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Why the Accuracy of Bowls and Polls is Better for College Football Than the Finality of a Division I-A Playoff

I take a back seat to no one in my regard for Matt "Dr. Saturday" Hinton---heck, his alma mater gets a vote on my preseason BlogPoll ballot merely for having him as an alumnus---but there is no issue facing college football about which we disagree more than the subject of a Division I-A playoff. He strongly favors one. I strongly oppose one.

In his latest posting upon the topic, Hinton addresses the debate over the Boise St. Broncos’ worthiness, vel non, for inclusion in the national championship picture, and he concludes that we should reject the premises entirely:

The real debate should be about why college football has a championship structure that forces us into the unnecessary debate over the merits of a wildly successful upstart at all, when every question could be settled beyond a doubt with actual football instead of conjuring up make-beieve scenarios.

I have two quarrels with that passage, but in those two points of contention are contained the summation of all that divides us upon this question. These are they:

  1. I reject the concept of "unnecessary debate." Dude, I’m all about unnecessary debate! Heck, Matt and I have had this very debate before, and, as he says of the BlogPoll, "it’s fun." I thoroughly enjoy the Boise State debate, which is part of what makes college football so much fun. As seriously as I take sports, I don’t take them so seriously as to think getting the right answer is in any sense mission critical; this is entertainment, not surgery or public policy. Attaining an objectively correct result (assuming there is one, which there isn’t) is of secondary importance in an endeavor we’re supposed to enjoy. Because opinions have an influence, college football games played in August carry more weighty consequences than NFL games played in October. The debate allows us to enjoy what is intended to be a spectacle; this is a strength of the sport, not a weakness, and we should not be so swift to be such killjoys about a game we love, in part, because these discussions matter more than they do in other athletic exhibitions. There’s a reason why they call it the "No Fun League," and that has partly to do with the fact that regular season games more or less are meaningless in the NFL.
  2. Settling such questions "beyond a doubt with actual football" will produce results which demonstrably are wrong. The fundamental problem with all playoffs is that they compel us to accept outcomes which obviously are erroneous, because those results, while fallacious, were attained with finality. The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals went 83-78 during the regular season, but they won the World Series, so they were the champions of major league baseball, despite having the worst record ever by a World Series champion. Five games in October trumped 161 games played over the preceding six months, and we were forced to accept the incongruous result because the question was settled beyond a doubt with actual baseball. The 2007 New York Giants were a six-loss wild-card team, but they beat the previously undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, so they were the champions of the National Football League, despite being the first NFC wild-card team to win a Super Bowl. Sixteen games during the regular season were rendered meaningless, and we were forced to give credence to this absurdity because the question was settled beyond a doubt with actual football.

    The premise underlying all playoffs is that certainty matters more than accuracy. Playoff proponents are like advocates of the Bohr model of the atom, an outdated and simplistic depiction which shows electrons as fixed dots on the perimeter. The more scientifically sound electron cloud model of the atom gives us shaded grey areas, indicating that there is a higher probability of finding an electron in one area than in another, yet providing no absolute answers because electrons are tiny and move very quickly. There are grey areas in reality, and Division I-A college football is the only sport whose championship structure acknowledges this, which is why Division I-A college football is the only sport that can point to every champion it has ever crowned after the postseason and argue with a straight face that its No. 1 team was deserving of that honor every year. (Yes, sometimes, you can argue for other teams, too, but that takes us back to the fun of the debate, doesn’t it?)

I know I’m stirring up a hornet’s nest, but Matt Hinton is respected for a reason and right almost invariably, so folks understandably are inclined to heed what he has to say. At least nine times out of ten, that is exactly the right attitude, but, upon this point, our positions could not be more diametrically opposed. Matt wishes to end unnecessary debate and have unassailable finality. I consider both such propositions dubious, and, as Hinton himself says, "When in doubt, reject the premises."

Go ‘Dawgs!