be kept close to home. Indeed, my athletics loyalties are directly tied to my desire to relocate and reschedule sessions of the General Assembly and to change the timing of elections to state judicial posts.)

Ladies and gentlemen, the new home of the Georgia legislature.

I do not want college football to become more like professional sports in this respect. College football is blessed with a wide array of unique traditions resplendent with local color, which distinguishes it from the prepackaged cookie-cutter game day experience offered at any number of indistinguishable N.F.L. venues.

Outside of Green Bay, Wisc., professional football is utterly lacking in the sorts of home-grown elements that give fans a real connection to their teams. This critical distinction is reflected in every aspect of the two sports. One is played in regional collegiate conferences; the other, in a National Football League. "Franchise free agency" regularly uproots teams from their indigenous habitats and transplants them elsewhere (often leading, in many pro leagues, to such laughably nonsensical nicknames as "Arizona Cardinals," "L.A. Lakers," and "Utah Jazz"). Divisions are reshuffled.

This dilutes the significance of rivalry games. No one will ever be able to convince me that a Cowboys-Redskins game carries---could carry---the intensity and the passion of a Texas-Oklahoma, Michigan-Ohio State, or Alabama-Auburn game. Upon being traded from the Dodgers to the Giants, Jackie Robinson retired rather than switch sides in the rivalry. College football players understand such attachments; professional football players would swap jerseys without a second thought, maligning their former teammates as they went.

I would oppose in principle any change in college football that reduced the importance of conference championships or regional rivalries. The notion that a team that did not win its conference crown could be a contender for the national championship strikes me not only as cognitively dissonant, but also antithetical to the very idea of a championship. Even if I did not oppose a playoff on other grounds, the inclusion of "wild card" teams that did not win their conference championships would alone be enough for me to stand against such a system.

That's right . . . I'm looking at you, 1997 World Series champion, National League champion, but not division champion Florida Marlins!

At the heart of it, though, my primary objection to a Division I-A playoff was illustrated in a recent comment thread at Rocky Top Talk, where a Tennessee basketball fan had this to say:

I think we are starting to peak at the right time. We might be ready to go on a March run. How far can we go?

This legitimate question received the following response:
We will go...

...all the way to the top of the field of 65!! At least that's what I (friendly) bet on last night with one of my friends!!

Yes, it's an extremely bold prediction, but like Smitty said, we're peaking at just the right time and timing is everything (look at George Mason from a year ago). Last year, we were a team of overachievers out of the blocks. The season took it's toll and we were just plain gassed come tourney time. This year, we seem to be plain 'achievers' (win what we should - lose what we should) who still have room for improvement to obtain the 'overachiever' status and pull out some truely shocking wins in the tournament.

In the words of the 2004 BoSox..."Why not us?"

The Volunteers are a fine basketball team and their fans are right to have a measure of confidence in a squad that stands at 21-9 following Tuesday night's win over Florida, which evened the season series. Tennessee has claimed victory in six of its last seven games, but the Big Orange also lost seven of its last eight road games and the beating administered to the Vols by the Gators in Gainesville was worse than that handed to the defending national champs by U.T. in Knoxville.

The Big Lizards, by contrast, are 25-5 overall and they were 6-0 in road games between December 4 and February 16, but U.F. has lost three of its last four outings. It is clear that, right now, as we enter the crucial month of March, Tennessee is playing better basketball than Florida. It is equally clear that, over the course of the 2006-'07 season, the Gators have been a more accomplished team than the Volunteers. The crux of the playoff debate lies in the answer to a single question: "Which of the foregoing facts is, or ought to be, the more important?" You say the former, I say the latter, and that was all she wrote.

While I respect the views of those fans who believe teams should be rewarded for winning games when the chips are down, I prefer a system under which the chips are always down. I simply cannot countenance the concept of reducing the regular season to secondary importance, treating it solely as a means to the end of seeding the postseason tournament---the games that really matter---rather than as an end unto itself. I simply cannot accept as legitimate any championship that rewards a team for its performance part of the time rather than all of the time; if my preferred poll system smacks too much of the mob rule of democratic populism, the proposed playoff alternative too closely resembles a television ratings "sweeps" period.

Given the choice between a poll vote conducted before the bowl games (as the sportswriters did prior to 1965 and the coaches did before 1974) and a playoff, I would prefer the system that has history and tradition on its side, but not just because it has history and tradition on its side. I would prefer it because that system at least had the virtue of producing a decision based on an entire regular season's worth of games rather than producing a result based on an often unrepresentative sliver tacked on at the end like a soccer shootout.

Not that tradition is, or should be, only a minor consideration, you understand.

The beauty of the present system is that every game potentially matters, for a contender's strength of schedule if not for the combatants themselves. The slightest misstep could be fatal and two losses are the kiss of death for a potential national champion, which keeps the race exciting, but, even for the teams with no realistic shot at the crown---in other words, most teams in most sports most of the time---there are goals within reach that continue to hold some value, since the national championship is not the be-all and end-all that it is in tournament sports.

That, ultimately, is the essence of our disagreement and, consequently, this conundrum is insoluble. The eventual arrival of a playoff, if it is to come, will get here in insidious increments---the Bowl Alliance; the Bowl Championship Series; the fifth B.C.S. bowl game; the "plus one" game; an eight-team tournament hosted by the historic major bowls, coupled with the preservation of the minor bowl games; an expanding playoff field divorced from traditional postseason sites that overwhelms and swallows the remaining bowls---but this decision, at bottom, is a binary one; either we will have a playoff or we will not.

I know not what course others may take, but, while we yet retain a system in which votes and voters matter, my small contribution to the vox populi will sound forth an emphatic and twangy "No!" in reply to the growing din of those clamoring for a playoff who should be careful for what they wish, as they just might get it.

For me and my house, that is it in a nutshell, so I will leave it to you, SMQ, to have the last word, should you so choose. I have appreciated the opportunity to discuss this weighty issue with you in a mutually respectful manner, which has been fun for me and, with any luck, at least mildly illuminating for our readers, whose own thoughts upon the matter are, as always, welcome in the comments below.