There are several good reasons to be against a playoff in major college football — and not just because Congress is in favor of it.
Illinois, like almost every other team in the country, is far better off in the imperfect bowl system. The overwhelming popularity of the idea of a playoff system, like that for the reserve quarterback, has allowed people to look past how much worse it would be than the current system. In future weeks, this column will present several arguments in favor of the BCS system. This week, in honor of recent Congressional hearings, I’ll talk about egalitarianism.
The Rich Get Richer
There is bipartisan support in the federal government for a playoff system, from President Obama to Republican Congressmen from Texas, Utah and Idaho. So sincerely do they want a playoff that one Congressional subcommittee even had a hearing on the matter two weeks ago. The proceeding was dominated by Rep. Joe Barton, an old hand at these anti-BCS meetings, and chair of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
The worst part of this proceeding was not that an Congressional subcommittee was focusing on football (in the absence, apparently, of more pressing Energy and Commerce concerns) but the false idea that a playoff would institute some sort of egalitarian football paradise, where every team has an equal shot at winning the big enchilada. Witness Rep. Barton’s mawkish “question” at the hearing: “Before the first game of the season, half of the teams in college football don’t have a chance of winning a national championship, how do you address that?”
In fact, the current system (which would be obliterated by a playoff) doles out far more rewards to very good, good and mediocre teams than the proposed scheme would. A playoff — particularly the eight team playoff, which is the one Congress and other serious proponents advocate — would concentrate, not dilute this “inequality.” It would focus not only the riches, rewards and media attention of postseason play on only a few powerful teams, it would give them a far greater on-field advantage.
Postseason play is not about winning a game. The open secret of bowl season is that for most teams, it is not a chance to accrue accolades but a jumping off point for the next fall. Teams that play in a bowl game get an extra five or six weeks of practice time and one extra game. If you’ve ever wondered why big name teams will accept bowl bids to games lacking in traditional prestige, it’s because coaches want more time with players. And they don’t care if they have to go to Detroit to get it.
Teams that qualify for the postseason get a significant competitive advantage going into the next year versus teams that don’t. In the current bowl system, that includes about 60 teams per year. As advantages go, this one is pretty generously spread around by the current system.
An 8-team playoff would not only limit this benefit to eight teams, it would very much increase the benefit for four teams that win their first round (and yet again for the two that make it to the championship game). Worst of all, this suddenly rare benefit would be concentrated in the hands of the teams that already have every advantage.
Who Stands To Benefit
A playoff would be fantastic for some fans. If you love USC, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia, you’ll love a playoff. Recent history (based on the AP poll rankings in the last week before the bowl season) shows that these five teams have the most to gain from a playoff system. Over the past seven years, this first tier of Football Royalty would have occupied an astounding 27 of the 56 available spots. (This seven year span is not arbitrary or convenient to my point; this is just the number of years that the ESPN website makes AP polls available.)
The University of Southern California would have played in every playoff, Oklahoma in all but one and, for you Buckeye haters out there, Ohio State in all but two. Other members of the football Royal Family are not exactly absent from the mix. Teams that would have qualified for multiple playoff berths in the past seven years include LSU, Michigan, Auburn, Penn State and Miami. In a playoff, these are the only teams that would, year in and year out, get this extra practice time and game experience.
And the remaining playoff spots? Not exactly a Who’s Who of football under-privilege : Alabama, California, Iowa, Kansas, Kansas State, Louisville, Missouri, Oregon , Tennessee, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, Washington State and Wisconsin.
The only non-BCS conference teams that would have made it to the playoff in the past seven years? Notre Dame and Utah. (Boise State finished 9th in the AP the year it qualified for the BCS. They would have been left out of an 8-team playoff. Hawaii finished tenth in the AP the year it made it to the BCS. Turns out even that was too high.)
Fans of a playoff may suggest that the AP is not a good barometer of teams that would qualify for an actual playoff. That’s probably right, but not in the way they think.
Any playoff system agreed upon by the major conferences will not be near as neutral as the AP. It will guarantee that each of the six BCS conferences gets at least one team in the playoff. (Anyone who thinks a conference is going to give up the lucre it gets from an automatic BCS bid in a favor of a system that might exclude them, should move back to Denmark.)
That leaves exactly two at-large playoff bids for everyone else. Big conference second place finishers like Penn State, Michigan, Texas, Nebraska, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Oregon and West Virginia are all going to be battling it out for the last two spots. What chance would even an undefeated Boise State or BYU team have to qualify for these last two spots?
But it’s even worse than that: any playoff would necessitate fewer regular season games.
To the extent that non-BCS schools have proven their mettle in past years it has been by winning against BCS conference schools in the pre-conference schedule. But with a playoff, this pre-conference schedule will wither by at least one and maybe two games. In a shortened regular season, Utah will never again see the inside of Michigan Stadium and Wisconsin will certainly never travel to Fresno. So these smaller teams will never get a chance to show that they’re every bit as good as the BCS conference teams.
The BCS is far from perfect. But as it stands, an undefeated Boise State or Utah or Hawaii at least gets a chance to play in major bowl on a truly national stage. And fifty other teams get a chance to build toward a better season the next year. An 8-team playoff would not only exclude these teams, but create a feedback loop where only Football Royalty gets a chance to participate.