Posts tagged ‘college’

College Football Playoff? Unlikely.

In this time (sometimes called the “crazy season”) of college football, the same old arguments erupt around who is the “national champion” of college football.  The ferocity of these arguments create a sense of crisis around the way we determine this so-called “champion”.  And with the current Bowl Championship Series regularly and roundly criticised as “broken” and “illogical”, both the “experts” in the sports press, and even our president-elect, are calling for a “playoff” system, whereby we can, as they say, “crown our champion on the football field”.  While ideally this is the “best” solution, I contend that it is not (oh, and I will “refrain” from “constantly” using “quotes” in my “text”).

With a trip back in the wayback machine we can see where we’ve evolved from.  Back in the day college football was a much smaller deal, and in its way a self-contained entity where schools built long-standing rivalries that were the pinnacle of a school’s season.  There were regional conflicts, and cross-state bragging rights, and the goal was to get yourself selected to a bowl game that played on New Year’s Day.  Then came the ubiquitous national sports media, that saw it as an opportunity, to turn this localized phenomenon into a national event, on par with the National Football League.  College Football grew into a lucrative (for sports media, and the schools that benefited from the exposure) and popular sport, showcasing teams that started to resemble their professional counterparts and promoting those players who were to become the pro stars of the future.  College Football (at least in Division 1A) was most alike to the NFL.

Except there was no postseason.  Bowl games were the de-facto postseason for college teams, but it was really more of a bonus for doing well during the season.  So when the time came to determine who was the best in the nation, a wholly subjective set of human created rankings were used.  This meant that a team could play at a very high level, but if the handful of persons building the poll rankings didn’t seem to think their level was THAT good, you were unable to be considered “the champ”.  During the history of college football this was considered enough, and in some ways, the constant bickering over what team was the best, even despite the rankings, was in itself an entertaining part of the college season.

But soon College Football entered into the world of big-money sports.  Suddenly it was not enough to have sports writers or coaches (or more likely their press officials or staff assistants) choosing who was the best.  The cry arose that we needed a better way to determine the champion, and it had to be done in such a way that we don’t harm the sport.

Thus was the BCS born.  I think the folks who had to devise this system had one of the most unenviable jobs ever foisted upon a person.  It must have been like a consultant brought in by a company who is asked to streamline their process and improve their product, while not being allowed to change how the company does anything in any way. This is, of course, a totally losing proposition.

So now we do crown a single champion.  But the way its done still is subject to questioning, and the argy-bargy from before the BCS does remain.  Now here comes the playoff talk.  The idea is to actually get the top teams from the rankings (which may be better now since a lot of the human element has been replaced with more objective systems) and put them into a bracket, and let the cream rise to the top, as it were.  It seems like it should be the way to go, but the problems may be just too insurmountable.  Let’s have a look at them:

An Asymmetric Sport: What does this mean?  Professional leagues like the NFL are, by their design, fairly symmetrical.  This means that all the teams in the league have the same capacity to field a quality team.  All pro teams pull their rosters from the same pool; that is, the draft, free agency, and trades.  There are rules and guidelines in place to keep the systems from being manipulated, but these systems keep the teams in the league on an equal footing with each other.  Also, the league tries to keep its numbers in a manageable amount, so they can subdivide the league into equally populated divisions and conferences.

College football suffers from having too many teams (there will be 120 FBS teams in 2009) to have a sufficient playoff structure.  But beyond numbers, the schools are not on an equal footing in their ability to acquire talent.  In the NFL, a team can improve themselves with good draft picks, timely trades, or spending on a game changing player.  College football relies on recruitment, and a smaller school from a mid-major conference like the Mid-American cannot recruit the same talent levels as a big name, high reputation school can.  And a school, once it has acquired its talent, cannot trade it away for talent from another school (students can transfer, but a school can’t initiate a trade of players).  In recent years, the problem of athletes leaving school early for the NFL reduces the talent at a school.

Pro Football teams, while they do suffer from spending inequities (but less so than MLB) are very much on par talent-wise: The true difference from the good teams to the bad teams is very narrow, as evidenced by the occasional upset of a favorite.  But the disparity in talent in college football is much greater:  A team like USC or Ohio State will always recruit better talent than a Toledo or East Carolina.  They are not on an equal footing, and the conventional wisdom says that an Ohio State will likely destroy a team like Bowling Green 19 out of 20 times (and that 20th may not be a Bowling Green victory, just a non-blowout).  This is like having the AHL, ECHL, and CHL play against NHL teams for the Stanley Cup: You may get a team from one of these smaller leagues who gets pretty far, but its also clear that the NHL teams are at a great advantage.

Tradition: Traditions in College Football are something that gives this sport its character.  Unfortunately it becomes a major impediment when needing to set up a bracket playoff.  The biggest issue is the bowl games.  With all the bowls, but in particular the biggies like the Rose, Sugar, and Cotton, there are some established guidelines (whether official or not) that have been established with them.  And these bowls are huge money makers for their organizers and sponsors, and to tamper with them is not an option.  This is why, even though they are part of the Championship Series, the traditional setup of the major New Year’s bowls has not been changed.  Sometimes proposed in the playoff scenario is the use of these bowls as play-in games, but by the nature of that system the traditional pairings would have to be abandoned, and the bowls are not willing to do that.  Also, a playoff system may impinge on other traditions; for instance, an in-state rivalry may need to be cancelled if a team involved is placed into a playoff bracket, which overlaps that game.  The established conferences have their own playoff systems, and while these could be used in framing a playoff (e.g. conference champs make up the bracket), not all conferences work the same way.  And then there are the independent schools that would need to be taken into account.

The Schools Themselves: Football is crippled by time:  College Basketball can host a 64 team bracket and have it wrapped up in less than a month because basketball players require far less recovery time between games.  A team can play 6 games in a row (to move through the entire bracket) in only a few weeks.  Football, though, requires a full week between each game.  This is not just to rest players, who need more time to work through injury or fatigue.  The amount of effort needed to stage a game is enormous, and no college facility can move on a faster pace than they currently do.  That said, to do a reasonable playoff (say an 8 team bracket), a team would need to play 3 weeks of football.

Schools do not want to add games: this would extend the season too long for their student-athletes.  They do not want to take away regular season games that would rob them of potential revenue from home games.  So where do you get these games, much less the resources for a more realistic (and fair) 16 team bracket?

Another is the notion of the Student-Athlete.  Most sports fans are not naive enough to think that an athlete playing football at a big name school is there for his education and not as a stepping stone to the pros.  Some have argued that in the world of big money college football the notion of the amateur athlete is an anachronism, and that these kids should be treated as what they are: pros in training.  This leads to the inevitable next step of removing the football from the college and making it an “NFL training league”.  This is wrong, as it needs to be remembered that the mission of these schools is not football; that this sport is an appendage to the real work of the institution.  As long as the schools stay true to this idea, college football cannot evolve into an entity that can support talent equity or a symmetric design, that makes a playoff viable.

In closing, I’ll just say that there will never be a perfect system for college football.  If there’s an 8 team bracket that is somehow implemented, then the argument becomes choosing the eight.  And what about the ninth?  And what if a one-loss team gets in over an undefeated, lower ranked team?  Playoffs will not end any arguments but may create new ones.

Besides, if there were a sure-fire means of picking a champion, what in the heck would we talk about in college football?

And P.S. – PSU wins the Rose Bowl.  Go State!