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

In retrospect, perhaps it was an overstatement for me to insinuate that Brandon and DC Trojan, inter alia, were communists (although ardent playoff proponent Brian Cook admits to being a college football socialist); as it turns out, self-confessed pinko and Barack Obama supporter Doug Gillett is a bowl traditionalist and Hillary Clinton reportedly opposes a playoff, as well. This, then, is an issue that transcends right and left, and I welcome college football fans of every political creed to the cause of fighting back the playoff scourge.

I’m a uniter, not a divider. Just like President Bush. Uh, O.K., bad example.

In all seriousness, though, I want to thank T.H., Year 2, and everyone else for their thoughtful comments and I now forge ahead with my reply to Brandon’s rebuttal of various anti-playoff arguments in the last (scheduled) posting of a series including a pair of previous installments.

Picking up where we left off, I now turn the next of Brandon’s contentions:

4. The lies of plus-one lite.

The "plus-one" proposal favored by some traditionalists, or what C&F likes to call "plus-one lite," would do little more than reshuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic. (Let the cliches flow like waterfalls!)

This version of plus-one would take the rankings, redo them after the four (or five) BCS bowls and then seed No. 1 and No. 2 all over again.


So who, exactly would you have chosen as the teams to play after this past year's BCS events, dear traditionalist?

Georgia vs. Southern Cal -- the "hottest" teams in the land! (This was nonsense, but anyway...) But LSU beat the No. 1 team. Don't they deserve a shot? Georgia, after all, lost to South Carolina and got blasted by Tennessee. Southern Cal couldn't beat Stanford, for crying out loud. What about the Kansas Jayhawks, they of the lightweight schedule, heavyweight coach and significant victory over Virginia Tech? Or West Virginia, who rolled over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl?

Same problems, same controversy. It's just adding another game to get the same argument.

I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I am on record in opposition to the "plus one" model. I would add only the self-evident observation that the plus-one advocates are not the "dear traditionalist[s]," who believe five B.C.S. bowls are one B.C.S. bowl too many (and that the Cotton Bowl, rather than the Fiesta Bowl, ought to be one of the "big four" once more). The plus-one approach is, at best, a neither-fish-nor-fowl attempt at a compromise between rival camps who have fundamentally different premises and objectives; at worst, it is the nose of the playoff camel being allowed under the tent of the Division I-A college football postseason.

The more important of Brandon’s later points is this:

5. The BCS isn't the only non-playoff solution.

True enough. But what do you replace it with?

The old bowl system? Well, you could, and that's certainly logically consistent. But then we do have a mythical national championship, based on nothing more than the polls. If you think the sport doesn't need a true champion, that's fine. But it's unfulfilling for most fans.

And if you're going to create another one-shot championship game, how exactly do you do it? A selection committee, which can impose common sense but only by using human subjectivity? Drawing names from a hat (which, in fairness, might actually yield better results than the BCS)? A secret ballot by some bigwigs?

As my previous postings upon the subject have illustrated consistently, I completely support "impos[ing] common sense . . . by using human subjectivity." (How, by the way, would common sense be brought to bear without using human subjectivity?) I am all in favor of deciding such things by voting, although I prefer the largely open electoral system presently employed by the polls to a "secret ballot."

For me, the bottom line is that I agree with Paul Westerdawg that the problems inherent in designing a playoff system would guarantee that it would work badly, certainly in the long term (with the inevitability of expanding the playoff field, about which more anon) and probably in the short term. Brian Cook essentially acknowledges this when he concedes the correctness of the argument that "the commissioners would screw it up."

Doug is right: embrace the madness!

The devil is in the details, which is why I cannot share Sunday Morning Quarterback’s sanguinity about the ease and reasonableness of accepting a playoff in principle then worrying over the minutiae afterwards. What form the tournament takes is of vital importance. Are we to follow Brian’s proposal and allow a non-conference champion to be crowned the national champion? Are we to follow Brandon’s proposal and allow a first-place finisher in a downtrodden league to be awarded a seat at the table? Both courses are worse than the present system, but it matters which poison the playoff proponents plan to pick and pour down the rest of our throats.

The problem with the B.C.S. isn’t that it incorporates too few of the features of a playoff; the problem is that it accepts too many. Predictably, the results have followed the N.F.L. model, both in terms of commercial overkill and in terms of on-field results. Under the 13 years of the Bowl Alliance (1995-1997) and the Bowl Championship Series (1998-2007), these final scores have resulted from the designated national championship game:

1995: 62-24
1996: 52-20
1997: 42-17
1998: 23-16
1999: 46-29
2000: 13-2
2001: 37-14
2002: 31-24
2003: 21-14
2004: 55-19
2005: 41-38
2006: 41-14
2007: 38-24

Most of those games weren’t even close, and some of those that appeared competitive on paper (e.g., the 2004 Sugar Bowl between L.S.U. and Oklahoma, the 2001 Orange Bowl between Oklahoma and Florida State) weren’t as close as the final scores indicated. These, by contrast, are the final scores of the bowl games that produced the Associated Press national champion in each of the 17 seasons immediately preceding the Alliance:

1978: 14-7
1979: 24-9
1980: 17-10
1981: 22-15
1982: 27-23
1983: 31-30
1984: 24-17
1985: 25-10
1986: 14-10
1987: 20-14
1988: 34-21
1989: 33-25
1990: 10-9
1991: 22-0
1992: 34-13
1993: 18-16
1994: 24-17

In the era in which multiple New Year’s Day games carried consequences, the bowls that produced the country’s eventual top team were decided by single-digit margins a dozen times in a 17-year span, while the 13 years since have produced eight contests settled by two touchdowns or more, including half a dozen outright blowouts. College football’s postseason wasn’t broken, but these are the results of the non-traditionalists’ attempts to fix it. Now they want to rectify the existing state of affairs by going farther in the direction in which we have gone too far already?

Thanks, but no thanks. Where college football’s postseason is concerned, I will take my cues from C.S. Lewis and William Faulkner rather than trust those who (irrespective of whether they will admit as much) are advocating a system which eventually will balloon to such size that not even a conscientious playoff advocate could call its results legitimate.

Why am I so confident that mission creep (or, in this case, bracket creep) is unavoidable? I believe a Division I-A college football playoff inevitably will grow for the same reason P.J. O’Rourke argued (correctly) in Parliament of Whores that federal spending would continue to grow: "The budget grows because, like zygotes and suburban lawns, it was designed to do nothing else."

That’s right; I just opened up a can of P.J. O’Rourke all over you!

The N.C.A.A. basketball tournament has ballooned from eight teams to 16 teams, then to 32 in 1975, 40 in 1979, 48 in 1980, 52 in 1983, 53 in 1984, 64 in 1985, and 65 in 2001. Major league baseball went from inviting two teams to the World Series for 65 years to splitting the leagues into two divisions apiece in 1969 to splitting the leagues into three divisions apiece (despite not having a number of teams that was evenly divisible by three) and introducing "wild card" teams in 1994. The Super Bowl went from being a single championship game pitting the winners of the A.F.L. and the N.F.L. at the end of the 1966 season to being the culminating contest of an eight-team playoff beginning in 1970. The tournament field expanded to ten teams in 1978 and to twelve in 1990.

Ah, but that’s "not quite the same," the playoff proponents say; those sports are different from college football. Fair enough, then; let’s look at college football exclusively.

N.C.A.A. Division I-AA college football came into being in 1978. In the first year of play in what is now (absurdly) known as the "football championship subdivision," four teams made the playoffs. The number of postseason invitees in Division I-AA increased to eight teams in 1981, twelve teams in 1982, 16 teams in 1986, and 20 teams beginning in 2010. In the comment linked to in the second paragraph of this posting, Year 2 claims that, if we "[p]are the numbers down" in Division I-A, "there will never be a problem with keeping a playoff at no more than 8," but this claim is refuted by the fact that, as more and more Division I-AA teams have defected to Division I-A, the Division I-AA playoffs still have continued to expand.

The trend is unmistakable and undeniable. Whatever tiny percentage of teams would make the cut initially, a far larger share would make the grade as the bar progressively was lowered. How well served has the sport been by this approach?

That was a rhetorical question . . . you know, like the one on the "Dark Knight" poster.

Of the last dozen Division I-AA national championship games, five have been won by margins of at least 20 points and three of the other seven were settled by ten points or more. In the 2007 Division I-AA tournament, three of the eight first-round contests were decided by a field goal or less, whereas the other five featured margins of at least two touchdowns, including beatdowns by scores of 44-15 and 44-7. Half of the quarterfinal games were resolved by double-digit margins, one of the two semifinal games was settled by a 20-point margin, and the championship game resulted in a four-touchdown victory by the winner.

These N.F.L.-style mismatches are the future of college football if we surrender to the playoff temptation. At a time when fan interest and television ratings have improved consistently over the course of the B.C.S. era, it is hard to believe that fans truly prefer the prospect of such a substandard product to the one being offered on the field now. (Yes, many of last year’s B.C.S. bowl games were mismatches, too, but the 2007 postseason was somewhat aberrational for Division I-A football and, once again, a return to the historic bowl tie-ins, rather than an advancement of the playoff-like aspects of the present format, would rectify this problem.)

That, at least, is how I see it. As always, I welcome all of your continued contributions to the ongoing dialogue upon this weighty topic and I thank Brandon for taking the time to share his ideas. Although I disagree with his conclusions, he has added to the discussion with thoughtful reflections and a civil tone. A large part of my desire to preserve college football’s historic system of bowls and polls stems from the fact that I want to retain the ability to engage in such meaningful arguments as these, not only during the offseason but even, and especially, while the games are being played.

Go ‘Dawgs!