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"Playoffs?!?!": A Reply to Garnet and Black Attack's Modest Proposal (Part I)

You know how I love a good playoff argument.

I’ve been stating my case against a Division I-A playoff since I first started participating in the blogosphere. I thoroughly enjoy going ’round and ’round (and ’round and ’round) upon the subject. I have no patience whatsoever for state legislators, college presidents, or U.S. Congressmen who abuse their positions to agitate for a playoff.

Self-serving politicians pandering to the baser aspects of their constituents’ presumed beliefs, though, are fair game for cheap shots; the right to criticize them openly, without inhibitions or pulled punches, quite literally lies at the heart of the free speech and free press guarantees of the First Amendment. When a thoughtful blogger treads into the defining mine field of college football fandom, however, he deserves a more measured and articulate response.

This brings me to Garnet and Black Attack, the SB Nation South Carolina Gamecocks weblog whose proprietor has gone fishin’ after a fine week’s worth of work in the form of his two-part proposal for a Division I-A football tournament.

If you haven’t read both parts, go read them in their entirety. I will quote liberally from them, but they warrant your full consideration, so you should not rely solely upon the excerpts I provide.

Brandon---I’m not outing him there; he tells you his real name up front---effectively rebuts some pro-playoff canards by debunking the myth of the "mythical" national championship, noting the relative novelty of playoff systems, reiterating the inevitable diminution of regular-season games under a playoff system, and underscoring the certainty of mission creep.

Brandon then begins to take on some of the familiar arguments in opposition to a playoff, offering, in the style of a formal debate, the following resolution for our consideration: "PROPOSED: That college football fans agree to the following debunking of the arguments of playoff opponents." Unsurprisingly, I take issue with some of these, and I will begin (though not end) my response by taking up the first of these this evening.

Brandon begins:

1. ‘The BCS works itself out.’

No. No, it doesn’t.

It didn't in 2003, when Southern Cal should have played LSU. It didn't in 2004, when Auburn should have played Southern Cal. Time after time, the BCS has failed to present the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, and has to be bailed out by the top-ranked team, a scenario that proved impossible in 2003, when the top-ranked team wasn't even in the national championship game.

The BCS has broken the hearts of almost as many college football fans as erratic quarterbacks, and with less justification for the end result. And every heartbreak has created an endless stream of changes to the formula: take this computer out, put this one in, throw out this poll, add this one in, change this weighting, put in strength of schedule, take out strength of schedule...

There might be a way to have a No. 1 vs. No. 2 system. The BCS isn't it. It never has been; it never will be.

I will grant that no conscientious person could (and I certainly will not) claim that the B.C.S. invariably has produced the correct championship game pairing---a goal which I, as a fan of the traditional bowl tie-ins, deem of dubious desirability in the first place---but I will continue to insist that the B.C.S., without exception, has produced the correct national championship result.

If we accept as a working definition of "best team" the notion that the team that acquits itself most impressively over the course of an entire season has earned the right to be called the national champion, then Tennessee, the only major-conference unbeaten, was the best team in 1998. Florida State, the only major-conference unbeaten, was the best team in 1999. Oklahoma, the only major-conference unbeaten, was the best team in 2000. Miami (Florida), the only major-conference unbeaten, was the best team in 2001.

The truth of the foregoing assertions, which I offer as statements of what I believe to be incontrovertible fact, is not undermined by the reality (which I also accept as a given) that Oregon, and not Nebraska, should have received the other Rose Bowl invitation opposite the Hurricanes at the end of the 2001 campaign. However, that Miami squad annihilated the Cornhuskers by a 37-14 final margin in Pasadena; no college team would have beaten the ‘Canes that night. There are a couple or three N.F.L. teams that wouldn’t have beaten the ‘Canes that night.

I don’t know whether Georgia would have beaten Miami in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2002 campaign, but Ohio State, the only major-conference unbeaten, was the best team that season. The split title of 2003 between the only two major-conference once-beatens was the most accurate result, in spite of the fact that Oklahoma had no business being in the Sugar Bowl.

Such also is the case in 2004. Yes, the Plainsmen, and not the Sooners, should have been awarded the Orange Bowl berth versus the Trojans, but the Southern California squad that pulverized previously unbeaten Oklahoma in a game that wasn’t even as close as the 55-19 score indicated wouldn’t have lost to Auburn, even though the Tigers likely would have given U.S.C. a better game.

The Rose Bowl showdown between the only two major-conference unbeatens at the end of the 2005 campaign produced an undisputed, and indisputable, national champion in Texas. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the 2006 national title tilt, Florida proved in the desert, and Michigan proved in the Rose Bowl, that the right result was reached. Last year, although Oklahoma deserved the bowl bid that went to Ohio State, Louisiana State earned the right to call itself the 2007 national champion.

Garbage in, garbage out? Not necessarily; whatever one may think of the B.C.S. system---and I, for one, do not care for determining college football bowl match-ups using a formula that seems to combine the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit with the worksheet for determining child support under the current Georgia statutory guidelines---the end results have been right.

Even those who believe the foregoing assertion represents too strong a statement, though, have to admit that, whatever the B.C.S.’s flaws, at least this much could be said with a straight face:

Every B.C.S. national champion has had a plausible argument for being the best team in college football that year. Even if another team also had an argument, that argument boiled down to "we deserved it, too" (or, more likely, as in the case of Oregon in 2001 or Auburn in 2004, "we deserved our shot") rather than "they didn’t deserve it." You may think L.S.U. or U.S.C. deserved it more in 2003, but you can’t seriously claim that U.S.C. or L.S.U. didn’t deserve it at all.

Other sports---playoff sports---are a different story, however. No one honestly could claim that the 1997 Florida Marlins or the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals were the best team in major league baseball, that the 2007 Oregon State Beavers were the best team in college baseball, that the 2007-’08 New York Giants were the best team in the N.F.L., or that the 2007-’08 Georgia Bulldogs were the best basketball team in the S.E.C. . . . but, by golly, those are the incongruous, cognitively-dissonant results each of those tournaments turned out, leaving playoff proponents in a very shaky glass house from which to hurl stones at the Bowl Championship Series.

Criticize the B.C.S. if you must, but know that, in comparison to any playoff format ever devised, such animadversions essentially equate to Winston Churchill’s denunciation of democracy.

To be continued. . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!