Three Questions for Three Football Games This Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers eked out a win in a hard-fought game against the Titans in the NFL’s Kickoff Game, but lost Troy Polamalu for several weeks; in a battle of defenses against the Bears this week, how far back could that set the Steelers?

Florida showed it could knock around an FBS team the same way they could knock around an FCS team. Now, what about a BCS team? They take on Tennessee in the Picking A Fight With Urban Meyer Bowl.

It took until the fourth quarter for Utah to pull away from San Jose State – is that cause for concern, especially with BYU wowing the nation? With Oregon coming off a win, will a trip to Autzen Stadium treat the Utes as kindly as it did Boise State last year?

All three of those teams hold one of my football lineal titles, and will be defending them this week. The requisite categories on my web site have now been updated.

Forum Launch Prelude

The forum software I want to use is driving me absolutely bonkers for style customization to the point I can’t even think straight about the process, so as a prelude to actually linking to and unveiling the site, I’m leaving this an open thread for features you want to have the forum to have when it launches.

UPDATE: Okay, I’m delaying the launch of the forum until Monday again, and I may have to delay it until December or even later for all the plugins I feel I need to update for the current version of the forum software. fk gmav brlgbgnhvnvngngt

Random Internet Discovery of the Week

I swear moving the RID to Mondays isn’t going to be a permanent thing. I still need a little more time to put up the forums, just to finalize the rules I’m going to propose at the start. That and a webcomic review will both be coming Tuesday.

I didn’t bother to read all the flirting tips, but… everything that separates us from the animals and built our civilization, for better and worse, is a side effect of our courtship rituals?!? That’s an out-there theory…

I like a la carte too, but let’s not get too excited.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a bit of a debate raging on a la carte television – allowing you, the cable television consumer, to pay for only the channels you’re actually interested in watching. Consumer groups like it, because it saves the consumer money, but the cable channels don’t, because small cable channels would be more likely to find an audience if cable companies pushed them on companies. But really, the large cable channels would be hurt more than the small ones, because channels most people find useless, like Oxygen, wouldn’t be picked, saving money for smaller channels people might have more interest in. That would reduce the resources of all of cable and possibly swing some of the cable channels’ advantages back to broadcast, as well as make niche networks, appealing to niche markets, more viable.

But to claim, as this blog did in July, that it would completely revolutionize the news and sports industries?

It’s become mandatory to have cable if you’re a sports fan, and a la carte would take away a significant portion of the revenue stream for the sports networks that gives ESPN an unfair advantage over the broadcast networks, but to say it would end journalistic botches like the Roethlisberger scandal? To say it would force the news networks to become actual news networks instead of partisan machines? MSNBC and Fox, and to a lesser extent CNN, play to partisan crowds because partisan shows like those of Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, and Lou Dobbs get ratings that straight news doesn’t. You’re saying that, even though more people watch the partisan shows than straight news, more straight news people would order the news channel than partisan news people? That’s a bit of a leap of logic, especially since the media’s turn towards partisanship encompasses more than just the cable news networks, being the order of the day on the Internet. (Wait, isn’t one of the big selling points of the internet choice? Isn’t that what this guy wants? Doesn’t this mean a right-winger could order Fox and leave out CNN and MSNBC entirely?) A large portion of Howard Stern’s audience may have left him when he went to satellite radio, but to say that what’s popular in “cable TV socialism” is completely different than what would be popular in a la carte makes no sense, especially since there would be no alternative.

Honestly, I think the horse has left the barn on the changes this blog post wants, which might have happened had the government never imposed “socialism”, but not now. To say ESPN would have a lot of its power taken away might have made sense before 2005 or even last year, but with the BCS and Monday Night Football now in its pocket I think there are enough people desperate enough for those two things, and more besides, that they’re willing to fork over enough for ESPN for it to still be a powerful force. Sports fans are a notoriously passionate and desperate bunch. And to say that fixing cable would fix the news networks makes no sense at all, and in this day and age, where our partisan discourse (which is slowly creating a real “two Americas”) is reinforced by the Internet and with the news networks entrenched in their ways, I doubt it would lead to significant movement.

Besides, any debate on the role of television, broadcast or cable, is probably missing the larger point (hinted at towards the end), that it’ll all be swept under the dustbin of history as the Internet comes in within a decade or two. And while I suspect when that happens, broadcast and cable “networks” will become largely obsolete and sports entities will produce and distribute games themselves, all evidence suggests ESPN will still have its popular website and the partisan discourse on cable news will continue unabated on the Web.

Now how imposing a la carte and moving to the Web would affect entertainment, now that’s a question worth asking…

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.

College Football Schedule – Week 2

All times Eastern.

LINEAL TITLES (ALL GAMES ON SATURDAY)

Troy

@

*Florida

Noon

SEC Network

Dave Neal, Andre Ware, Cara Capuano

*Utah

@

San Jose State

10:30

ESPNU

Carter Blackburn, JC Pearson

THIS WEEK’S OTHER HD GAMES

Clemson

@

Georgia Tech

7 PM TH

ESPN

Chris Fowler, Jesse Palmer,
Craig James, Erin Andrews

Colorado

@

Toledo

9 PM FR

ESPN

Ron Franklin, Ed Cunningham

Fresno State

@

Wisconsin

Noon

ESPN

Dave Pasch, Bob Griese, Chris Spielman

Central Michigan

@

Michigan State

Noon

ESPN2

Pam Ward, Ray Bentley

North Carolina

@

Connecticut

Noon

ESPNU

Clay Matvick, David Diaz-Infante

Iowa

@

Iowa State

Noon

FSN

Joel Meyers, Dave Lapham, Jim Knox

Syracuse

@

Penn State

Noon

BTN

Craig Coshun, Glen Mason, Kenny Jackson

Eastern Michigan

@

Northwestern

Noon

BTN

Matt Rosen, Mark Campbell, Rebecca Haarlow

Western Michigan

@

Indiana

Noon

BTN

Matt Devlin, Anthony Herron, Larra Overton

Stanford

@

Wake Forest

Noon

Raycom

Steve Martin, Rick Walker, Mike Hogewood

Duke

@

Army

Noon

CBS CS

Dave Ryan, Jason Sehorn

Notre Dame

@

Michigan

3:30

ABC

Sean McDonough, Matt Millen, Holly Rowe

Texas

@

Wyoming

3:30

VS.

Joe Beninati, Glenn Parker, Lindy Thackson

BYU

@

Tulane

3:30

ESPN2

Terry Gannon, David Norrie

Houston

@

Oklahoma State

3:30

FSN

Bill Land, Gary Reasons, Emily Jones

TCU

@

Virginia

3:30

ESPNU

Todd Harris, Charles Arbuckle

Louisiana Tech

@

Navy

3:30

CBS CS

Pete Medhurst, Randy Cross

UCLA

@

Tennessee

4 PM

ESPN

Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge, Erin Andrews

South Carolina

@

Georgia

7 PM

ESPN2

Mike Patrick, Craig James, Heather Cox

Vanderbilt

@

LSU

7 PM

ESPNU

Eric Collins, Brock Huard

Air Force

@

Minnesota

7 PM

BTN

Wayne Larrivee, Chris Martin, Charissa Thompson

Illinois State

@

Illinois

7 PM

BTN

Ari Wolfe, Tony McGee, Sarah Spain

Mississippi State

@

Auburn

7 PM

SEC/FSN

Bob Rathbun, Dave Archer, Jenn Hildreth

Kansas

@

UTEP

7:30

CBS CS

Tom Hart, Aaron Taylor

USC

@

Ohio State

8 PM

ESPN

Brent Musberger, Kirk Herbstreit, Lisa Salters
3D: Mark Jones, Bob Davie, Ed Cunningham

Purdue

@

Oregon

7 PT

FSN

Barry Tompkins, Petros Papadakis, Michael Eaves

Oregon State

@

UNLV

8 PT

CBS CS

Jason Knapp, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila

OTHER GAMES

Pittsburgh

@

Buffalo

Noon

ESPN+

Jim Barbar, Doug Chapman

Marshall

@

Virginia Tech

1:30

ESPN360

 

Arkansas State

@

Nebraska

2 PM

PPV

Ron Thulin, Kelly Stouffer, Kent Pavelka

Kent State

@

Boston College

2 PM

ESPN360

 

Morgan State

@

Akron

2 PM

CSD.com

 

Idaho

@

Washington

3:30

FSN NW/FCS

Tom Glasgow, Mack Strong, Jen Mueller

East Carolina

@

West Virginia

3:30

ESPN360

 

Howard

@

Rutgers

3:30

B.E. Network

Mike Gleason, John Congemi, Quint Kessenich

SMU

@

UAB

4 PM

   

Weber State

@

Colorado State

5 PM

   

Eastern Washington

@

California

5:30

CSN CA

Jim Kozimor, Mike Pawlaski, Christine Nubla

Murray State

@

NC State

6 PM

ACC Select

 

Jacksonville State

@

Florida State

6 PM

ESPN360

 

James Madison

@

Maryland

6 PM

ESPN360

 

Idaho State

@

Oklahoma

7 PM

PPV

Bill Jones, Dean Blevins, Elissa Campbell

Bowling Green

@

Missouri

7 PM

PPV

Dan McLaughlin, Corby Jones, Todd Donoho

Florida International

@

Alabama

7 PM

Gameplan

Chris Stewart, Tyler Watts, Barry Krauss

Rice

@

Texas Tech

7 PM

   

Hawaii

v.

Washington State

7 PM

PPV

 

UCF

@

Southern Miss

7 PM

CBSCS XXL

 

Ohio

@

North Texas

7 PM

CSD.com

 

Memphis

@

Middle Tenn. St.

7 PM

CSS

Chuck Oliver, Matt Stewart, Allison Williams

Texas Southern

@

Louisiana-Monroe

7 PM

CSD.com

 

Kansas State

@

Louisiana-Lafayette

7 PM

ESPN360

 

New Hampshire

@

Ball State

7 PM

CSD.com

 

SE Missouri State

@

Cincinnati

7:30

FS Ohio

Michael Reghi, Jim Kelly, Jr.

South Florida

@

Western Kentucky

7:30

ESPN+

Dave Weekley, John Gregory

Western Illinois

@

Northern Illinois

7:30

CSN Chicago

Dave Kaplan, Bob Chmiel, Jim Blaney

Miami (OH)

@

Boise State

8 PM

Gameplan

Mark Johnson, Tom Scott, David Augusto

Prairie View A&M

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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.

The closest I’m going to come to an NFL season preview

I mentioned my college football lineal titles last week and again in today’s Part I on the college football playoff debate. Well, I’ve also exhaustively researched an NFL lineal title. The NFL lineal title only splits when the current title holder doesn’t make the playoffs, and with the NFL’s balanced schedule, splits are rare. The Steelers are the only holder of an NFL Lineal Title, and I’ll keep track of it from here.

Also, the college football titles are completely updated with the new challenges for Florida and Utah.