Category Archives: Golden Bowl Simulated CFB Playoff

2009 Golden Bowl Tournament Octofinals

Early afternoon games:

#16 Troy v. #1 Alabama
Last year, Troy gave Oklahoma a scare despite never leading that prophesied the Sooners’ upset at the hands of USC. This year, Troy finally led… once. They got the ball to start the game and drove down the field for a field goal. Then after three runs by Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson ran off a 47-yard touchdown run. Alabama would score on their next drive as well, and though they went three-and-out on their next drive, they’d score a touchdown on all but the last drive of the second quarter, including a 62-yard punt return (though with a slight breeze and light rain, Leigh Tiffin missed three out of four extra points in the quarter), entering the half up 39-6 and on its way to a win that was more of an early-season guarantee game than a tournament game, proving the importance of seeding. Dueling “Bring on the Canes!” and “Bring on the Ducks!” chants echo across the field for most of the second half. Ingram made his last pitch for the Heisman with nearly ten yards a carry, four runs of over 20 yards, and a touchdown.
Final score: Troy 13, Alabama 62

#15 East Carolina v. #2 Cincinnati
East Carolina, especially their defense, played tougher than the final score indicated last year against Texas. This time the offenses came out to play, as Brian Kelly’s departure seemed to be a minor distraction for the Bearcats. Tony Pike went three for four on the Bearcats’ first drive of the game en route to a touchdown, the teams traded field goals, then East Carolina went three-and-out and Pike drove the Bearcats 66 yards for another touchdown. A 35-yard run by Brandon Jackson and 26-yard pass to Darryl Freeney sets up the Pirates for a touchdown of their own, but while the Bearcats are forced to punt on their next drive, Marcus Waugh picks off Patrick Pinkney to set up a 60-yard Isaiah Pead touchdown run the next play. East Carolina picks up another touchdown to enter the half down only 7, but most of the analysts think Cincinnati is just on the verge of putting this game away.

Sure enough, the first drive of the second half ends in a Bearcat touchdown, and answers a Pirate field goal with a 41-yard Pead run for another touchdown. The two teams trade touchdowns to start the fourth quarter, leaving Cincinnati up 45-27 with 9:30 to play. East Carolina unsuccessfully goes for it on fourth and 18 on the Cincinnati 36, but then forces Cincinnati to go three-and-out and blocks the ensuing punt, allowing them to cut the lead to 11 (they elect not to go for two). They kick the ball away with 3:28 left rather than go for an onside kick, but the defense forces another three-and-out. The Pirates can’t pick up the first down, though, and another lengthy Pead touchdown run ices the game. Still, did the Pirates provide a blueprint for other teams to potentially crack the Bearcat defense?
Final score: East Carolina 34, Cincinnati 52

#10 LSU v. #7 Iowa
Unlike Pete Carroll last year, Les Miles doesn’t complain too strongly about the sub-freezing temperatures, knowing his team was lucky just to get into the field. Iowa drew first blood about midway through the first quarter with a field goal, then on the first play of the next drive Adam Robinson got a 38-yard gain into Tigers territory, followed later by a 23-yard gain on a screen pass to Tony Moeaki that falls just short of the end zone. Iowa punches it in to end the quarter up 10-0, and goes on another field goal drive to open the second. A freak play happens on the second play from scrimmage on LSU’s ensuing drive as Keiland Williams breaks free for a 63-yard run all the way to the 8 only to have the ball knocked free before he can make the end zone, giving the ball back to the Hawkeyes on their own 8, but while they proceed to drive close enough for a 45-yard field goal attempt, it sails wide left and LSU burns the clock for most of the rest of the half with a drive that ends with LSU finally getting on the board with a field goal, entering the half down 13-3.

LSU’s first drive of the second half also ends in a field goal to cut the deficit to 7, but another big Moeaki screen on the ensuing drive helps set up another Iowa touchdown to make it a two-score game again, and Iowa widens the lead further when Robinson breaks out for a 55-yard touchdown run off a draw. Thanks in part to a 46-yard run off a screen by Richard Dickson off the first play from scrimmage, LSU cuts the deficit back to 14 on the ensuing drive, but Les Miles elects not to onside kick with 10 minutes left. Iowa drives into LSU territory again but Chris Hawkins picks off Ricky Stanzi, giving LSU the ball back with 5:52 left, but they can only muster one first down and Iowa tacks on a field goal to put it away. Robinson is the star of the game with over 200 yards rushing, including the two big runs and three touchdowns, and the Big Ten finally has concrete evidence that those southern teams can’t come up north.
Final score: LSU 13, Iowa 30

Late afternoon games:

#14 Central Michigan v. #3 Florida
Tim Tebow is picked off on Florida’s first drive, hurting his Heisman candidacy. But he didn’t win the Heisman he already has for his throwing. It’s a combination of his legs and his arm that drive the Gators down 91 yards on the next drive for a touchdown. But the Gators don’t score and only pick up one first down the rest of the half, while the Chippewas penetrate Gator territory on their first full drive of the second quarter, punt, and return the Gators’ punt to the Florida 34. Andrew Aguila misses a 39-yard attempt, though, and Central Michigan can’t score at all in the first half. A long Mike Gillislee run sets up another Florida touchdown, but Central Michigan in the third quarter provides the biggest scare the Gators have had in the entire Golden Bowl tournament. Aguila misses from 45 but Florida goes three-and-out and Aguila redeems himself with a successful try from 49 yards out, the first score the Gators have allowed in the second half of a tournament game since WhatIfSports has been used to simulate the Golden Bowl Tournament, and when Emmanuel Moody loses the ball on the Gators’ second play from scrimmage and the Chippewas return it for a touchdown, the Gators are up only four, their tightest second-half lead in tournament history.

After the teams exchange three-and-outs, Tebow enters the fourth needing to put the game away or risk seeing his Heisman candidacy completely vanish. But Florida crosses the quarter break with another three-and-out, the ensuing punt gives the Chippewas good field position, and they finally pick up a first down. That’s it, though: they go three-and-out from there, punt, and watch as Tebow runs for 49 yards on a 90-yard drive ending with a 19-yard Jeffery Demps run for a touchdown. Dan LeFevour gains 8 on second down on the ensuing drive and a Florida encroachment penalty gives the Chippewas the first down, but LeFevour is sacked on second, sees Kito Poblah brought down just short of the marker on third, and on fourth-and-1 completes it to Bryan Anderson, who picks up the first down only to lose the ball with 3:11 left. Tebow takes care of the remaining clock and finishes with one of his biggest running efforts in the Golden Bowl tournament, gaining 84 yards on 25 attempts, and isn’t too shabby passing either, but Demps is the player of the game with over five yards a carry (75 yards on 14 attempts) and scoring all the Gators’ touchdowns. LeFevour isn’t shabby, going 10-for-16 passing, but it isn’t quite enough on this day.
Final score: Central Michigan 10, Florida 21 (since Florida has first-and-goal with 1:52 left and Central Michigan burns their last timeout after the play that gave them the first, I’m ignoring the madness of the last 38 seconds)

#13 Boise State v. #4 Georgia Tech
Vindication for those who felt Georgia Tech didn’t deserve to be seeded over Texas. And finally, Golden Bowl Tournament verification for the non-BCS schools. It wasn’t even close: Boise State scored touchdowns on every drive of the first half, going into halftime up 35-13. They’re finally held to a three-and-out on their first drive of the second half, and Jonathan Dwyer gets a 53-yard run that sets up a Jacket touchdown to cut the deficit to 15. With an astonishing 246 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown, Dwyer would be the player of the game if the defense could get a stop. Instead D.J. Harper’s only reception of the game is a 44-yard touchdown, Dwyer is stripped on the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, leading to another touchdown, and Boise State is up 49-20 after three quarters, with the Broncos icing the game two minutes into the fourth with a 72-yard Doug Martin touchdown run. Only four Bronco drives the entire game don’t end in touchdowns, and one of them ends in victory formation. Kellen Moore is the star, going 17-for-21 passing with four touchdowns, and Martin pitches in with, in addition to his game-icer, 66 yards on 11 carries and another touchdown.
Final score: Boise State 56, Georgia Tech 27 (ignoring the completely unnecessary field goal at the end – seriously, Moore takes a knee with 16 seconds left and the Broncos still trot out the field goal unit?)

#11 Virginia Tech v. #6 TCU
The non-BCS schools didn’t need Boise State to bring them vindication, though it was nice. TCU never trailed, driving 79 yards for a touchdown on the first drive of the game, but Virginia Tech kept it close for a half, evening the score on the next drive when Ryan Williams takes the ball on a draw and goes 63 yards for the touchdown. TCU gets a chip shot field goal, but after the teams trade three-and-outs Beamer Ball comes into play as the TCU punt is returned into Horned Frogs territory, allowing the Hokies to start the second with a field goal to re-tie the game. But the Hokies wouldn’t score again, TCU picked up a touchdown before the half, and put the game away in the third quarter with three more touchdowns, the first on a 51-yard run by Edward Wesley. The star, though, is Matthew Tucker, who gets 136 yards on 16 carries with three touchdowns.
Final score: Virginia Tech 10, TCU 48

Primetime games:

#12 Ohio State v. #5 Texas
I simulated two alternatives for this game to reflect the fact WhatIfSports doesn’t have a “fog” option, with no middle ground between “clear skies” and “occasional light rain“. (I think I had a similar situation last year, but don’t remember what I did. In retrospect, maybe I should have simulated a light wind.) Fundamentally, they’re pretty much the same: Texas scores a field goal if anything in the first quarter. In the “clear” game, they break it open in the second quarter, starting it with another field goal and getting an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown on the ensuing drive; Tre Newton finally puts an offensive touchdown on the board before the half, and while the second play from scrimmage in the second half is a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown by Todd Denlinger, it’s Ohio State’s only score of the game. Colt McCoy drives to third-and-goal from the 1 but can’t punch it in either time on the ensuing drive, but after a Buckeye three-and-out Texas gets the ball back on the 7 and finish the job. Terrell Pryor can’t complete a pass all game, going 0-12 with an interception, and nets no yardage on the ground.

The “rainy” game is more interesting, as Texas picks up a touchdown early in the second quarter, but Ohio State kicks three field goals to take the lead into the half. Texas still puts away the game in the second half, though, getting into the end zone on their second drive of the half, then seeing Brandon Saine cough up the ball on Ohio State’s second play from scrimmage to set up a 52-yard Newton touchdown run. Blake Gideon picks off Terrell Pryor shortly into the fourth quarter for another touchdown, and the Longhorns put the game away with two field goals to go up 34-9 with 3:13 to play. In both games, neither QB is impressive with each throwing a pick (in the clear game, McCoy is 25-for-34 for 275 yards but never puts the ball in the end zone; in the rainy game, McCoy’s 15-for-23 for 146 yards and a TD slightly outplays Pryor’s 8-for-18 for 114 yards with 15 yards on as many carries on the ground, but it isn’t Heisman-caliber) and Newton is the player of the game with 76 (clear game) or 115 (rainy game) yards rushing on 16 carries with at least two touchdowns: three running in the clear game, one running and one receiving in the rainy game.
Final score: Ohio State 7 or 9, Texas 37 or 34 (I’m ignoring the last field goal in the clear game – WhatIfSports was really bad with this, wasn’t it?)

#9 Oregon v. #8 Miami (FL)
Things start out well for Oregon. They force a three-and-out on the game’s first drive and, in breezy conditions, get the ball back on the Hurricane 14, drawing first blood with a quick touchdown. But later, Jacory Harris gets three big plays to start a drive en route to a touchdown of Miami’s own, evening the score after one, and another big play helps set up another touchdown midway through the second. LaMichael James re-evens the score with a 71-yard touchdown run off a draw with about two and a half remaining before the half, but the ensuing kickoff is returned almost to midfield, helping set up another Miami touchdown that gives Miami the lead at the half.

Oregon drives 67 yards for a 28-yard field goal to start the second half, cutting the deficit to four, but Miami gets good field position off the kickoff again and Damien Berry breaks open a 32-yard touchdown run. James picks up another big touchdown run, this time 66 yards, but Miami’s own James, Javarris, responds with a 39-yard touchdown run of his own and Miami leads 35-24 after three. Oregon’s most concerted comeback attempt begins with about six minutes left on the clock, but it stalls in the red zone, giving Miami the ball back with 2:35 left, and Berry proceeds to ice the game with an 82-yard touchdown run. The questions surrounding the decision not to give Oregon home field advantage will still be asked after this one, where the Hurricanes seemed to vindicate the respect the committee continues to give the ACC. Despite the loss, LaMichael James is the player of the game with three runs of over 20 yards en route to a 217-yard day off 20 carries and two touchdowns.
Final score: Oregon 24, Miami (FL) 42

Quarterfinal matchups:

#8 Miami (FL) v. #1 Alabama
Miami tamed Oregon’s high-powered offense by racking up even more points. Now they have to crack the Bama defense and figure out how to stop still-likely Heisman winner Mark Ingram.

#7 Iowa v. #2 Cincinnati
Brian Kelly is gone (even though it won’t show in the simulation) and Tony Pike is going up against a good pass defense. Upset alert?

#6 TCU v. #3 Florida
Face it, these last two games are the ones everyone wants to see. How about this for Tim Tebow’s last game in the Swamp? He has to face a team that’s run the table to this point, one whose defense can match Florida’s on the stat sheet. And Florida hasn’t faced an offense that’s racked up as many stats as TCU. But Florida’s rushing attack is still potent, and they still have Tebow.

#13 Boise State v. #5 Texas
It’s an offense that scored more points than anyone against one of the top defenses in the country. And Colt McCoy. One team will leave still undefeated; the other is likely opening the new year in Cowboys Stadium.

Bowl schedule, modified and unmodified, hopefully coming tomorrow (although since Ohio State and Oregon both lost I’m conflicted about the Rose Bowl); quarterfinals to be posted December 27.

2009 Golden Bowl Tournament Belated Selection Announcement

Welcome to the third annual Selection Show Announcement for the simulated Golden Bowl Tournament – your chance to see what a playoff would be like. If you want a playoff in college football, especially if it was handled by the NCAA, it’ll probably take the form here. Here are the parameters of the tournament:

  • 11 teams are selected from the Conference Champions of all conferences
  • 5 more teams are selected from an at-large pool consisting of all other teams
  • First and second round games on campus sites; semifinals at any two of the Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and Capital One Bowl, determined by regional interest (in actuality, it would rotate between the Sugar, Rose, Orange, and either Cotton or Cap One); the National Championship to be held at the Rose Bowl

The conference champions with auto bids are Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU, Boise State, Ohio State, Georgia Tech, Oregon, East Carolina, Central Michigan, and Troy. Virginia Tech, Miami (FL), Iowa, Florida, and LSU have been selected as at-large teams.

Good luck to all our teams, especially our Number 1 seed, Alabama.

Octofinal matchups (technically played last weekend):

#16 Troy (Sun Belt champion) v. #1 Alabama (SEC champion)
Alabama gets the top seed (and it wasn’t even close) despite an atrocious out-of-conference schedule outside the V-Tech game. Troy has become the Sun Belt’s dominant team, going undefeated in conference, but while they won’t have to leave the state, they do get a second straight 16 seed and will have to try and find a way to get past a defense that was tops in the nation in points allowed and to stop this year’s real-life Heisman winner. (Not in the Golden Bowl-verse, since the Heisman ceremony obviously couldn’t be the same weekend many of the contenders would be playing.)

#15 East Carolina (C-USA champion) v. #2 Cincinnati (Big East champion)
Read on to find out why East Carolina doesn’t get a rematch of last year’s game against Texas. Instead they must find a way to stop Cincinnati’s high-powered offense. This game is played days after Brian Kelly is announced as the next head coach of Notre Dame; with such a theoretically easy first-round opponent, does he bail on the team just days before the game? It’s probably impossible to simulate.

#14 Central Michigan (MAC champion) v. #3 Florida (at-large)
Despite losing the SEC Championship Game Florida still gets a cupcake in the form of a team that went unbeaten in conference, same as Alabama. But they also get star quarterback Dan LeFevour, who has done much to turn Central Michigan into a perennial MAC power. But he hasn’t faced a defense as all-around strong as Florida, or had to outplay Tim Tebow.

#13 Boise State (WAC champion) v. #4 Georgia Tech (ACC champion)
Every year, the ACC gets a number of high-RPI teams, teams you wouldn’t normally think of as being that good. Two years ago Virginia Tech was the #1 seed, last year Georgia Tech got the last at-large (and outseeded the conference champion), and this year the ACC gets two at-larges and G-Tech outseeds Texas, if barely. Boise State shouldn’t be too upset at getting the unlucky number 13 seed that denotes “worst good team”, meaning there’s no chance of a game on the blue turf, because I placed them where they are mostly so as to avoid an all-unbeaten first round matchup, postponing a Texas showdown to the quarterfinals. G-Tech’s triple option had the second-best running attack in the country, but Boise State was tops in the nation in overall points per game, so expect a very exciting, high-scoring contest.

#12 Ohio State (Big Ten champion) v. #5 Texas (Big 12 champion)
The Big 12 had a down year, with its second-highest RPI team being Oklahoma State, and Texas’ strength of schedule was hurt accordingly. Ohio State is forced into the bottom two “good team” seeds by Oregon falling to the 8-9 game, seeded below Iowa, helped by bad losses (USC was #37 in the RPI), a questionable out-of-conference schedule, and a nonexistent road resume outside Penn State. The result: a replay of last year’s real-life Fiesta Bowl, and of a regular season series in the two prior years, against the #4 team in the nation in scoring. It’s also a showdown of two quarterback studs in Colt McCoy and Terrell Pryor, where the key will be which one can get past the other team’s top-five defense.

#11 Virginia Tech (at-large) v. #6 TCU (Mountain West champion)
Honestly, the seeding process for seeds 6-13 was such a disaster I’m ignoring this year’s results for comparison purposes in future years. My brain was burned out from constantly chasing school deadlines all quarter and a lot of the time I could barely concentrate while doing the work, and I think my comparison criteria changed as I went along because LSU was the last at-large in the field but definitely isn’t the lowest-seeded at-large. A lot of the seeding from 4-13 was done to fit my bracketing criteria, namely, postponing conference rematches as late as possible (for example, LSU can’t be the 11) and Big Ten-Pac-10 champions meet in the Rose Bowl, more than anything else. It doesn’t help that this year is one of the biggest arguments against my system I’ve yet seen; without major upsets, Florida is the only real deserving at-large (and based on the BCS standings, the only change in the at-larges would be Miami (FL) beating Penn State for the last spot – yet I still didn’t find the resumes of Oregon, Ohio State, and Boise State strong enough for first-round home games) and they greatly reduced the importance of the SEC championship game by still getting a top-3 seed. Anyway, TCU is a rare non-BCS school that got where they are with defense, allowing fewer yards than anyone (and the second-fewest rushing yards), yet still managed to rack up stats on offense. V-Tech’s best hope: their own passing defense, and Beamer Ball.

#10 LSU (at-large) v. #7 Iowa (at-large)
Iowa will have home field advantage and a top-notch pass defense. If Les Miles’ squad can knock them off, it’ll be a major chip on the shoulder of SEC backers.

#9 Oregon (Pac-10 champion) v. #8 Miami (FL) (at-large)
Some Oregon and Pac-10 backers might bitterly suggest I took the advice of fictional Pete Carroll (who might have continued the streak in the Golden Bowl-verse) and placed the game in the warm-weather climate at the expense of a potentially once-in-a-decade chance at a tournament game in Autzen Stadium (the Dolphins played in Jacksonville last weekend, so Dolphin Land Shark Stadium was free). Maybe, or maybe the Hurricanes didn’t lose to Stanford (RPI #50), beat G-Tech even if at home, and beat more than one team in the RPI top 50 on the road. The Ducks’ high-powered offense, led by Jeremiah Masoli and potentially further helped by LeGarrette Blount, will still be a handful for the Hurricanes to stop.

The half of the bracket containing the 1 seed will play in the Rose Bowl for the semifinal; the half of the bracket containing the 2 seed will play in the Sugar Bowl, meaning if seeds hold (except for Texas knocking off Georgia Tech), both semifinals won’t need to be simulated because they’ll reflect real bowls at the same sites. First-round results from Whatifsports.com coming later today.

My Evolving Take on the Debate on a College Football Playoff Part IV: The Effect of a Playoff on the Traditions, the Players, and the Schools: Issues Not Directly Related to the Preceding Ones

Protect the sanctity of the bowls! With the bowls, we have 34 winners at the end of the season, not 1! In recent days we’ve been looking at the more meta-level issues surrounding a playoff and asking questions on the meaning of the regular season and of a championship in all of sports (here’s Part III). The questions we’ll look at now are different, and more disconnected, but in my opinion cut closer to the core of the issue for opponents of a playoff, and some of them are bigger threats to a playoff than the issues of fairness at the heart of the issue for supporters. But as before, we need to get one thing straight right off the top. For all the whining and crying about the “tradition” that would be lost with a playoff, most of college football’s traditions would be completely unaffected by a playoff, at least directly. Ohio State fans will still hate Michigan with a passion and vice versa, and mascots, cheerleaders, and bands will still be indelible parts of college football. People concerned about a playoff are primarily concerned about losing two traditions, rooted in the days when there was no real championship. One tradition, which they think powers the others, is the centrality of the regular season, and we’ve covered that in recent days. The other, which for more than one reason is a bigger threat to a playoff than either university presidents or concerns about the regular season, is the bowls, and one bowl in particular.

Bowl commissioners do not want to lose their cash cow. There were 34 bowls in 2008-09 and they all raked in a lot of money. Bowl commissioners do not want their party to end and be replaced by a playoff, and they have the power and money that says it’s not going to end. They want a piece of the playoff pie. But that’s not the only thing they want. They don’t want to be reduced to “play-in games”, and they want their history and tradition to continue to the greatest extent possible. (And the BCS has already removed the idea of the bowls leading up to New Year’s Day and the correlation between the bowls and the holiday season.)

The Rose Bowl has been continuously played almost every year since the Wilson Administration – that is, around the end of World War I. The Rose Bowl has more history behind it than any championship in American sports except the World Series and the Stanley Cup (not the Stanley Cup Final as it exists today). (And the only other championships around the world that could possibly be older are the Olympics and some soccer championships.) For decades, especially between when the Arizona schools joined the Pac-10 and when Penn State joined the Big 10, it served as a national championship game of its own between the champions of the Pac-10 and the Big 10. Those two conferences could be considered to form a single east-west super-conference with a single, controversy-free championship game. Those days are over, ended when the Rose Bowl agreed to take part in the BCS. But the idea is still powerful, and you do not end something with more than a century of tradition with a snap of the fingers. The city of Pasadena places too much value on the Tournament of Roses ending in the game between two of the best college football teams in the country, and the game still gets better ratings than any college football game outside the BCS Championship Game. Four of the BCS conferences and all the other bowls could be completely in favor of a playoff proposal, but if the Rose Bowl, Pac-10, and Big Ten don’t like it, it’s not going to happen.

And there is, in all likelihood, not a playoff possible that would both satisfy the Rose Bowl and maintain its own integrity. The Rose Bowl will not put up with being either reduced to a play-in game to another bowl or forced to abandon its Pac-10/Big Ten matchup all the time. (Witness how the Rose Bowl pissed off everyone, including its own fans, by sacrificing Illinois at the altar of USC after the 2007 season instead of a Missouri team one win away from the national championship game.) The Rose Bowl was forced to become a national championship game moved off New Year’s Day in 2002 and 2006 before the creation of the separate National Championship Game removed that obligation and returned the Rose to New Years’ every year. Making the Rose the National Championship Game would be better than putting it in an earlier round, but it would abandon the Pac-10/Big Ten combination, possibly every year. (The more often you make it the national championship, the more you piss off the Rose by moving it off New Years/removing the Pac-10/Big Ten matchup and the more you piss off the other bowls for not being the national championship.) Not making it the National Championship Game and moving it outside the playoff entirely would still risk teams being selected for the National Championship Game from either the Pac-10 or Big Ten and ruining things, though that’s no different than now. Making it part of the playoff and maintaining the Pac-10/Big Ten matchup whenever possible would not only piss the Rose Bowl off at being made into a quarterfinal (as in one popular “incorporate the BCS bowls” idea), but effectively violate the sanctity of the playoff as well by manipulating the bracket to satisfy one group – the worst of both worlds.

What the Rose Bowl would really want would be a return to the era of no real championship, but just as college football signed its deal with the devil by creating the BCS, so the Rose Bowl signed its own death sentence by joining it. My generation has no particular sentimental connection to the idea of the Rose Bowl as a Pac-10/Big Ten showdown, seeing the Rose Bowl’s “tradition” only as a roadblock to the playoff we all want, and eventually we’ll come into power and the Rose Bowl’s tradition will lose much of its power, but it will take many years. (I live less than a mile from a Pac-10 school and even I don’t have any sentimental attachment to the Rose Bowl; PTI co-host and Washington Post sportswriter Michael Wilbon, who’s old enough to be my father, went to an admittedly-bad-at-football Big Ten school and even he doesn’t have enough attachment to the Rose Bowl not to want a playoff!) But while the Rose Bowl’s opposition is the most formidable, there are 33 other bowls that don’t want to lose their power, and while many of them are cheap cash-ins between two mediocre teams, others have their own history, tradition, big names, and money behind them – namely, the other three BCS bowls, as well as the Cotton and the bowl now known as the Capitol One, and to a lesser extent, the Outback, Chick-fil-A, Holiday, Gator, Alamo, and Sun Bowls. You could make a case for the Champs Sports and Liberty bowls as well, but even the Texas Bowl deserves to know they won’t be left behind in a playoff.

A lot of narrowminded playoff proponents say “Just incorporate the bowls into the playoff!” but that would remove a lot of the bowls’ significance as a reward and vacation for a job well done at the end of the season, as opposed to a stepping stone to something bigger. Bowls that are quarterfinals or worse aren’t really bowls anymore. It might not be best for the playoff either: having teams fight for home field advantage would heighten the importance of seeding, and populate the stands at each playoff game with passionate supporters of the home team, showcase college football’s great stadiums and pageantry, and pump money into the host schools, as opposed to packing the stands of a dreary, cookie-cutter, possibly NFL venue with disinterested tourists and locals and pump (not as much, given the added travel) money to sponsors and bowl committees. Yes, March Madness is hosted entirely on neutral sites, but there’s a reason the NFL playoffs (outside the Super Bowl) aren’t, and there’s a reason the women’s basketball tournament has a lot of not-so-neutral sites despite the effect that has on fairness of competition. Having teams hop from bowl to bowl for weeks would put a lot of strain on fans – even awarding home field advantage is too much of a logistical concern for some playoff opponents, we don’t need to make that any more of an issue than it already is.

More realistic playoff proposals recognize two things: one, there are at most 16 teams getting plucked for the playoff to 68 teams that play in bowls (24 teams would be a closer match to the ratio of teams selected in college basketball but would include more questionable teams and dilute the regular season too much for my tastes), and two, the bowls have been pretty diluted already by the creation of One Bowl to Rule them All (which is one reason there are so many pointless bowls now). These people keep bowls for all the teams not in the playoff, comparable to the NIT in college basketball, and possibly for teams that lose in the playoff. A plus-one with semifinal games played the week after the conference championships could completely preserve the bowl lineup with the sole exception of a more acceptable championship game. Larger playoffs have more issues with this sort of thing. My 16-team playoff, as it has been devised in the past, has first-round games the week after the conference championships, quarterfinals at Christmas, semifinals New Year’s Day, and a final played anywhere from a week after New Year’s to possibly on ML King day (taking care to avoid NFL Playoff interference). Tightening it up further runs into problems like finals week, which university presidents would never accept messing with, but under this system only losers in the first round can be thrown back into the general bowl pool. In the past I’ve assigned two BCS bowls to the semifinals, one BCS bowl and the Cotton Bowl to quarterfinal losers, and the Fiesta Bowl as a third-place game between the semifinal losers, maintaining the notion of the bowls allowing one-fourth of all teams to end their seasons with a win and better evening out the number of games each team plays, but possibly making too many teams play too many games too far into December and January. This year the first round would be the weekend of December 12; December 19 would be taken off for finals; December 26 or thereabouts would be the quarterfinals; New Year’s would host the semis; and the final probably couldn’t be held any earlier than January 7. It goes no later than the current BCS Championship Game (in the best of circumstances), but not a single additional round could be added without adding more games towards the end of this period, or otherwise pushing the whole regular season back or compressing it. (Ideally one week would be removed from the end of the regular season, but that means the conference championships are either gone or held Thanksgiving Weekend, which is currently populated with rivalry games, and I don’t want to bolt the conference championships without cutting down conference sizes, which would mean more conferences and more auto bids. Until this year the Ohio State-Michigan game was held the week before Thanksgiving, though, so that might not be so much of a problem.)

Since we’re talking about finals…

You have to protect the integrity of academics! College football (and basketball) sold out on academics a long time ago. The same schools, conferences, and NCAA that don’t want to add a playoff because it would negatively impact academics added a twelfth game solely so they could make more money. (The first thing I’d do to make more space for my 16-team playoff, if I needed it and if it would help, would be to junk the twelfth game.) They could have created a plus-one instead, adding the same number of games to only two to four teams’ schedules, and not impacting the other teams’ academics or bodies. FCS, Division II, and Division III have playoffs, and some last longer than the conference championships in FBS. (You can make a case that academics for the more heavily-worked players at schools where football matters much more need to be protected more. But you can also make a case that, because smaller schools care more about academics, they should have academics interfered with and the more athletics-centered schools shouldn’t.) March Madness extends into April, which at schools where the semester ends at the winter break, technically crosses the spring break into the next semester. (And at two-semester schools, every winter sport spans two semesters! In fact, college basketball games are played as early as November and December, in the fall!)

(A quick digression. Arguments about how FCS or Division II or Division III have playoffs can be used only to prove it’s logistically, academically, and athletically possible. Even then those playoffs often begin much earlier than an FBS playoff would have to; I think at least one has its championship game during FBS’s conference championship weekend. It’s not a good idea to use it as an argument that “we can install a college football playoff and change tradition” because that is the tradition for the lower divisions where the football playoff dates back to the 70s or earlier.)

Won’t someone please think of the children! The “overworked injury-prone athletes” argument is even more asinine than the academics argument, and Gunther doesn’t even bring it up, perhaps because it’s lost some steam since the original “Case for a Playoff”. This time the counterargument is not smaller football divisions, though by the same token as the academics argument they do back up the notion of a playoff here (why should the tougher FBS athletes play fewer games?), but other levels played by the same players. We don’t even need to talk about the NFL’s 16-game regular season, where you can play 20 games if your team is good enough to make the playoffs, plus one to four preseason games, which many players at FBS schools are using college as a stepping-stone to. You can at least make the case that kids’ bodies are more fragile. But if you make that case, what do you say about high school football players who often play more games than they will at the college level, while having academics impacted?

The fans can’t possibly attend all these games! They don’t seem to have any problem with attending the games at the NCAA basketball tournament, but if you’re too concerned about that, have the first few rounds on campus sites, as suggested above.

The controversy the current system creates is one reason why college football is second in popularity right now only to the NFL. I’m surprised Gunther doesn’t include this argument, because it relates directly to what he sees as the core of the issue for playoff opponents. It isn’t just an argument against a playoff, it’s an argument for the subjective system Gunther’s opponents advocate. However, he does populate the margins of the argument when he talks about money. More on that in a minute.

Certainly the present controversy attracts a certain breed of fan in a way that other sports don’t. A lot of my activity regarding college football, especially my rankings and simulated playoff, I don’t think I’d do if college football had a real playoff. So this really comes down to why you think college football is so popular. Is it because it creates bar arguments? Or is it because of the history and traditions? Or is it because of the taste of a real championship the BCS provides? If it’s any but the first, this argument is completely asinine. Gunther includes an argument provided by playoff proponents that, while riddled with holes when talking about money, is hard to counteract when talking about popularity.

If the college basketball regular season makes $$$, and the playoff makes $$$$$$$$$$,
then if the college football regular season makes $$$$$$$, a playoff would make $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

In other words, if college football gets X number of fans with no championship, and X+Y number of fans with the BCS, then it stands to reason that with a real championship created by a playoff, with more games to focus the hype towards the championship game, it will get X+Y+Z number of fans. The BCS may turn on nerds like me, but drunken, dumb fans of the NFL (especially if they never went to a BCS college) probably find it too confusing and cerebral “thinky”. (I don’t mean that to disparage the NFL or its fans.) College football may be second in popularity right now to the NFL, but a playoff gives it a shot to rectify that problem. Think that’s too far-fetched? Until the AFL-NFL split and merger, college football was more popular than the NFL. Today, college basketball is more popular than the NBA. The ratings prove it: the national championship game, which is almost always a snoozer and anticlimax (one way you could tell 2008 was a great year for sports was that even the college basketball national championship was great and thrilling instead of a blowout), consistently gets more viewers than the NBA Finals. The Final Four gets better ratings than any NBA games except the Finals (and haven’t bolted for cable either). Even the biggest games in college basketball’s “meaningless” regular season get better ratings than any non-Christmas NBA regular season games.

Granted, some people think the NBA is too populated with prima donnas and that the college game is more “pure”, but I suspect those same people have a chance to arise as college football fans if the NFL keeps getting populated with Terrell Owens-es and if it attracts more attention for steroid use. The Golden Bowl, as I call the final of my 16-team playoff, could be a bigger event than the Super Bowl if it replaced a confusing system that doubtless turns countless fans off the sport. Texas-USC popped a rating on par with the NFL’s conference championships. The ratings might have been even higher if there was a real playoff leading up to it. The more people accept a game as a legitimate championship, the more popular it is – what a concept!

Which brings me to the number one obstacle to a playoff, perhaps even including within itself the bowls’ obstruction…

College football loses money. That’s probably a bad way to phrase it. There are a lot of different interests that both sides admit would make more or less money in one system or the other. Gunther says that when either side brings up money, it’s not their main concern; it’s just an elephant in the living room that they can’t ignore. He says this because one, most of the active debaters don’t make any money off college football (even if they bet on it that’ll only affect them by increasing the number of games to bet on), and two, both sides argue against making more money as often as not, whether it’s proponents blasting the bowls and their money as an obstacle to a playoff or opponents saying extra money from a playoff isn’t worth the loss of traditions and regular season importance.

I used to hear the argument that college football would lose money with a playoff a significant amount, though even then it was mutated into another form I’ll get to in a bit. The battle lines are drawn a bit differently now. More and more, the focus has shifted to playoff proponents claiming a playoff would make more money than the BCS does. This is based more on logic (if a bit of a logical fallacy) than on any robust economic studies that, as far as me and Gunther know, don’t exist. It seems simple enough: A playoff would mean there would be more games played. More games = more money. More concretely, the NCAA gets paid billions of dollars for the NCAA Tournament, over half a billion a year. The BCS just signed a four-year deal with ESPN worth barely $100 million a year, a total amount of money that doesn’t match what the NCAA gets for the basketball tournament in a single year, despite the fact college football is more popular. A playoff would not only be more legitimate, it would create 15 games worth paying for (under a 16-team system) instead of just 5 in the BCS. How is this even a discussion?

The flaw in this reasoning becomes apparent when you notice that the SEC raked in over a billion dollars from ESPN at the same time the BCS signed up with the Worldwide Leader. Why is a single conference raking in over a billion dollars in bank (more, I should note, than the BCS)? No doubt it’s because of the SEC’s regular season football games. You better have already proved that a playoff won’t appreciably devalue the regular season if you’re going to make the argument that college football will make more money with a playoff because college basketball does. More to the point, the gatekeepers of college football make more money, from all sources, from the current system than they do from March Madness. Gunther has compiled the relevant numbers here and they show that the Big Six conferences make way more money off the BCS alone than they do off March Madness – from 2002-2006, all six of them together made, on average, $109 million from the BCS to $70 million to March Madness. Any half-decent playoff would involve splitting that money up with the non-BCS conferences, and possibly the NCAA, as is the case in March Madness. (And I have a feeling that if the NCAA were to run an FBS playoff they would attempt to re-merge the subdivisions of Division I and jack the size up to 32 teams.)

But wait a minute. There are significantly fewer teams in FBS than there are in Division I as a whole. In fact, while the mid-major teams are the majority in college basketball (hence the name of the web site “The Mid-Majority”), the BCS teams outnumber the non-BCS conferences in FBS, 65 to 55. Even with a playoff the BCS conferences would keep a larger proportion of the money than in college basketball, so maybe they’d still make more money than they do now. Moreover, what if the gap between football and basketball is even larger in the regular season? If a playoff would increase the gap to the level the regular season is at, wouldn’t football still make more money? But what about the devaluing the regular season – wouldn’t the increase in value of a playoff be offset by the decrease in value of the regular season? And we’re back to needing to have proved the regular season won’t be appreciably devalued. And what about the teams in the non-BCS conferences? Many early-round games would need to be played against them, and games against no-names don’t put butts in seats (in the stadium or at home). In general, BCS teams have more fans than non-BCS ones – why should the BCS teams have to ship a boatload of money to the smaller non-BCS teams and have a good chunk of the new money brought in by a playoff tainted by that? But if we have games on campus sites that will pump ticket sales primarily into the coffers of BCS schools shifting the balance back to them…

So not only is the money argument tangential to the concerns people actually care about, it’s really impossible to argue concretely in the absence of hard, relevant numbers.

Tomorrow I’ll address some of the comments people have left regarding this series and cover points not made so far – to the extent I have any.

My Evolving Take on the Debate on a College Football Playoff Part III: Concluding Thoughts on the Competitive Aspect of a Playoff

Yesterday I said:

The example of Miami and Florida State (in 2000) shows that college football can’t rank every single team based on their record. Despite the complaints about how unfair it is that non-BCS teams have no shot at the national championship, no person in their right mind that’s not a Mountain West or WAC homer would put up with Utah-Boise State as the 2009 National Championship game. Members of BCS conferences would complain that they’re being punished for being in good conferences and the tendency to schedule cupcakes would get even worse. Ranking every team based on record, without regard to schedule, benefits the non-BCS conferences but it rarely actually selects the best teams that managed to escape good conferences. The system is biased against the non-BCS teams for a reason, people. A playoff is the only approach fair to both the BCS and non-BCS conferences.

But if we can’t seed teams based on their record, how do we seed teams? Under the framework Ed Gunther uses to frame the argument, we can’t use a BCS-like ranking system; it’s too subjective for our objective playoff. So what can we use? Gunther proposes the following strawman:

The anti-playoff side likes to frame the issue another way. If we created a playoff, like the pro-playoff fans want, but didn’t have the rankings, we’d need a way to choose which teams get to participate in the playoff. One of the most reliable ways would be to take the conference champions and a few wildcard teams, just like the NFL does. So here’s the NFL playoff laid overtop of college football: first off, all of the NFL’s divisions have the same access to the playoff and title game. So all eleven conferences (the college version of divisions) would all have to be equal and have the same access to the playoff. So the SunBelt is on equal footing with the SEC, the MAC with the Big10, etc. Sound good? Let’s keep going. To automatically get into the playoff, all you have to do is win your division/conference. So the champion of the SunBelt is in, while the second place team in the SEC might not be, depending on the wild card. Winning the MAC holds the same weight as winning the Big10 or Big12. Do we really need to go on? No.

Yes, we do, because the notion of selecting all 11 conference champions isn’t the insane strawman you seem to think it is. Winning the MAC might hold the same weight as the Big 10 or Big 12, but no one in their right mind thinks they’re making it to the championship game, negotiating their way through more than six BCS teams also littering the bracket, unless they have some mettle. What’s more, if the second-place team in the SEC doesn’t necessarily get in (which isn’t really terribly different from what exists now and what people want, 2008 Texas and 2006 Michigan notwithstanding), that means all the teams in the SEC have to give their all to get that one guaranteed bid to the playoff. (Psst! Importance of the regular season!)

A more appropriate comparison would be with the NCAA basketball tournament, which selects 31 conference champions and 34 at-large teams. In a sixteen-team playoff, selecting 11 conference champions would leave room for five at-large teams. Those at-large teams would likely all be BCS conference teams in any practical system, giving the BCS conferences 11 spots. (In simulated 11/5 systems based on the BCS standings last year, TCU picked up the last at-large bid. However, in my simulated system that used a committee-of-me, I plucked Georgia Tech ahead of TCU, Oklahoma State, and a dark horse bid by Pittsburgh.) Maybe the Sun Belt champion isn’t, strictly speaking, one of the top 16 teams in the country, and maybe they don’t strictly “deserve” to go to the playoff – maybe they’re significantly worse than any of the BCS conference teams in the playoff. So they’ll probably end up stashed at the bottom of the ladder, with the 15 or 16 seed, providing a relative cupcake for the 1 or 2 seed. The MWC and WAC champions are often very good teams, but the MAC, C-USA, and Sun Belt champions aren’t, so the 13 seed would be a relatively mediocre conference champion but one from a weak BCS conference or one of the better mid-majors. The top three seeds would play relative cupcakes in the first round, and once you got to four or lower, the intensity of the games ratchets up considerably. Teams at the top of the ladder would covet one of those top three seeds and an easy first-round game. (Psst! Importance of the regular season! No tanking down the stretch!)

Gunther’s point is that it’s unfair (or widely seen as such) to the best conferences to treat the BCS conferences and the non-BCS conferences completely equally, and thus some sort of subjective ranking system is needed to balance pro-BCS conference bias and anti-BCS conference bias (the latter of which is aka a faux golden mean). Thus even a playoff would need a BCS-type system to determine what teams were best over the course of the whole season. But here Gunther seems to have a rather broad definition of “ranking”. It’s true that the NCAA basketball selection committee creates a seed list of the 65 teams in its tournament to guide the seeding process, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. And that’s precisely what I use when creating my simulated 11/5 system at the end of the year, selecting the five at-larges and seeding the 16 teams in the tournament myself. The BCS is designed to select two teams, not 16 (especially when three of those sixteen are outside the top 25), based on polls (which are rooted in nothing but subjective opinions) and computer rankings (which are convoluted, often designed for gambling and not picking a champion, distrusted, and no one knows how they work anyway). The NCAA basketball selection process is carried out by a group of people who are given simple and reasonable computer numbers, such as the RPI and a simple strength of schedule formula, and other relevant facts. As long as the playoff selectors weren’t motivated to say “let’s include Notre Dame even though they don’t deserve to be in because they draw eyeballs and give them a higher seed than they deserve so they go deeper and pop more ratings”, the latter approach would be far superior for college football, possibly even if we were to stick with the BCS.

You’re not getting rid of controversy. There’ll just be controversy as to who gets in from the at-large pool. At least we won’t have any more undefeated teams with no chance of playing for a national championship. A five-team at-large pool is big enough that it should include any team with any legitimate claim to being the best team in college football, and by the point we get to the edge we’re talking about two, three, or even four-loss teams that probably don’t have a real shot at winning the whole thing anyway. (Which is why I’m not making it any bigger and including less worthy teams.) Does anyone really think that the teams on the bubble of the NCAA basketball tournament ever have any real shot at winning the national championship, George Mason notwithstanding? As we’ll see later, a 16-team playoff does a good job of including every team that, in past years, loudly proclaimed they were worthy of a shot at the national championship – even in the chaotic year of 2007.

I think Gunther’s fatal flaw is both implicit throughout his examination of people who oppose a playoff and made explicit in his introduction. Gunther seems to think (or at least consider a reasonable strawman) that if the season were objective all the way through, it would crown the team that was the absolute best: “Team A beats Team C, and Team B beats Team D, then Team A beats Team B = Team A is the best.” In other words, if the NFL had no regular season, if it just started right in with a 32-team tournament, the team it crowned would always be the best. Gunther doesn’t seem to consider that upsets can occur anywhere. What if the best team lost in the first round? What if a team got an upset, had lucky things happen to eliminate tough opponents before they got to them, and made it at least to the Super Bowl as a mediocre at best team? If Roger Federer loses in the first round, does that change the fact he’s the best player, or does it just mean that someone managed to get to him on that day? At least with the Florida Gators ranked #1 in the preseason we’ll know that if they fall out of the title picture it’s because they’re not as good a team as we thought. Ditto the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots and the NFL playoff picture. But if the team that everyone thought was best loses in the first round, how do we know that isn’t just because they had an off day? And don’t past rounds of the tournament become as meaningless as a regular season would be with each successive round? Isn’t it logical that if a regular season without a playoff (the BCS) doesn’t produce a clear-cut champion, a playoff without a regular season doesn’t produce any reading of the best team either?

(A quick irrelevant digression, that I couldn’t find any better place to put: there are, apparently, some opponents that would moan about a playoff producing rematches between teams that met in the regular season, rendering the original game between the teams irrelevant because this game is the one that counts. Didn’t the team that won the first matchup already prove they’re better? Gunther’s proponents would counter that that game didn’t really “prove” anything, since it’s one fallible game, but why should this game “prove” anything any more? They’re both individual fallible games. Most sane playoff proposals should be set up to avoid rematches at least in the early rounds.)

Devil’s advocate time: you can make a case that, because college football barely even gives you a hint as to what the absolute best team might be, the burden of that would have to fall on a playoff that isn’t well suited for that purpose, and Gunther’s strawman in the last paragraph would have more relevance than in other sports. Precisely because we mix up two definitions of who’s “best”, the winner of the playoff would be considered, indisputably, the best team in the country. Was Texas really better than USC in 2005, or just on the day they took the field? We’ll never know, but we take it for granted that they were, and with a playoff a team doesn’t even need to be ranked in the top two to end up being considered the undisputed best team in the country, regardless of whether they actually were. That’s why the NHL awards one trophy for having the best record in the regular season and another for winning the Stanley Cup Playoffs (although best-of-seven series make it less likely that a team will just get lucky). That brings me to what Gunther sees as the core of the argument.

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. Under Gunther’s framework, the counterpoint of this is simple and seemingly self-evident: that the BCS doesn’t give us a single, clear-cut champion, just who a bunch of pollsters think should be the champion. But it’s not necessarily the case that a clear-cut champion is the sole province of a playoff, just as it isn’t necessarily the case that the best team can only be crowned by the BCS. Each system can agree with the other sometimes. Again, no one disputed that Texas was a deserving champion after the 2006 Rose Bowl; it might as well have come after the end of a long playoff. That’s because there wasn’t a “split title” where another team claimed they should be champions. Similarly, sometimes a team is so dominant that the championship game is just a coronation – consider the 1972 Miami Dolphins, or the 1985 Chicago Bears, or the Bulls teams of the 1990s, or even the 2009 UConn women’s basketball team. No one doubts that the best team won, because they were dominant in the regular season in a way no one else was. A matchup between two teams everyone thinks is the best two in the country isn’t any worse because it came at the end of a playoff – in fact the playoff itself may suffer for it because it just seems like a prelude to the main course. Ultimately, part of the reason no one ever follows through on their threats to leave the sport because of the injustices of the BCS is because if you have a matchup between two titans, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

So, to what extent does a playoff give us the best team, and to what extent does the BCS give us a single champion? Arguing under Gunther’s framework, proponents of a playoff would argue that the playoff consists of a lot of very good teams, and the winner of the playoff is obviously the best of them. Opponents would argue that the BCS standings reflect a consensus on what the best two teams are, which means it’s more clear-cut than it often receives credit for (again ignoring the mid-major bugaboo). Both of these arguments are patently false – a team that barely snuck into the playoffs could go all the way and win it all, and that wouldn’t mean they were the best team over the course of the season, and the latter argument is even more absurd, as anyone who thinks the BCS reflects a “consensus” hasn’t looked very closely at the numerous years of controversy, the corruption of the polls, and the fact computers can go against the consensus of humans. What’s more, I never hear the latter argument, since Gunther misconstrues where opponents are coming from, and the closest I hear to the former argument is in another context.

But still, at least the former argument hasn’t been completely demolished (yet). The 2007 Giants or 2008 Cardinals may not have been the best teams in the country, but they clearly must have been better than they got credit for (or that their record suggested) if they won three games against supposedly better teams, four in the case of the Giants. Where the argument goes wrong is that while it’s one thing for one team to pull off a string of upsets, it’s quite another if they’re the beneficiary of another team’s upsets. If the 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament makes the Final Four because the 1, 2, 3, and 4 seeds all fell before facing them, they haven’t really proven anything, other than that they can beat the 6, 7, 8, or even 9 seed. George Mason faced freakin’ Wichita State in the Sweet 16 the year they made their famous run.

Fortunately, Gunther proposes two more realistic – and common – arguments. Building on the brief success of the last argument, proponents note that usually, a playoff should crown the best team in the country, certainly more often than the BCS produces a champion everyone’s happy with. Gunther’s opponents counter that at least the BCS will never give the title to the team that in reality is eighth best (or even worse). Or does it? Think back to 2007, when there was a complete clusterbleep regarding who would face Ohio State in the national championship game. Any team in the top nine in the BCS standings could have conceivably been plucked to play the Buckeyes, and the only reason 12-0 Hawaii at #10 didn’t have a shot was because they were a non-BCS team. USC, which ended the season seventh, won the Rose Bowl, but crushed an Illinois team a lot of people didn’t think deserved to be in the BCS at all. USC had a mediocre resume with losses to Stanford and Oregon, but they could have easily gone to the BCS Championship Game if enough pollsters took pity on them, gotten lucky, and won. How do we know LSU, who won the title game that year, was really better than any of the eight teams below them, except maybe the ones they played? (Don’t try to muddle the issue by claiming it wouldn’t have happened under the old bowl system. What if USC had beaten Ohio State in the Rose Bowl?)

Technically it’s more accurate to claim, at least for Gunther’s vision of those that oppose a playoff, that the BCS will still give the title to a team that can claim to be the best team – but that’s in fact a minor concession on their part, since an eight-team playoff in 2007 would have achieved much the same goal, no matter how many upsets occurred – even if the eight seed won the title, they could conceivably claim to be best in the regular season as well. This brings us back to college football’s small sample size. What if I told you that in 2005, the best team in college football wasn’t Texas or USC, but West Virginia? The Mountaineers only had one loss on the entire season – they were just unlucky that day, just as Florida was unlucky last year when they lost to Ole Miss. And they did win their bowl game, topping the champions of the mighty SEC in Georgia. But they finished eleventh in the bowl-determining BCS standings, a seven seed in an eight-team tournament that granted BCS champion auto bids, and based on the BCS standings, a ten seed in a sixteen-team tournament that granted auto bids to all 11 conference champions.

This brings us back to the devil’s advocate position at the end of the last argument – college football’s regular season is so insufficient that almost any winner of a playoff could be considered the best in the regular season as well. At no point in the BCS era would an eight-team playoff based on the BCS standings have selected a non-conference champion with more than two losses. On the conference champion side, what if I told you that the best team in 2008 was Virginia Tech (who did win their bowl game, albeit against Cincinnati, an almost-as-weak Big East champion) and the best conference the ACC? You’d laugh until you looked at the clusterbleep of the ACC standings and saw that nearly every team had a shot to go to the ACC Championship Game. The SEC likes to claim they should get the benefit of the doubt for sometimes-weak records because every team in the SEC is so great that there’s so much parity that teams beat each other up; doesn’t that go double for the ACC? (The Hokies finished the regular season nineteenth in the BCS standings; under the same playoff formats as before, V-Tech would have been dead last in an eight-team playoff and 13th in a 16-team playoff.) You can’t claim the Giants were the best team in the NFL in 2007, and you can’t even claim the Cardinals were the best team in the NFC in 2008 despite the fact they won a division (well, you can, but it’s difficult); the NFL schedules are too balanced. You can make a case for any of thirteen (well, twelve) teams being the best in the country every single year, admittedly of varying levels of plausibility. (You hear that, Stewart Mandel?) A 16-team playoff would still select a smaller proportion of teams in FBS than any other playoff existing today. It may not be the ideal scenario for people who oppose a playoff for Gunther’s reasons, but that’s the way college football is and shall be.

(That Mandel link leads me to bring up an argument none of Gunther’s analysis brings up, which is the difficulty level to make a Cinderella run. The Cardinals would not happen in college football because they would not get the benefit of the doubt just for winning the division; winning a weak conference would not guarantee home field advantage in any round, as it did for the Cardinals, and locking up your conference early would not necessarily be an excuse to tank. The Giants had to win three tough road games against very good teams, though, just to make the Super Bowl against a fourth, and even in a sixteen-team format one of those games would probably be significantly easier; to beat 1, 2, and 3 seeds in the last three rounds of a sixteen-team format you would start out beating a 6 or 7 seed. A George Mason run might be of comparable difficulty in a sixteen-team format, and harder in a smaller format but with better teams to pull it off.)

The response Gunther’s opponents would have to the argument that a playoff should usually produce the best team is twofold, and in some sense, we covered them both earlier. In fact, the second response is precisely that it devalues the regular season. The first one:

A playoff breaks their definition of a best champion because first, teams will play different amounts of games in the season. With an 8-team playoff in college football, some teams would play 12 games and some would play 16 – that’s 33% more games, which is too big of a competitive gap to equally compare teams and their achievements.

But that’s pretty much immaterial, since ideally, the teams in the championship game have already established themselves as being on another level than the teams that aren’t in the playoffs, during the regular season. That’s why we need to make the playoff big enough to accommodate every team with a claim to be the best in college football. And teams within the playoff would play a varying number of games, with the teams in the championship game playing only one more game than the teams they beat in the semifinals. Given the way Gunther phrases this argument, and given the way Gunther’s opponents would presumably be okay with the bowl system where winning teams play one more game than losing ones, it seems to imply opponents would be okay with a gap that small. Wider gaps, like the one between the participants in the championship game and the quarterfinal losers, are more problematic; fortunately, my solution to the sanctity of the bowls solvdevalues es that problem, or at least widens it by one round. Stay tuned.

In fact, this argument itself suffers from two problems. First, it’s effectively saying the college football season is too small for a playoff. It’s too small for the regular season alone to give us sufficient data either; deal with it. The second one Gunther acknowledges, but not as a problem:

Basically, the anti-playoff side knows that their subjective champion is debatable, and the way they choose to make that debate fair is to make sure every team has the same amount of information (aka, number & type of games) available for voters to look at. If a few of the teams have more performances on a bigger stage, it makes the situation unfair even before voters begin the debate, the big no-no of the subjective side.

“But the whole point of a playoff is that it removes the subjectivity of a poll”, you say. But this is where we get into the problem Gunther’s opponents have with the notion of a playoff determining a claimant to the title of the best team with the same or similar veracity as the BCS, and the reason why I proposed that notion as a devil’s advocate argument, proposed by Gunther’s opponents rather than to them. It seems to me that Gunther’s opponents would accept the games in a playoff, but not necessarily the winner of the playoff as the automatic national champion. It’s as though the NHL’s Presidents Trophy were awarded to the team with the most combined points in the regular season and postseason. After all, the AP doesn’t always accept the winner of the BCS national championship game as its champion, because of the body of work their champion produced over the course of the season, and they still do a poll after the Final Four and don’t have to select the winner of the national championship if they don’t want to. Gunther’s opponents don’t want to separate the regular season and the playoffs, because they’re all still games played by the teams in question. Most people would call this a false position, a strawman inflicted on themselves, since the vast majority of people have no problem separating the regular season and the playoffs, and this is one reason I’m doubtful Gunther is properly reading the motives of opponents for anyone but himself.

But it’s harder to shake, and less of a strawman, when you consider that in college football, the playoff needs to play the role of helping determine the best team over the course of the whole season. The regular season is insufficient for that purpose, so any postseason, in the eyes of Gunther’s opponents, needs to be both a regular season and a playoff. We’ll see elements of attempts to resolve this contradiction later, when we take a look at some proposed playoff formats, including Gunther’s own suggestion. But this problem is rarely made explicit – the one attempt to resolve this contradiction other than Gunther himself is more concerned about the overall sanctity of the regular season – and so I don’t think it’s on top of mind for most opponents of a playoff. Besides which, the only real solution is to make the regular season itself longer – or institute a playoff so teams have more motivation to schedule tough to improve playoff seeding and chances of making the playoff. Whichever way you slice it, we’re not going to get better at determining the best team in college football without a playoff, and ultimately, people with the same ultimate motivations for opposing a playoff Gunther attributes to them might actually be better off with one.

And even if the team that would have been the best gets upended in an upset, well, we love upsets in March, don’t we?

My Evolving Take on the Debate on a College Football Playoff Part II: The Effect of a Playoff on the Games and Schedules

We’re using Ed Gunther’s analysis of the debate on a college football playoff as a framework to present my own analysis and opinions. In Part I I explained some of the history behind how we got where we are, and used mathematical analysis to show not only that a playoff wouldn’t make college football’s regular season less meaningful than any other sport, but that it’s quite possibly too meaningful now, because it gives us too small a sample size to properly compare teams in different conferences.

In his introduction, Gunther illustrates this with a discussion of two different notions of who’s “better”, and they’re fairly familiar: better as determined by individual games (what Gunther calls “on-that-day” better), and better as determined by your body of work over the course of the season – determined in pro sports with balanced schedules by won-loss records, but even then there is a small element of subjectiveness when comparing teams that differ by one or two games, because if that one game had gone differently who knows what might have happened. Who’s better “on that day” is obvious, but there is a tendency to conflate it with who’s better over the course of the season. Gunther imagines the following debate between an Oklahoma and Texas fan at some point after the end of the 2008 season, which I have edited for clarity, and highlighted the Oklahoma fan in red and the Texas fan in orange:

Oklahoma is better than Texas.
No way – Texas beat them 45-35!
So what? Going by that, then you have to say that Texas Tech is better than Texas, since the Red Raiders beat the Longhorns.
Texas obviously had a better season than Texas Tech. The Longhorns didn’t get blown out 65-21 by Oklahoma – their one loss was by 6 points on the last play of the game.

The Texas fan argues that, since Texas was better than Oklahoma on the day the two teams took the field, that means Texas was better than Oklahoma over the course of the whole season as well. The Oklahoma fan brings up a strawman, saying by that logic, Texas Tech is better than Texas, which of course, would further imply that Oklahoma was better than Texas Tech and therefore Texas. The Texas fan dismisses that result on the grounds that it was a close contest, effectively saying the respective bodies of work of Texas and Texas Tech trump the result of that one game. Yet those bodies of work are themselves defined by two games: Texas beat Oklahoma but Oklahoma beat Texas Tech. None of the other games any of the three teams played matters one iota. And the worst part? You don’t need to be a Texas homer to say this – just about everyone outside the state of Oklahoma worked through the argument this way after the Big 12 Title Game matchup was set.

That, more than anything else, is a symptom of college football’s small sample size: we can’t even perceive of what it means to be better over the course of the season. All we know is that two teams won ten, eleven, or even twelve games. We can’t compare two teams over the course of all twelve games; we can only compare them in terms of comparable individual games. That, in a nutshell, is why when it comes to BCS conferences, teams end up being ranked by their record. Other sports – even college basketball, where records alone aren’t everything – have a large enough sample size that we can make those comparisons without resorting to individual games. (If there were fewer cupcake games and more inter-conference games between powerhouses we might be able to make better comparisons, but that only happens when you have enough leeway to care about more than record, and that only happens with a playoff.)

This helps explain why one of the big rallying cries of a playoff to proponents is “settle it on the field!” A playoff is entirely predicated on the notion that you can compare teams’ entire seasons by looking at a few individual games. Gunther’s opponents don’t believe in that notion; they prefer to look at the big picture of the season as a whole. Their counterargument is “Any team can beat any other team on any given day.” After all, just because Appalachian State beat Michigan or Stanford beat USC doesn’t mean either of those two teams were actually better than the teams they beat, at least in the context of the entire season. No one in their right mind would say that. But it’s easy to throw out games when the teams involved are widely separated in the standings; what happens when two teams are very close in the standings, like a game apart or tied? It seems reasonable to look at the two teams’ games against one another to break the tie as to which team’s better, right? That’s what professional leagues (and, to some extent, other college sports) do.

Here’s the dirty little secret about comparing two teams’ seasons by looking at their games against each other: If the Steelers and Chargers each go 14-2 this season, and the Steelers beat the Chargers, then if you take that one, fallible, game away, the Steelers would be 13-2 and the Chargers would be 14-1.

Let’s look at two examples. Looking at games and records alone, you can’t resolve the problem between Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech. If you look at the games, Texas is better than Oklahoma, but Oklahoma is better than Texas Tech, but Texas Tech is better than Texas. You have to throw out one of the games. If you look at records, all three teams were 11-1 before the Big 12 Championship Game. Take away their games against each other and all three are 10-0. Even people within a given side of the debate wouldn’t be able to agree on what to use after that – margin of victory? (Effectively keeping the focus on the games.) Strength of schedule? (Effectively forcing you to look at the body of work.) Something else? Some combination of the bunch? Proponents say the right solution in this situation is a playoff to include all three teams so at least two can get eliminated. But opponents of a playoff say this shows games can fail you, putting you on a logical loop, and forcing you to throw out a game and admit games aren’t always the be-all end-all even among comparable teams, so a playoff won’t tell you as much as you might think. (Moreover, if you’re interested in this loop because you want to figure out which team had the best season, your next stop should be more seasonal factors like strength of schedule, so why did you take a detour into individual games again?)

So in 2000, which team was better, Florida State or Miami (FL)? Florida State went to the national championship game, outraging many people who felt it was ignoring Miami’s victory over the Seminoles. How reasonable is that, really? Take away Miami’s win over Florida State, and Florida State was 11-0 while Miami was 9-1. Had that game just been cancelled, no one would have complained that Miami was more deserving in a spot in the national championship game than Florida State. Are you just creating an artificial “tie” between two teams, effectively bumping Miami up two levels for no reason? Does a single, fallible game completely trash Florida State’s season? If Florida State was better outside that one game, and Miami was better “on that day”, shouldn’t Florida State still get the seasonal prize? Did they really settle their differences “on the field” or was it only because of that game that there was anything to settle? If that were a playoff game, would we say Miami was better over the course of the regular season because they beat a team that, until then, we thought was better during the regular season?

Yes. Again, it’s impossible to say that a team in one conference is necessarily better than a team in another conference just because they have one fewer loss. For all we know, Florida State might have gone through a weaker schedule, dodging bullets Miami had to deal with. Miami’s only loss was against Washington, who – like Miami – went 10-1 (and had a bit of a beef of their own with the national championship game selection – was it only a decade ago they were still good?). Washington was clearly a good team; maybe they too got lucky on that day in that one game. Had the ball bounced a different way, Miami could have been 10-0 outside the Florida State game and then there is a tie for us to break again. Heck, maybe Washington was better than Miami who was better than Florida State. And not all situations are like this, where there is a game we can turn to to break the tie, which is why a playoff is such a good idea, to create those games.

Gunther’s opponents would argue that an individual game isn’t a good candidate to break the tie, because it’s so fallible, and thus a playoff wouldn’t work; best to stick with a system that forces us to use tools that work over the course of the season. But the point is that a playoff can create at least the illusion of clarity; it plucks out a single team that, in college football, can at least claim to be the best of the bunch even with a fairly large playoff. In both the 2008 and 2000 cases, the current system was left with amorphous blobs of three teams and could conceivably have picked any one of the three to go to a game that would crown one team as national champion anyway (conceivably none of the three – this debate was all to see who would face eventual national champion Florida or Oklahoma respectively, and the latter was undefeated!).

The example of Miami and Florida State shows that college football can’t rank every single team based on their record. Despite the complaints about how unfair it is that non-BCS teams have no shot at the national championship, no person in their right mind that’s not a Mountain West or WAC homer would put up with Utah-Boise State as the 2009 National Championship game. Members of BCS conferences would complain that they’re being punished for being in good conferences and the tendency to schedule cupcakes would get even worse. Ranking every team based on record, without regard to schedule, benefits the non-BCS conferences but it rarely actually selects the best teams that managed to escape good conferences. The system is biased against the non-BCS teams for a reason, people. A playoff is the only approach fair to both the BCS and non-BCS conferences.

Gunther waxes poetic about how professional leagues can use win-loss records and nothing else to determine playoff composition and seeding, because their leagues are small enough and the number of games are large enough for a balanced schedule, while college sports need to use other factors like strength of schedule and create a more convoluted (and inherently subjective) ranking. Fans of, say, last year’s Patriots can complain that their 11-5 team didn’t get into the playoff while the 8-8 Chargers did, but at least they know that’s the way the rules are set up. In college basketball, however, Patriots fans – while they might accept that the Chargers are deserving of an auto bid – would complain that the committee passed them over for some other team when they shouldn’t have.

And they’d be right, and wrong. People could debate until the cows came home over whether the Patriots were more deserving of an at-large (or, perhaps, just inherently better regardless of what they deserve) than, say, the Ravens, or over where the Chargers should have been seeded compared to other teams, and would never come to a truly definitive answer. Because of this, the NFL quite possibly could get away with a BCS-like system, selecting just the champions of each conference, ignoring the divisional imbalances, and rarely upsetting more than one team in a given year if even that (in fact, the National League got by without any playoff for years until the AL added ambiguity, and European soccer leagues still do) – but college basketball could never consider a playoff even sixteen teams deep, or even one that just didn’t give auto bids to every single conference. And college football isn’t much different.

Yet Gunther follows this line of reasoning to the exact opposite conclusion – that because determining the best team is more inherently subjective in college than in professional sports, it warrants a subjective method of determining the champion, namely, the BCS. All his reasoning has told us is that the regular season in the NFL is more inherently objective and the regular season in college basketball is more inherently subjective, which tells me that for the sake of balance, the NFL can afford to be more subjective in how it chooses its champion (and maybe, to re-emphasize the regular season, they should), while college basketball has to add an objective element to its postseason, or else it gets, well, the BCS (with three times the headache!). Gunther seems to think college sports need to “mak[e] their inherent subjectivity work for the sport”, and while in college basketball that just means leaving the seeding to a committee, in college football, apparently, opponents of a playoff think a subjective season needs to be followed by a subjective championship. Is it any wonder we go through headaches every year? And is it any wonder why March Madness is considered one of the greatest tournaments in the country and is heavily watched as far back as the Round of 64?

Let’s dig into Gunther’s reasoning:

[A]nti-playoff fans want their champion to be the best over the whole season, and in order to gauge that the season usually has to be equal throughout. The college football season as it is now, with all teams playing roughly the same number of games of equal value, gives them that. But switching from a subjective regular season with all teams participating to an objective playoff with a handful of teams participating breaks the continuity of the seasons as a whole and throws it out of balance.

People who back the notion of a “regular season playoff”, in other words, note that every team plays twelve games (and this is where a lot of people complain about the extra game conference championships add). For most BCS teams, four of those games are nonconference games (the Pac-10 has one fewer and the Big East has one more) – we’ll say two of them are against cupcakes and two are against tougher opponents, one arranged by ESPN and one interconference rival. The other eight are played against other teams in your own conference, and for the most part, despite some ebbs and flows and inequalities between the conferences, the comparison is fairly constant across BCS conferences. Everyone plays the same number of games, and those games have roughly the same amount of value, so BCS proponents (I know a lot of people who oppose playoffs hate the BCS as a pseudo-playoff, but a lot of them love them too, and I don’t agree with Gunther’s interpretation of their side, including the pro-“ranking” aspect, so I refer to them as pro-BCS for simplicity only) are fine with picking BCS teams based on record alone, and because of the bowls that doesn’t introduce any further incongruity. But it’s arguably unfair for the best teams to play two, three, even four more games after the end of the season, and play that many more games than everyone else. If you’re in a playoff, you’re being punished for being good and continuing to win. What’s more, the only game that matters once you’re in the playoff is the last game you played and the next game you play. The regular season, with its body-of-work aspect, is now irrelevant, and the result is a schism between the best team and the team that’s winning now. This is why you hear people moan about how little the regular season matters in other sports, no matter what that sport is.

This line of reasoning would work in European soccer, but it breaks my brain in American sports and certainly in college football, where not only are there differences between BCS conferences, the non-BCS conferences just don’t compete on a level playing field. They don’t play opponents that are as tough and they don’t have an equal shot (or any shot) at the national championship. If you want to define FBS as consisting solely of the members of the BCS conferences, you can make the argument that everyone plays the same regular season, but I hope you have time to console the non-BCS teams that just got told they’re not really part of FBS, they’re not playing for the same championship.

What’s more, the idea that the regular season ceases to matter in a playoff isn’t completely true either. True, if you lose you go home. But if you win, who do you play? Do you play the team widely considered the best team in the country on their home turf, or do you play a team that barely got into the playoffs at all on your own home turf? Under a playoff system, the regular season is not only important for determining which teams get into the playoff, but which seeds they have as well, which can affect how far they progress once in the tournament. And seeds are important: a 1 seed has never lost to a 16 in the NCAA basketball tournament, but a 9 seed beats an 8 seed more times than not. That’s why a team that has already locked up their spot in the playoff won’t necessarily start coasting – if there’s a high risk-reward for maximizing their seed. Whether or not there is varies from year to year and system to system, but if college football had a plus-one in 2008, and Florida and Alabama knew they were both moving on to the plus-one regardless of the result of the SEC Championship Game, and the difference was whether they were playing Oklahoma or Texas (or, if Oklahoma lost the Big 12 title game, USC) in the semifinals, I don’t think they’d be terribly motivated to fight for the chance to play the thought-to-be-marginally-worse team. In 2008, the plus-one fell into college football’s uncanny valley: the SEC Championship Game had more meaning under the BCS, but it would have had more meaning under a 16-team system as well. Same goes for Ohio State-Michigan in 2006.

It turns out that a postseason that makes the regular season less meaningful if your goal is to make the playoffs makes it more meaningful if your goal is to fight for seeding. In the NBA, the regular season isn’t very meaningful for picking the teams that go to the playoffs, since half the teams are picked. If your goal is just to make the playoffs, you can coast once you’re in. But by the same token, seeding is very valuable in the NBA, since the 1 seed faces a mediocre team in the first round. The 1 seed would be less valuable in a college football playoff that selected the best eight teams regardless of conference because you’d be facing another team almost as good in the first round. So you need a balance between a playoff large enough to make it valuable for the top teams but small enough to make it valuable for enough bubble teams that no team feels safe, whether it’s with their seeding or their spot in the playoff.

College football is a large enough universe that even with a rather large field, seeding wouldn’t be terribly valuable in and of itself because the differences between seeds would be fine gradations. Seeding value is enhanced by giving auto bids to the winners of mediocre conferences/divisions and placing them at the bottom of the ladder. The 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament aren’t the 64th best teams in the country; they’re far worse. Teams fight for 1 seeds because they know they’ll not only get a free pass to the second round, they’ll have hardly broken a sweat when they take on a team that survived the grueling 8-9 game. Drop down to the 4 seed and you face a real upset possibility and no distinct advantage over the winner of the 5-12 game.

(Most pro sports do this wrong and give the auto bid teams the best seeds as well, regardless of record compared to the other teams. This is because pro sports are balanced enough that the 1 seed wouldn’t benefit that much more from playing a weak division winner than a less-weak non-division winner, and in fact usually wouldn’t be affected at all. But the NBA did eventually notice that when the 3rd best division winner has a worse record than the 3rd best non-division winner (or 6 seed), and the second-best record happens to belong in the same division as the best record, and home court is based on record and not seed, it produces a perverse incentive to lose and sink to the 6 seed, and allowed the best non-division winner to be seeded with the division winners.)

Tomorrow we put this all together as I unveil – and further defend – my preferred playoff format.

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.

Let’s play "What is Tom Hansen talking about?"

From his interview with the LA Times:

It [a college football playoff] would be so negative for college football in my opinion that it just doesn’t make good sense. Including the fact it would be 16 teams, not the four that many people advocate, because politically you couldn’t stop at four, you couldn’t stop at eight, you couldn’t stop at 12. And even at 16 you’d have problems.

What political pressures and “problems” is he talking about?

If he thinks a playoff would have to pick the best 16 teams, yes, that would be a problem and devalue the regular season. But the political pressures I’m imagining would create an 11/5 playoff, which would mostly maintain the sanctity of the regular season and create an exciting postseason. And wouldn’t be terribly different, when you think about it, from an 8-team playoff with the best 8 teams.

Or is it just the logistical issues involved with scheduling 15 playoff games?

More football than you’d ever expect two days before the Super Bowl

(Editor’s note: This post was  reconstructed from scratch because WordPress’ importer missed it the first time through. I don’t think any comments were left with this post but if there were I apologize.)

Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated uses the Arizona Cardinals to back the BCS, or at best a plus-one, in a column on SI.com. In his eyes, if the Cardinals could tank once they cinched their division and then rendered their mediocre regular season irrelevant in the playoffs, what’s to keep Florida from tanking before the SEC Title Game, or Virginia Tech from rendering irrelevant their mediocre regular season and cruising to the Golden Bowl in Cardinal-esque fashion?

You know I’m a staunch backer of an 11/5 system for college football. While Mandel makes a compelling argument, I think it falls flat for a number of reasons. Ignoring the tanking-Florida argument because I’ve covered it before, it’s worth remembering that V-Tech wouldn’t automatically get a home-field seed just for winning a mediocre conference, meaning the confluence of good fortune that assisted Arizona would need to be significantly greater. Even with a home field 8th seed, V-Tech would either need three games to go their way (not two as Arizona needed), or make their own luck twice (not once as Arizona needed). That’s before considering how much home field has been diluted in the NFL, which you can’t say about the famous college football crowds.

I have more in my comment to the Bleacher Report article that tipped me off to Mandel’s article.

Meanwhile, the college football rankings are finally up, as are updates to both lineal titles.

After the Golden Bowl…

…Mark Sanchez, seeing how close he came to a national championship, elects to come back to USC for another season.

Think of how acrimonious his real-life decision to jump to the NFL was, how it caused a split with his coach and maybe even his father.

Now suppose that, rather than being the top of the heap, about as high as his career could go with the risk of injury being the main thing looming, the Rose Bowl put him in a real national championship game. And put Sanchez within one game of becoming the true champion of college football… and he lost (and had a mediocre performance that would hurt his standing with NFL scouts).

Don’t you think he would be a little more tempted to come back and get over that last hump? Even once Tim Tebow announces he’s coming back as well, it’s unlikely to change his decision; he wants to get a rematch in next year’s Golden Bowl where he thinks the Trojans can come out on top this time. After all, this year’s Golden Bowl was in Florida’s home state; next year’s will be a virtual home game at the Rose Bowl.

I’m going to simulate next year’s Golden Bowl Tournament based on the actual results of that season’s games, not based on some alternate universe where Sanchez still plays at USC. But this sort of thing is the sort of impact instituting a playoff would have on college football – real, substantive effects that change the course of college football history. And Whatifsports.com doesn’t even simulate injuries (because it’s intended to simulate one-game exhibitions).

Keep that in mind while you’re debating the merits of a playoff.

Yes, the college football rankings and lineal title are coming! Hold your horses!

2009 Golden Bowl: USC v. Florida

I introduced the Golden Bowl after the semifinals as Golden Bowl II, but given my shifts in priorities and the new way we got here, not to mention I’m not waiting a year to present the results, I think Golden Bowl I might be more appropriate… prepare for a lot of scrolling…

Golden Bowl I: #9 USC v. #2 Florida
USC gets the ball off the opening kickoff and takes it to the 31. The instant the teams line up at the line of scrimmage, Florida gives them the gift of an encroachment penalty. Stafon Johnson gets nailed behind the line. Mark Sanchez tosses it forward to Patrick Turner who picks up 5, and C.J. Gable picks up 14 yards for the first down. Damian Williams can’t quite bring in the pass from Sanchez, but Gable picks up another first down to the 36. Johnson takes it to the 24 for another first down. Gable manages to move the pile for three yards, then Johnson breaks through for 15 to the 6. Joe McKnight’s first carry picks up two yards, one of which Gable loses. Sanchez takes the ball and can’t find anyone open, ending up tackled at the line, forcing a chip-shot field goal attempt. The kick is good and USC takes the early lead.

The ensuing kickoff is short, caught at the 10, and returned to the 30. Chris Rainey can only get a short gain on his first carry, but picks up a first down on his second. Percy Harvin picks up the ball from there and takes it 9 yards, and Jeffery Demps gets more than enough to pick up the next first down to the 48. But Rainey gets stuffed, Tim Tebow just barely overthrows his receiver, and Tebow himself gets stuffed, and Florida is forced to punt. (Incidentially, the amazing thing about Florida’s run in this tournament is that I don’t think Whatifsports has much of a concept of the running quarterback, given Tebow’s performance!) USC seems to have the early edge, but the Gator punt pins them on the 14.

Gable runs for a little, then Johnson drops the pass from Sanchez. Sanchez has better luck with Turner and Vidal Hazleton, and a couple of 15-or-so yard gains move the Trojans to their own 48. Another Sanchez throw picks up another five from there, but Johnson gets stuffed for a short gain and a defender deflects the pass on third down. USC’s punter returns the favor done him by the Gator punter, pinning the Gators at the same spot.

But after Rainey gets stuffed at the line, Tebow hands the ball off to Demps… and he breaks into the open field! No one can catch him! 40, 30, 20, 10… Touchdown! Just like that the Gators take the lead! USC takes the ensuing kickoff out of the end zone and to the 29, but Johnson gets stuffed, Brandon Antwine records the first sack of the day, and on third-and-15 Sanchez’s pass gets broken up. The instant Florida takes the field, it’s clear the momentum has shifted: Demps picks up a yard on a draw, Harvin runs for the marker and just gets it on the measurement, then Rainey gets stuffed and Harvin gets more yardage off the draw, leaving Florida at third and 3 as the quarter ends.

Tebow gets stuffed at the line, but the ball is on the USC 34 and Urban Meyer decides to go for it on 4th down. Emmanuel Moody, however, can only get a yard. No problem for the Gator defense: the Trojans botch a screen on first down, which falls incomplete, and attempts by Johnson and Sanchez to take it further only complete another three-and-out. Florida manages to return the punt almost to midfield.

There, however, is where it ends: Tebow gets stuffed behind the line, Demps is scarsely better, and Harvin gets the pitch but can’t take it all the way to the marker. Still, USC is pinned at the 14 again. The toss to Anthony McCoy picks up six yards, and Gable takes the ball for another six and a first down. McKnight gets the ball again but this time loses significant yardage, but Turner catches the pass from Sanchez and makes up for it. Johnson plucks the ball from the air on third down and stretches it out to the 46 for a 16-yard first down. Johnson gets the ball running on the next play and takes it a decent distance again, then picks up the first down through the air again to the Florida 37. Johnson puts up more good yardage on the run, but when Sanchez attempts to throw again, Will Hill picks him off, wasting the drive.

Rainey takes the ball 14 yards, but three Moody runs pick up a total of five yards and Florida is forced to punt. Sanchez hands it off to Johnson again, then sees his pass batted down and finally hands it off to Gable, but gets nowhere, and the ensuing punt gets returned into USC territory. Rainey and Demps have some short runs before Tebow throws to Deonte Thompson, who manages to weave past defenders to the 29. Moody gets a short gain, Harvin a short loss, and Tebow throws it again, this time short of the marker – and his only completed pass of the day to someone not named Deonte Thompson. Jonathan Phillips comes in for a 39-yard field goal attempt, and the kick sails through the uprights to put Florida up by 7 with less than two minutes left in the half.

Johnson picks up a first down, but USC isn’t able to take advantage of the clock stoppage and calls timeout. Gable gets halfway to the next marker on a draw, then Sanchez sees another pass broken up and gets sacked on the next play. Florida calls timeout before the punt; after the punt, Tebow picks up a little, then throws to Thompson again to put the Gators just short of the first down. Moody then gets the ball again for a short gain, and the half ends. USC 3, Florida 10, but most observers think the Florida defense has USC bottled up, though they could still break out during the second half.

Florida takes the second-half kickoff to the 29. Kestahn Moore picks up five yards, and Rainey loses one before Florida gets flagged for a false start on third down. Moore is pinned behind the line and the Gators punt. USC doesn’t do much better; McKnight is stuffed at the line, Gable gets nailed for a loss, and Sanchez flips it up to Damian Williams, who makes it back to the original line of scrimmage. Florida, though, gets a great punt return, with USC only getting the stop at the 2. Rainey and Demps don’t get anywhere with a pair of runs, but Harvin finally pushes into the end zone. Florida takes a 17-3 lead.

USC takes the kickoff to the 26, but after Johnson takes it past the 30, two McKnight runs prove that the master of the previous rounds is not his normal self today, bottled up by the fantastic Gator defense. Florida gets the ball back at the 43, but runs by Moody, Rainey, and Moore only bring the ball to midfield, and they punt it back.

McKnight gets a short gain on a draw, then has his biggest play so far, going for 14 yards and a first down on a pass from Sanchez. Johnson gets a big gain for a first down on a draw, while Gable is less successful, but Sanchez connects with Williams for a big play to the Gator 25. But that’s it: McKnight gets nailed for a big loss, and Brandon Spikes picks off Sanchez for the Gators’ second interception.

Moore quickly breaks off a big run into Trojan territory, and now the Gators are threatening to score. Three straight Tebow running attempts go nowhere, however, the last one resulting in a substantial loss. This time, the loss, moving them back to the 38, is sufficient to bring in the punt unit, which ends up putting the ball on the 14. McKnight seems to continue his resurgence with runs of 4 and 11 yards – hardly the numbers he was putting up against Utah, Oklahoma and Penn State, but certainly decent – and Sanchez throws to McCoy to take the ball to the USC 46 for another first down. Johnson gets the ball and runs all the way to the sidelines for a short gain. The quarter ends on that note.

If Sanchez can keep from getting intercepted USC can still make a game out of it. Gable passes midfield and McKnight finds the first down marker before getting the pass from Sanchez. Running the ball, however, gets nowhere. Two Sanchez passes end up getting tackled for losses, stuffing the drive and forcing another punt. Demps gets a short gain on a draw, with Rainey picking up a first down on another one. Demps and Moody make further contributions, gaining a total of 5, and Tebow can’t carry it further, forcing another punt.

USC starts on their own 27. Johnson takes it to the 30 but a false-start penalty wipes it out. Two Sanchez scrambles go nowhere and USC punts, with some wondering if Pete Carroll should go for it, especially when Florida gets good field position. 8:06 left. Harvin is stuffed on first down, but Moore gets a good run on a draw, and one last pass from Tebow to Thompson is good for a first down and takes it to the 40. Tebow takes it himself on a draw, then hands it off to Rainey and Harvin, taking the ball to the 31, just short of the marker. Phillips comes in to try a 48 yard field goal attempt, which manages to make it through the uprights. Now Florida has a 17-point lead, three scores, with 5:10 left. If USC is going to come back, now is the time.

USC takes the kickoff to the 29, but lets the play clock run out before running their first play. Sanchez overthrows Williams but manages to get the ball to Turner for 18 yards, despite Florida pass interference. Pete Carroll calls timeout with 4:46 to play. Sanchez hits Williams and makes it into Florida territory and marginal field goal range. Sanchez takes it himself and runs around out of bounds, then hits McCoy to make it to the 19. 4:07 left. Then the Gator secondary locks down. Sanchez is forced to tuck it in and run for a yard, then gets the pass off and sees it batted down. On third down Sanchez overthrows Johnson. Even though they only need two touchdowns and a field goal, Carroll elects to go for it on fourth down rather than take the points, and Sanchez overthrows McCoy. 3:26 left.

Short gains by Moody and Demps bracket a 14-yard run by Rainey. Tebow just barely overthrows Harvin on second down, stopping the clock, and Demps only gains four on third-and-nine, so USC gets the ball back. But the drive has achieved its aim: over two minutes were run off the clock, and 1:14 now remains with the Trojans on the 20.

Sanchez overthrows his first pass again, and this time takes it in and runs for yardage… only to see one of his linemen flagged for holding. Sanchez throws another incompletion, and another holding call is declined this time to set up third down. This time Sanchez comes through, hitting Williams for a monster gain to the 35, but then he overthrows McCoy, botches another screen, and overthrows another receiver. Oddly, on fourth down Sanchez hands it off to Johnson, who gets out of bounds… after gaining three yards. Florida gets the ball back with 24 seconds left, and one Tim Tebow knee later, Florida is your Golden Bowl Champion, completing the Grand Slam on Da Blog. Demps is named the Golden Bowl MVP, mostly because of his great touchdown run, though also because he managed to be Florida’s leading rusher, 100 yards, despite fewer carries than Rainey (Demps had 10; Rainey picked up 61 on 13).
Final score: USC 3, Florida 20