Bring Back the BCS!
Some preliminary thoughts on the inaugural college playoff system.
After an exciting few days of college football, we’re down to an Oregon-Ohio State matchup for the national championship. With my Alabama Crimson Tide eliminated, ironically from a seeming inability to play defense, I offer herewith some preliminary thoughts on the inaugural college playoff system.
1. Just in Time: Most years, the NCAA got lucky with the old BCS format. With rare exception—notably the 2004 season, when five teams, including three from major conferences, went undefeated—the regular season sorted things out, making the selection of the two teams to compete for the championship fairly obvious. This year, we’d have had an absolute mess, with four highly-deserving major conference teams left on the outside looking in. Granting that Big 12 “co-champions” TCU and Baylor were still snubbed even under the current system, we’d have had a crisis with two teams that had just won championship games, likely Oregon and Ohio State, left out.
2. Ironic/Perverse Results: Relatedly, neither of the teams who’ll play for the championship this year would have been in the game under the old system. Alabama, which lost narrowly to Ohio State, and Florida State, which was blown out by Oregon, would almost certainly have been pitted against one another. I think Alabama would have won that one, adding a fourth championship in the Saban era.
3. West Coast Bias: My only real complaint about last night’s festivities—aside from Bama’s loss—was the scheduling. There were two playoff games: At The Rose Bowl, played in Pasadena, California pitting #2 Oregon against #3 Florida State and the Sugar Bowl, played in New Orleans pitting #1 Alabama against #4 Ohio State. Why on earth wouldn’t you schedule the Sugar Bowl—played in the Central Time Zone and pitting two opponents from the Central Time Zone—for the 5pm Eastern/4pm local slot and the Rose Bowl—played in the Pacific Time Zone with the top seed also from that time zone—in the 9 Eastern/6 local slot instead of vice versa? Having one of the two games end at 1 am on a workday in the Eastern Time Zone is a fiasco to begin with. But it just makes sense to at least align the schedule with the time zones in which the bulk of the host team’s fans live.
4. SEC West: For years, the debate has raged about whether the Southeastern Conference gets too little or not enough deference by pollsters and those who decide playoff matchups. This year in particular, the SEC’s Western Division has absolutely dominated the rankings. But the conference and division suffered an epic collapse during the bowl season. After getting off to a good start with the West’s bottom teams, Arkansas and Texas A&M winning, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Alabama all lost.
5. Strangest Postseason in All of Sports: Whether it was the bowl system of my youth, the just-ended BCS era, or the new playoff system, major college football is the only significant American sport with a huge gap between the regular season and the postseason. It simply makes no sense for the top teams to take as much as six weeks off between their last regular season game and their bowl game. In the bygone past, the bowl games were simple exhibitions and weren’t even factored into the mythical national championship equation; the pollsters crowned a champion at the conclusion of the regular season. But that was four decades ago and the practice has continued.
Additionally, despite the emergence of a playoff system—first the one-game “playoff” of the BCS era and now the two-game playoff—the bowls remain as meaningless exhibitions to which people assign meaning. Indeed, for some bizarre reason (okay, it’s money) there are actually still some exhibition bowl games this weekend despite the playoff being underway. Because of this oddity, I’m not sure we can make much of the performance of the SEC West or Baylor, all of whom had great regular seasons but were flat in their bowl games. Psychologically, it simply has to be difficult to get motivated for these games unless you’re the underdog. Alabama has been horrible in bowl games in years when they lost their bid for a national championship in the last regular season game, whether the Iron Bowl or the SEC Championship.
Relatedly, aside from the loss of momentum created by the long hiatus, it simply changes the nature of the contest. Normally, teams get a week to prepare for their opponent and have to deal with the injuries that have mounted during a grueling season. With the bowl system, it’s almost like starting a brand new season.
5. No perfect system: While I think the four-team playoff is an improvement over the BCS, which was itself an improvement over the polls-after-the-bowls system—and would prefer to see the field expand to eight teams—there’s no perfect system for crowning a national champion. This year, a six-team playoff would have been ideal. In 2010-11, where my Alabama team beat an LSU team that had already beaten Alabama on our home field, simply crowning LSU the champion after it won the SEC Championship Game would have been the fairest system.
The NBA and NHL have the best playoff systems for choosing the best teams. A long series of best-of-seven contests eliminates flukes and ensures that the best team almost always emerges as league champion. They’re also the most tedious playoffs in all of sports. Conversely, the NCAA basketball tournament, where 64ish teams face each other in single-elimination matches, is far and away the most exciting but also the dumbest possible way to pick a champion. Basketball is a game of streaks and flukes, so a single contest between teams tells us little.
Because it’s so physically brutal, football doesn’t lend itself to best-of series. We’re accustomed to a playoff system, so the NFL’s path to the Super Bowl, which “settles it on the field,” seems right. But that system does little to reward strong regular season performance. This weekend, for example, the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals have to face the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers on the road as equals. Since the playoff is only four games, a team that’s been mediocre all season can get hot at the right time, catch a lucky break or two, and win a championship. The New York Giants have done that twice in recent years. They did so the first time by beating four teams with better records, all of whom had beaten them in the regular season. Nobody cared, though, since that was the system in place and they “won it on the field” when it mattered.
Had the BCS still been in place this year, there would rightly have been a lot of complaints about the teams that were left out. But the winner of the Alabama-FSU game would have been recognized as the rightful champions by all but the fanbases of Oregon, Ohio State, Baylor, and TCU. This year, only Baylor and TCU—especially TCU, given their impressive bowl performance—will have any complaint about the results.