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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Playoff? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Playoff

In USA TODAY yesterday, Jon Saraceno's column voiced what I've believed all along: NCAA football is better than the NFL. He said that last weekend's "wild flurry of upsets, near-upsets, comebacks and last-second thrillers demonstrated why college football has it all over the NFL."

Couldn't agree more with Mr. Saraceno. Almost.

Later in the article, Saraceno states, "Can you imagine what might happen if Division I-A mandated a national championship playoff? Winter Madness would chase the NFL to the back pages."

But his implication that an NCAA football playoff would make the college game even better is where Jon and I begin to disagree. In my not-so-humble opinion, such a playoff would destroy the very underlying reason last weekend's games were so compelling. It would weaken the foundation that sets it apart. It would dilute the thing that makes college football so special and pro football so... unspecial: the regular season.

That's because, since there is no playoff in college football, every regular season game is important. Unlike the pros, each regular season game matters. See, I believe college football does have a playoff -- and it started in September.

Imagine there were a 16 team, pro-style playoff, what would the real importance of the Notre Dame/USC game have been? Answer: Seeding. Notre Dame and its fans are still reeling from the defeat (and will be talking about it for years to come) due to the fact that there is no opportunity to "get a second chance at Southern Cal in the playoffs." Last Saturday was their playoff game with SC. And they lost.

Revenge, redemption and a rematch will have to wait until next fall. Bragging rights last a full year because there are no mulligans in college football.

Not so in the pro game. Are you a San Diego Chargers fan bummed about that 20-17 September setback to Denver? Don't sweat it. Get them during the rematch at home in December. If that doesn't work out, there's always the playoffs.

And what about Penn State's loss to Michigan on the last play of the game? With a playoff, it still would have been a great game. That's a given. But would it have been so heartbreaking for the Nittany Lions with a 16 team playoff at the end of the year? Even with the loss, they're still atop the Big 10, still control their own destiny for the league's BCS nod and are still ranked among the top 12. But without a playoff they're seriously, if not mortally, wounded in their quest for the National Title. Fair? That's another debate. But boy oh boy did it make that game even more exciting Saturday. Because it meant something. Everything most likely. Yet in the pros, your favorite team can go 10-6, often even 9-7, and still make the playoffs and dream of the Super Bowl. What's so super about that?

Quick, name five classic regular season NFL games. Games that still get under the skin of fans of the losing team. Hard, right? Now name five great college football games. Even excluding last weekend, it's almost as easy as naming national holidays. And it seems like that every weekend.

That's why you never see regular season NFL games on ESPN CLASSIC: because it's not do or die week in and week out in the NFL. But UCLA fans still cringe when discussing that make-up game with Miami in '98. "Wide right" is practically an obscene phrase in Tallahassee. And Texas fans can finally sleep a little easier after ending their losing streak to Oklahoma.

Now granted, as a lifelong Michigan fan who has been forced to accept that early September losses are becoming as much a part of Wolverine tradition as The Victors, such a playoff would undoubtedly help us. At 4-3, if we run the table, 8-3 Michigan might still have a shot. A chance. A prayer.

But I'm unswayed.

That's why I still cringe at The Big House memory of that September day in '94 when Kordell Stewart launched a 60+ yard dagger into the heart of every Michigan fan on the game's final play to beat the Maize and Blue. I still shake my head at our last second loss to Miami in '88. And I still smile from ear-to-ear when talking to my Buckeye "friends" about their not-quite-undefeated regular seasons in '93, '95 and '96. Because each of those games mattered. And in a crazy way that only a fellow college football nut can understand, they still do. That's what makes college football so special.

So, Jon, you're right, college football is a better spectator sport than the pros. I'd go so far as to say it's the best spectator sport (don't get me started on how "meaningful" the major league baseball season is. What are there, like, 286 regular season games now?).

But a playoff would not make college football better. It would take it down that slippery slope toward being a copy of the pro game. Bring it closer to the very things that make the pro game, week to week, so boring. And it's not the money or the coaching or the commercialism. It's the fact that, let's face it, each game doesn't mean that much.


M82 said...

Another well written, thought-provoking essay - even moreso because it got me thinking about things I had already decided in my own mind.

You make good points about the importance of regular season games in college ball, as well as the "slippery slope" of becoming too like the pros.

The place where I still differ is the idea of "polling" to determine the top two teams who will ultimately play the championship game. I don't have the stats at my fingertips like you do, but years past have pointed out the subjective, imperfect nature of this system.

What to do?

I think instead of a 16 team playoff structure, which would indeed put college ball in the same nonsensical category of every other professional team sport in America, maybe the answer is a much more truncated playoff structure. Four teams? I don't know, but it might be an effective compromise.

I suspect you probably have a pretty well-reasoned argument addressing this point as well.



Wangs said...

The Pennsylvania State - Michigan regular season game and numerous other games around the country would be even more meaningful and important if had a playoff system like the National Championship Bowl proposal that Keith and I developed a few years ago. Win your conference - go to the playoffs. That would mean 12 or so teams would qualify - making regular season games even more meaningful because first and foremost they would have to win their regular season games, win their conference, in order to even get a shot. You think Oklahoma - Texas is a big deal - wait till it means one team is out of the picture completely because they can't win their conference without first winning that game. Michigan's season would not be over, it would continue to have a shot at the title, making the final few games more meaningful than they are now.

An arbitrary method that relies upon reporters, old coaches, or computers is bad. A simple, clear, no controversy - win your conference, go to the playoffs. Genius.

Bowlmeister said...

Yeah, Wangs, that worked so well in the early 70s when Michigan and OSU had the same record and USO kept going to the Rose Bowl. And nowadays that you don't play all the same teams in your conference, and A beats B who beats C who beats A, it'll still lead to confusion.

Wangs said...

I don't understand your point.

In the '70's The Big Ten and PAC-8 champs went to the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, that was sometimes tOSU and USC. In the '00's - they would go to the playoffs as the Big Ten or Pac10 champion.

The second place teams would still go to a good bowl - but they would not have earned the right to compete for the national title. Why? Because they didn't win their conference.

So simple. And if the conferences have different methods for selecting their champions - that's fine - it's conference rights. Alabama should be a supporter.

Yost said...

As usual, this is where I part ways with Wangs. I'm totally opposed to his "win your conference, play for the national title system" for the same reason as stated in my initial post: it diminishes the regular season. What happens when, say, a 7-4 Mizzu team beats 11-0 Texas in the Big 12 Championship game? I have no problem with 7-4 Mizzu, or any 7-4 team, winning their conference and going to the league champ's tie-in bowl. But to protect the sanctity of the regular season, I don't think they should be able to play for the National Title. Period. End of story. Heck, even if 7-4 Michigan beat 11-0 tOSU at the end of the season to win the Big 10, we should claim the conference title, go to the Rose Bowl, but not have a shot at the National Title.

Wangs, how many hockey games you watching these days? And those NBA scores flying across the bottom of my TV screen, are those regular season or pre? Does it even matter? Does anybody even pay attention until next spring?

And I love March Madness, but it ain't so "mad" in December and January. A nice diversion, sure. But, let's face it, each and every regular season game doesn't mean as much as each and every college football game when a team can lose 10, 11, 12 games and still play for the title. Yes, it's a different animal but how many college bball games do you really care about in December? How many Michigan December roundball losses still haunt you like the September '80 ND game when Harry Oliver kicked a 51 yarder as time expired? Hell, name one last second Michigan December basketball loss from the 80s or 90s (20 years) and how the play unfolded. Now, name some Michigan football losses that still get under your skin (stop when you reach 10. Please. For all of us).

So what to do? I'm in favor of the Old System +1 Proposal: Go back to the OLD tie-in bowl system where you WIN YOUR CONFERENCE (Jim and I agree here) and go to one of the Big 4 January 1st bowls (enough of this January 2nd, 3rd, 4th bullshit). Thus, the SEC winner automatically goes to the Sugar, Pac-10 to Rose, etc.

Then, AFTER those games are played, you pick your 2 BCS teams to play in the National Title game two weeks later. I think that's the best balance between the old system, the current BCS and a playoff b/c it keeps the importance of every regular season game, makes the other major January 1st bowl games relevant again and still uses the traditional "polls and bowls" to help choose the national title games.

The top 4 or 5 teams, going into the January 1st games, have a shot at playing for the national title. Does the 8th ranked team or the 7-4 squad who won their conference? No. But if a 7-4 Michigan team was playing 11-0 and top ranked USC in the Rose, the game matters for Michigan b/c it's the Rose Bowl and a chance to beat the top team in the land. It matters for SC b/c they're still trying to make the "+1" BCS title game. And it matters to the rest of the country b/c of that implication factor.

I hate the current BCS system b/c, if it's not the champion ship game, it doesn't matter. I miss waking up on January 1st and looking forward to ALL the Big 4 bowl games. Thus, to me, the Old +1 would give the best of both worlds. You'd still have your eye on other games Jan. 1st knowing the outcome of one could alter the title game.

Now, is it perfect? Of course not. What happens when, after the Jan. 1st games, there is no clear cut #2? Or both #1 and #2 lose? Well, my response is, there is NO perfect way, even with a playoff -- assuming you want to keep college football with the most important regular season of all the major pro or college sports. B/c you'll always have somebody complaining they should have been included, just like somebody on the bubble of the Big Dance always feels left out each march. And while it's not that big a deal for a team w/ a power ranking of 36 to be left home in bball, there will be a huge outcry if 7-4 Mizzu goes but 11-1 and fourth ranked Texas is left out of a 16 team playoff in your scenario. That doesn't seem fair either. So, with no absolute in this debate -- except for preserving the importance of each regular season game as much as possible -- I believe this is the best alternative.

And hey, while it's a long shot with 2 conference losses, Michigan would still be playing for something huge: a chance at the Rose Bowl and a shot at #1 ranked USC. If that were to happen and we were to beat SC, there isn't a Michigan man alive who would be "bummed" at the end of the season. As for your probable argument that, "Yeah, but wouldn't it be better if they still had a shot at a National Title in that scenario, too?" Well, they should have thought of that when they lost to ND...or to Wisco...or gave up that long 3rd down run to Minnie. Unlike in other sports, in college football, those things cost you the National Title. A National Title that rewards the best team ALL season, not the hot team at the end.

PS Bowlmeister, thanks for joining the debate!