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The case against a College Football playoff, Part II

Americans have a playoff addiction.

We love to watch sports when it really counts. And we believe, as an article of faith, that a playoff is the best way to pick a champion. But is this true?

Advocates for such a system in college football certainly think so, and go on at length about how we should settle who the “best team” is “on the field.” Pro-playoff folks (which includes, essentially, everyone but me) almost always point to the men’s NCAA basketball tournament as weighty evidence of the way it should work in football. But it turns out that this is a fairly thin reed upon which to found the argument.

While there are a lot of good things about the NCAA basketball tournament, none of them is that it shows us who the best team is. The tournament certainly gives us great Cinderella stories. And the single elimination format makes it far more exciting than almost every other major sport post-season. And there’s the uniquely cool aspect of that first weekend of play.


But anyone who has paid any sort of attention to the men’s NCAA basketball tournament knows that, for all its upside, it is emphatically not a good way to pick the best team in college basketball. Far from crowning the top team in the country as champion, the system only sometimes gives us a champion that is simultaneously the best. In fact, the tourney’s biggest appeal is that better teams are often at risk of losing to worse ones. (See, for instance, Illinois versus Austin Peay, Dayton, Chattanooga, Arizona, etc.)

If what we want in college football is a Cinderella story, great. But never in their justifications for getting rid of the BCS do any playoff advocates ever cite a good underdog story. They always claim to want a “true” national champion, and to decide the best team on the field.

Inconveniently, that’s what the BCS gives us, and what a playoff wouldn’t. Look no further than the sad history of the modern era of men’s college basketball.

The Celebration of Mediocrity

It is perfectly apt that in the first year of the 64 team tournament, the National Champion was a squad that was not even one of the best twenty in the country.

Going into NCAA tourney, the 1984–85 Villanova Wildcats had 19 wins to 10 losses; they were losing at a clip of slightly worse than one out of every three. The Cats lost three times to St. Johns. In fact, Nova’s last game before the NCAA tournament was a 15 point loss to the Johnnies. Their last game of the regular season was a 23-point blowout loss to Pittsburgh. But thanks to the playoff and a six-game run, including shooting 78% from the field against Georgetown (almost certainly the best team in the country and another one that swept the regular season series against Nova), few remember how bad they were.

Unfortunately, this lesser-team-becoming-champs result would not be anomaly in the NCAA tournament. Early on, it looked to almost become standard.

The University of Kansas has produced some powerhouse basketball teams in the past thirty years, to be sure, and probably deserves more than a couple of rings for the effort, but the 1987-88 teams wasn’t one of them. A six-seed in the tournament, the 11-loss (that’s right: eleven) Jayhawks managed to lose to the Oklahoma Sooners both times they’d met in the regular season. They should have lost a third time in Final Four, but a streak of extraordinary play (and Danny Manning) allowed the Jayhawks to beat OU to become the next worst team to win the crown.

And the ball kept bouncing. In the 1988-89 season, the University of Michigan lost twice to the University of Illinois before — you guessed it — beating the Illini in the Final Four. (At least the Wolverines were plausible national champs, ranked number 10 in the final AP Poll before the tournament; neither Kansas nor Villanova were ranked at all.) So in the first five years of the 64 team tournament, the title was won by a team that (using the more rational measure of the best-of-three series) was worse than the team it beat in the Final Four.

I won’t belabor the point, but suffice it to say that this is the tip of the iceberg. In the past 25 years, the NCAA men’s tournament has routinely produced a champion that is not even arguably the best team in the country.

Say what you want about the BCS, it at least ensures that college football never produces a mediocre champion. The system usually gives us the two best teams in the country — and it always gives us two of the top three. No champ in the BCS era can be said to have been only the fifth (or tenth or twentieth) best team in the country.

Worse still, with the NCAA basketball tournament, it is extraordinarily rare that we ever get the most desirable matchup: the two best teams facing off for the National Championship. The last time that happened for sure was 2005 (though a case could be made for 2007).

With the BCS, it happens almost every year. So, if it’s a “true” champion you want, the BCS comes closest to any current system of producing it.

Let us now praise the BCS

The BCS was set up to avoid what had become a problem: two great and undefeated teams, both with legitimate claims to the title, couldn’t play each other. In 1997, Michigan was undefeated in the regular season but was forced to beat a one-loss Washington State team in the Rose Bowl while Nebraska, also unbeaten, beat one-loss Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Most people thought it would have been nice if, absent contractual bowl obligations, the two best teams in the country could have played each other for the title. As it was, they split. The Wolverines took the AP vote and Nebraska took the Coaches poll.

This lack of clarity had become surprisingly common in the 1990s. It had only been a few years since another Nebraska team went undefeated and another Big Ten team (this time, Penn State), also undefeated, played in different bowl games. Both teams also ended the season perfectly. And while there was no real controversy at the polls (Nebraska got the consensus nod) most people outside of Lincoln thought it would have been nice to see the two play on the field.

At the very least, the BCS has solved that problem. But the system is not perfect, and it forces us to live with two types of controversy. Only one of them is significant.

The most common — and entirely minor — issue is what happens when there are fewer than two undefeated teams. (Otherwise known as the “who-gets-to-beat-Ohio-State-for-the-title” problem.) This is not a big deal. If your team loses a single game, it loses its right to get a shot at the title. Sorry, but this is exactly what makes the college football regular season the most important one in sports. Every team has to show up every week. If your teams loses to Mississippi or Oregon State or Texas Tech, it’s lost its shot. Of course, a one-loss team may be lucky or deserving enough to play for the title (Florida, I’m looking in your direction), but they have no reason to complain if they don’t.

The other controversial situation the BCS provides is far more serious: what happens when more than two major college teams finish undefeated. Fortunately, this almost never happens. Despite the regular recitation of this worst-case scenario in early November, more than two BCS conference teams are almost never undefeated.

This disaster scenario played out famously in 2004, when Auburn, USC and Oklahoma were all undefeated going into the bowls and Auburn was left out the title game. (It’s worth noting that it would have been a lot more messy before the BCS, since none of those teams would have played each other in a bowl.) But it is still a flaw and one we have to live with.

Fortunately, the only thing this exceedingly rare example proves is that once every ten years, the best team might not get a shot at the title. If you love the NCAA basketball tournament, you’re already very comfortable with this idea.

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