My Evolving Take on the Debate on a College Football Playoff Part I: The Effect of a Playoff on the Importance of the Regular Season

As I said last Monday, I bring a different perspective on the world of sports because I like to think about my sports (I’m that rarest of rarities, a nerd with a sports interest), and there’s no sport that invites more thinking than college football. This is an update and expansion of The Case for a Playoff, probably one of the posts I’ve looked the most at on the old version of Da Blog.

No sport has a more contentious championship structure, in all the world, than American college football. We give control over the championship to a complicated structure called the “BCS” which combines the result of two subjective polls with a bunch of complicated computer ratings which no one knows how they work and wouldn’t be able to understand them anyway. This system eventually spits out two teams who are supposed to be “the best” and play each other, and we call the winner the champion.

It’s a lot better than the old system, where we just took a poll to determine the champion. USC-Texas in 2005-06 would never have happened under that system; USC would have played in the Rose Bowl and Texas in the Cotton or Fiesta bowl. Unfortunately, years like that are the exception and not the rule. When there are exactly two undefeated teams, the BCS’ job is easy. When there isn’t, controversy is basically unavoidable. Everyone thinks we should have a real playoff, but no one can get it done.

Part of the problem is the hidden genius in the old system. There wasn’t a national championship. Oh sure, the polls announced a national championship at the end of the season, but who really cared what they had to say? College football was a regional sport that just so happened to be popular in all the regions. Each region crowned its own champion, and some of these regional champions faced other regional champions in bowl games at the end of the season for regional bragging rights. (College football is probably the only sport in the world that ends its season with exhibition games.) The “national championship”, such as it was, wasn’t much different than the Heisman – it was awarded by a panel to the team they felt was most deserving of it. College football isn’t about championships; it’s about history, tradition, and GO WOLVERINES BEAT THE BUCKEYES! Each team didn’t care what most of the other teams in their own conference did, let alone the other teams in the entire country.

The fixation on championships is mostly a result of the ESPN and Internet era, coupled with the rise of money in sports, in particular the proliferation of college football TV contracts in the aftermath of the NCAA’s monopoly power over college football on TV being busted. For a long time, the three most popular sports in America were baseball, horse racing, and boxing. Only baseball had a championship structure similar to that which proliferates in the major sports today – and it only started in 1903 despite prior attempts to compete with the National League and despite the NL itself starting in 1876. Even baseball only selected one-eighth of its teams to the postseason (one team from each eight-team league until 1961, and one from each ten-team league until divisions were finally introduced in 1969), meaning for the majority of teams the postseason was irrelevant (and until the addition of the LCS – and certainly before the 1920 formation of the unified Major League Baseball – the World Series was almost an exhibition). Even baseball today, which has sought to keep its postseason miniscule compared to the select-half-the-teams postseasons of the NBA and NHL (and to a lesser extent, the NFL), still selects eight out of 30 teams – a little over a quarter of all the teams in baseball. (Because of unbalanced league sizes the NL selects exactly a quarter.)

Horse racing and boxing were downright different. Horse racing had no championship whatsoever, or even any unified sanctioning bodies; going to the racetrack was mostly a pastime (and a chance to gamble). That’s why the Triple Crown is more important than it really should be, because they were, for a long time, the biggest races in the sport by default. (The horses that run the Triple Crown are really teenagers, and the races were originally a showcase for the hottest young talent in the sport. That horses are now being bred solely to run in three races in their teens and then retire to stud is just one of the many MANY things horribly wrong about horse racing today.) The closest any of the sports come to this system (or non-system) outside college football are NASCAR and golf – both of which have established pseudo-“playoff” systems in the hope of evoking their team-sport counterparts.

Boxing used and still uses the system of (as wrestler Ric Flair famously put it) “to be the man, you gotta beat the man”, and the corruption of this system with more “championships” than you can shake a stick at (and no one caring about any of them, only caring about individual fighters) is probably irrelevant to most of the other factors. MMA suggests the system can still work wonders when there is a single sanctioning body (even though there have been and continue to be several attempts to compete with the UFC), and the idea of college football using this system has been
floated
before, but the regional nature of the sport makes it difficult, especially since college football does not have a real central sanctioning body. (Not to mention it pretty much necessitates abandoning the idea of only holding the sport for three months; in fact, the need for some sort of “training camp” in team sports is probably the main reason the championship-belt idea has never gotten any play in a team sport.)

Certainly it didn’t have a real sanctioning body before the 90s. The NCAA only handled the TV (and eventually, not even that); college football was really controlled by the individual conferences (and even then by the top schools within each conference), the top independents (of which there were more, including Penn State and the better, more tradition-filled ACC and Big East teams, than today), and the bowls (which were really controlled by the conferences and top schools). When the NCAA handled the TV it showed one game each week; after losing its monopoly power TV contracts began being handled by the conferences. That, coupled with ESPN beginning to showcase games from all around the country, started to dissolve the regional nature of the sport. College football now had a national audience, and it was possible for someone to see games from Ohio State, Alabama, and USC in one weekend.

This started to focus more attention on college football’s nonexistent national championship, and the conferences and bowls, seeing how popular a “national championship game” between the best two teams in the country could be, decided to get together and create one, agreeing to send the top two teams to the same bowl. The Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance both suffered from not including the Big Ten, Pac-10, or Rose Bowl, and the split poll-determined titles of the past remained common. Finally, after a series of concessions to those groups, the Bowl Championship Series, involving four bowls and six conferences plus Notre Dame, was instituted in time for the 1998 college football season. But far from ending the era of split titles and instituting a true college football national championship, the BCS created controversy almost every year, with farcical results and teams outside the previously-nonexistent “Big Six” having no shot at a national championship. The BCS and its faults have had an odd effect, however: it’s touched off a national debate about what sort of system to replace it with, if any (the minority that supports the BCS is very vocal), and that has resulted in an examination, carried out by a surprisingly large number of people, of the very premise and meaning of a playoff in all of sports.

The problem – and, if not the main reason, a big part of the reason we don’t have a playoff already – is the tension between our desire for a playoff and college football clarity, and the history and various traditions of college football that made it so popular in its own right for decades but which were borne out of not having a playoff and thus can’t easily accommodate one. For all its faults, the BCS was designed mostly so as not to overly disrupt these traditions, namely, the fact that you play 11 (later 12) games during the regular season, and if you have a winning season you get to have a vacation in a bowl after school lets out for Christmas, a showcase for college football attended by people visiting the city for the holidays, and a chance to close out your season on a fantastic note by winning your own “championship”, and if you’re really, really good, you just might play in one of the marquee bowls on New Year’s Day. The only thing the BCS changed about this calculus directly was playing after New Year’s. To extend the BCS into a playoff would cause some sort of problem, and it’s an open question whether it’s worth it. It would devalue the regular season by providing spots for 4, 8, or 16 teams rather than two, thus robbing college football of what makes it special; it would force teams to play during finals week, or otherwise hinder academics; it would be the end of the bowls; it would make college football a two-semester sport (never mind that today’s January 8th BCS Championship Game is already being played after school starts). The debate over the merits of a playoff is a debate over striking the right balance between clarity and maintaining these traditions.

What’s my opinion of this debate? It’s too late to preserve the traditions. They were borne of a sport that barely even cared about the games, let alone who was “national champion”, instead preferring to care about the pageantry surrounding it, with the exception of the major rivalry games. The gatekeepers of college football opened Pandora’s Box when they decided they were going to start caring about who was national champion by creating the BCS. You want to preserve the traditions, go back to the old system, but if you want a national champion, you’ve already sacrificed the traditions. You’ve attracted a new clientele to college football, but they won’t miss the traditions if it means they get a playoff. Want proof? Just look at the farce the bowls have become, with more bowls than one-quarter the teams in the Bowl Subdivision, meaning it’s a minor miracle there have been enough 6-6 teams to fill all the spots – and all but five of them are completely meaningless, and even four of those five no longer have even a shot of influencing who gets at least one of the national championships. College football is now a sport that has a “national championship” (of sorts) and it needs to stop acting like it isn’t, and it needs to stop being a hybrid of a sport that cares and a sport that doesn’t, and ends up doing a bad job of either.

Earlier this year I discovered the college football blog of Ed Gunther, and his incredibly well thought-out and comprehensive analysis of the debate surrounding a playoff. As Gunther sees it, the debate surrounding a playoff is rooted in different conceptions of what a champion is. Proponents of a playoff want a champion to be objective, with no ambiguity, settled “on the field”, regardless of whether that team was really the best team there was that season (as opposed to just getting lucky at the right time); opponents want a champion to at least have a claim to being the best in the sport, even if that means picking it subjectively with multiple possible answers, plucked out of a hat by a poll. Opponents of a playoff, in other words, would say the 2007 New England Patriots should have been crowned champions because the Giants weren’t actually any better, they just got lucky at the right time; the Patriots could literally beat them two out of three times. In my opinion, although Gunther accurately captures the root beliefs of the pro-playoff side, he’s off the mark with the anti-playoff side, and this is more of an individual side argument than the actual core of the debate, namely the “upsets mean you won’t really get any real clarity as to who the best team is” argument. As I just mentioned, opponents of a playoff are more concerned about holding on to the image of college football they have from their youth, and in the case of university presidents, whether their student-athletes are doing well in class. The debate surrounding a playoff is more about differences in priorities than differences in philosophies.

(But if Gunther wants me to approach the debate as a difference in philosophies, then let me say to playoff opponents: What’s your response to the fact that a team outside a BCS conference has virtually no shot of claiming to be the “best”? Isn’t it possible that there could be a season with only one team with a legit claim to be the “best” but that loses in an upset in the BCS championship game – in other words, isn’t even a two-team playoff bad enough? Before you call that far-fetched, let me point you to 2006 Ohio State and Florida. Actually, I’m not sure if even Gunther really believes in this dichotomy as more than a device to help focus the debate. You can judge for yourself by reading his expanded explanation.)

I’m going to follow along with Gunther’s analysis of the issues, responding to both the various arguments against the playoff as well as Gunther’s analysis of both sides. This process should serve to demonstrate my personal playoff biases and what I feel is the best form of playoff for FBS, why other systems (including the current one) don’t work, and why mine does, taking a fairly comprehensive tour of the arguments along the way. It’s probably not the Holy Grail and the great panacea that solves every question, and it certainly has no shortage of its own issues, but over the course of this debate I hope to show why it manages to keep many of the things that make college football great, against the grain of what you might think. By his own admission, Gunther’s analysis skips around a bit because the debate kinda goes around in circles in some ways, with many different potential paths through the various arguments, and I’m going to follow Gunther’s path as a framework for presenting my own thoughts.

We already have a playoff – the regular season!
The regular season, which is part of what makes college football special, will become meaningless. Big upsets will mean less if the losers are going to get into a playoff anyway.
Late in the season, if a team has no or 1 loss, and has already locked up their conference or at least a spot in the playoff, they will rest starters and begin to coast, like in the NFL.
A playoff won’t give us the best team at the end of the season, only the hottest or the one best able to avoid – or pull off – upsets.


These arguments are tightly related, especially in Gunther’s analysis. They all have to do with the role of the regular season, the role of a playoff, and their relationship to each other, as well as the definitions of a champion held by the two sides in Gunther’s view. For this post and the next two, I’m going to jump around addressing different parts of each argument and different parts of Gunther’s “fair competition” sections.

College football is like a playoff because if you lose one game, you might be out, but if you win every game, you should win the championship; it’s not like a playoff because you can lose one game and still be in the running, and go undefeated and still not be in the running. (And not just in non-BCS conferences either. Remember Auburn 2004?) In fact, in 2007, you could lose two games and still be in the running, while there was an undefeated Hawaii team out there that couldn’t muscle its way into the title game. (I’m convinced that if the 2007 Mountain West Conference had played out like the 2008 MWC did, Utah would have been in the title game. You can exclude 2007 Hawaii for having an atrocious schedule, and you can exclude 2008 Utah on the grounds that despite having a conference and schedule on par with a BCS conference and team, it wasn’t quite good enough top-to-bottom to justify leapfrogging a one-loss BCS conference team, but you cannot say a team with a near-BCS quality schedule that goes undefeated should be kept out of the championship game in favor of a two-loss team whose schedule might not be that much better.) If it sounds a little confusing, it’s because both sides are true in different years and to different teams. One loss might eliminate you from championship contention, just like in a playoff, or it might not.

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: every regular season in all of sports has meaning. It is idiotic to claim that a playoff would render the regular season completely meaningless. Regular season games in other sports influence who gets into the playoffs and how the playoffs are seeded. That’s even the case in college basketball’s famously undervalued regular season. Under a playoff, college football would be no different, which is part of the problem: playoff opponents don’t want to see college football lose its special quality. But they don’t really believe the regular season would be rendered completely meaningless, just that it would have less meaning than now, when it has “the most meaningful regular season in all of sports”, a regular season so meaningful “the whole regular season is a playoff”. A playoff would automatically devalue that, and the regular season wouldn’t “be a playoff” anymore.

So people who want college football to adopt a playoff want the regular season to have a different meaning than it does now: rather than serving as a “regular season playoff” to select two teams to play for the championship, the regular season is meaningful for selecting however many teams the playoff will have, 4, 8, or 16, and the meaning of the playoff is to determine the champion. When you only need to get into the top 4, 8, or 16, instead of the top two, it takes less effort to move on to the next stage of the season, you don’t need to win as many games, losses are less costly, and it’s easier to brush off regular season games. College football’s regular season would not be as meaningful.

So the harder it is to get into the postseason, the more meaningful the regular season becomes. When there are more teams competing for fewer spots, the regular season becomes more meaningful. So to establish a rough index of how meaningful the regular season is, we can take the proportion of each league that gets selected to the postseason – the ratio of number of teams in the league to number of teams in the postseason. The larger the number, the more meaningful the regular season is. Then to establish an index of the meaning of each game, we take the number we get, and divide it by the number of games each team plays. Do a little algebra, and the Regular Season Meaning Index is T / (P x G), where T is the number of teams in the league, P is the number of teams in the postseason, and G is the number of games each team plays. (Note that this index is not adjusted for auto bids and seeding – it is purely the meaning of the regular season for getting into the postseason all else being equal.) Here are the numbers for various leagues:

 

Teams in
Postseason

Total
teams

% of teams
in Postseason

# of Games
Per Team

Meaning of
Each Game

College Football

2

120

1.67%

12

5

CFB (All BCS Bowls)

10

120

8.33%

12

1

College Basketball

65

347

18.73%

31

.1722

NFL

12

32

37.5%

16

.1667

CFB (All Bowls)

68

120

56.67%

12

.1471

Baseball

8

30

26.67%

162

.0231

NBA/NHL

16

30

53.33%

82

.0228

There it is, plain for all to see: college football by far has the most meaningful regular season in sports. But there are some odd things about this chart. What is college basketball doing with the most meaningful regular season, per game, than any sport except college football? I thought opponents of a playoff wanted to avoid a situation like college basketball where the regular season doesn’t matter and only March Madness is even worth paying attention to? If college basketball’s regular season is so meaningful, why do I always hear about how meaningless it is? (Even if we included all three minor tournaments – the NIT, CBI, and CIT – college basketball’s meaning index would be .0868, more than baseball, the NBA, and the NHL, and it would be selecting a smaller percentage of its teams to the postseason than the NFL at 37.18%. Note that the number of games per team is a guesstimate and the total number of teams may be out of date.) Well, part of it is that college basketball selects the largest raw number of teams to the postseason, so the perception is that teams at the top get locked in quicker. There’s also the fact that most of college basketball’s at-larges go to BCS conference schools; for those schools, the meaning of each game is significantly less than .1722, for the other schools, it’s significantly more. (We’ll see how much less for BCS schools later.) But in my opinion, another factor in college basketball not getting credit for its meaningful regular season is the fact there isn’t a straightforward standings you can check. Though “bracketology” has become a well-practiced science in recent years it’s still guesswork, and people often have trouble grasping what’s at stake in each game. The selection committee’s picks can seem like voodoo, and so people think the regular season has little to do with it.

There are some other interesting things about this chart. For one, the meaningfulness of each game in baseball is pathetic, but at least in its case it’s justifiable because of how pitching affects things – but the NBA and NHL chased the money in expanding their postseasons to include more than half their respective leagues’ teams and each game is only about as meaningful, maybe a little less, than baseball. The NFL, on the other hand, kept their postseason at a streamlined 12 teams, and with their 16-game regular season, that results in a regular season almost as meaningful as college basketball, and more meaningful than college football if the goal is to get into any bowl. I suspect the relatively large meaning the NFL imbues each game with is a key factor in the NFL being the most popular and powerful sports league. There’s drama and impact in each game you don’t get with the other three traditional major professional sports, not even in baseball which selects fewer teams and a smaller percentage of them.

But back to college football. As we said, college football has by far a more meaningful regular season than any other sport – but I bet you didn’t know how meaningful. Even college basketball and the NFL give each game a meaningfulness index number less than .2 (that’s point two). College football’s meaningfulness index number is 5 (that’s the integer 5). College football’s regular season is so much more meaningful than the others it’s hard to grasp just how meaningful it is. There are so few teams competing for the championship at the end of the season, and so few games, that it produces a meaningfulness index number over 1 (well over), which should beg the question: is college football’s regular season too meaningful? (The BCS bowls, taken as a whole as the goal, give the regular season a more reasonable level of meaningfulness at exactly 1.)

Here’s how imposing a playoff on college football would affect the meaning of each game:

Teams in
Playoff

% of teams
in Playoff

Meaning of
Each Game

4

3.33%

2.5

8

6.67%

1.25

16

13.33%

.625

An 8-team playoff would still have a meaningfulness index number over 1, and a 16-team playoff would have an index number still over three times bigger than any other sport, and would select a smaller percentage of teams than any other sport. The regular season would be significantly more meaningful than other sports even for the spotlight BCS teams with an easier path. This chart assumes every at-large is awarded to a BCS team:

 

Expected BCS Teams
in Postseason

Total BCS
teams

% of BCS in
Postseason

# of Games
Per Team

Meaning of Each
Game for BCS Teams

CFB (16-Team Playoff)

11

65

16.92%

12

.4924

College Basketball

40

73

54.79%

31

.0588

With a 16-team playoff, the regular season is not that much less meaningful for BCS teams than it is for college football as a whole, and still way more meaningful than in any other sport. (And even for BCS teams in college basketball, the regular season is twice as meaningful as in baseball, the NBA, and the NFL, before factoring in that every year, at least a few at-larges go to mid-majors.)

See, college football’s meaningful regular season has a dirty little secret: a pitifully small sample size. In fact, the sample size in college football is so pitifully small, especially compared to the number of teams, that no playoff is really any good at selecting the teams. When multiple teams can go undefeated in the regular season on a regular basis, you know you have a small sample size and a horribly skewed schedule – too skewed, in fact, to even come close to coming up with a half-decent playoff system. The NFL uses a system where every team in the division plays each other home-and-away, plus a balance of teams in the rest of the conference, plus all the teams in one in-conference division and one other-conference division. Each team plays six games that do a reasonably good job on a round-robin basis of establishing a pecking order within the division, plus a robust “out-of-conference schedule”, within a theoretically competitively-balanced league, establishing comparisons between divisions and between teams in different divisions. As long as the NFL includes every division champion it has a robust playoff system that includes every team with a claim to being “the best”. College basketball teams play 30 games within what amounts to a league with over 300 teams – about the same ratio as college football. But there are enough non-conference games, and enough of them against quality opponents, to establish connections between teams in different conferences.

College football teams only play three (four, now) non-conference games, and they are often against cupcakes. Comparing teams in different conferences is, almost literally, pure guesswork. Consider the following hypothetical scenario: Two teams go 11-1. One team lost to the #1 team but their best win is against the #50 team. The other team lost to the #30 team but their best win is against the #10 team – but their respective second-best wins are both against teams in the 60s. I could easily argue that a team that takes two losses to top-ten teams is better than an undefeated team that didn’t beat a single team in the top 50, but college football doesn’t really work that way (unless the former team is in a BCS conference and the latter team isn’t); it has to rank teams by record by default because the sample size is so small. It’s nearly impossible to separate the teams and seed them. College basketball teams suffer more losses (thus creating more of a pecking order) and create more separation of records between teams.

In Part II, I’ll explore how the way we compare teams with similar (not even necessarily identical) records in college football exposes the truth of this point, and I’ll start to explore my preferred playoff and why I prefer it.

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