Posted Jan. 8, 2015

Oct 20, 2011

What The Playoff Proponents Don't Understand


So here we are in Week 8 of this college football year—deep into the season, yes, and still looking at eight undefeated national title contenders, yes, but indeed, still a long ways off from The End Of The World As We Know It.

But of course, you wouldn't know that given the tenor of the conversation of late.

Yes, folks, it is sad but true: Already, it has begun.

Already, the chorus is warming up. Already, the stories and columns and frenzied blog posts are being written. Already, the bowl haters, the know-nothing outsiders, the well-meaning but clueless idealists and all the rest of the college football world's playoff propagandists are squealing about The Alleged Catastrophe To Come—too many undefeated teams, too few spots in the BCS National Championship Game. Already, these crusaders are crowing about the ultimate end of the hated BCS as we know it, and awaiting the arrival of the final and undeniable proof that the entire bowl system was, in fact, a huge sham.

And already, I am damn deadly tired of it.

Because already, I am feeling stunned and confused and generally bewildered that so many otherwise intelligent people—so many people who claim to truly love the game of college football—actually do not "get" college football at all. They may indeed love it. But they certainly do not "get" it, and their ceaseless campaigning for a playoff system is proof positive of precisely that.

So even though it's only Week 8, and even though we are still weeks away from the inevitable point at which this truly ignorant debate kicks into high gear, I already feel compelled to write this column.

It is not a column that is written to defend the BCS, per se.

But is a column written to oppose the implementation of a college football playoff and to defend the much-maligned, much-misunderstood bowl system, bless its somewhat flawed but ultimately beautiful heart.

Because I get college football, you see, and because I get college football, I know that the adoption of a playoff would lead to nothing short of The End Of College Football As We Know It.

And I refuse to let that happen.


Though it very likely escaped your collective American football-centric attentions, a hugely important and, if you'll bear with me for a second or two, very relevant (to American college football) story broke out of London this week.

A gentleman by the name of Richard Bevan, head of the Football League Managers Association, leaked a bombshell of a secret to the footballing-mad British press: According to Bevan, the foreign (read: American) owners in the Barclay's Premier League have begun discussions focused on eliminating promotion and relegation from the Premier League. Which would be, in a word, disastrous.

Now, for those unfamiliar with promotion and relegation, here's a simple breakdown: Each year, 20 teams compete in the Premier League, which serves as the top tier in the English football pyramid. But each year, three of those 20 teams—the ones that finish 18th, 19th and 20th—are relegated from that top tier and sent down to the second division, known (quite confusingly) as The Championship. Conversely, the top three finishers from The Championship are promoted to the Premier League.

So it goes all the way down the English pyramid—Championship teams relegated to League One (and First Division teams promoted up), League One teams relegated to the League Two (and League Two teams promoted up), League Two teams relegated to non-League football (and non-League teams promoted up). It is a mildly complicated but wonderfully compelling system—one which has been so damned successful specifically because it ensures that pretty much every team competing at every level has something to play for. The teams on the top half of the table will gun for the championship or one of the promotion spots; the teams on the bottom half will play their freaking hearts out and do pretty much anything and everything to avoid the indignity of relegation, which by all accounts is just about as traumatic an experience—for owners, for players, for managers, for fans—as one can experience in sports.

What the English football pyramid has, in other words, is a regular season in which pretty much every minute of every game counts; indeed, last season's Premier League relegation clubs were not decided until the final minutes of the final games played on the final day of the season. It was thrilling stuff, heartbreaking stuff, dramatic stuff, perfect stuff. And any true soccer fan knows it.

Which is why true soccer fans recoiled in horror at the mere suggestion that promotion and relegation be removed their beloved game. Because you see, even though those fans know the system may one day bite them in the ass, they also understand that the somewhat imperfect and undeniably dangerous system also stands squarely at the heart of the game.

They understand, in other words, that promotion and relegation must be saved. Because without promotion and relegation, the gravity is gone. Without promotion and relegation, the only teams with something to play for will be teams at the top of the table. Without promotion and relegation, there is but one thing to aspire to: the championship itself.

But with literally hundreds of teams competing in the English pyramid, well, that's not good enough. Because the reality is, for all but a small handful of those clubs, the championship is simply and undeniably out of reach. Those other clubs are not playing for the title.

They are playing for something different.

And you know what? That's OK.


Which brings us back to college football.

In an American sporting landscape absolutely littered with completely meaningless regular season games (think late-season Major League Baseball, or NFL (snore) football after the playoff spots have been clinched, or pretty much the first three months of the college basketball season), there is only one sport that can claim to have an utterly freaking perfect regular season. That sport is college football.

And as anyone who truly gets college football knows, we have the bowl system—the imperfect, oft-criticized bowl system—to thank for that.

Really, we do.

Now, before we delve more deeply into that point, and before I explain why all of you bowl haters should stifle that hatred and leave the rest of us alone, I suppose it would be instructive to track back a bit and take a look at the playoff propagandists' (weak) arguments—to delve deeply into their flawed logic and try to understand, if it is indeed possible, why they seem to think that college football would actually be better with a "playoff."

Their arguments, I think, basically boil down to the following:

* Argument No. 1: "The NFL has a playoff. I like the NFL. Therefore college football should have a playoff."

* Argument No. 2: "College basketball has a playoff. I like college basketball. Therefore college football should have a playoff."

* Argument No. 3: "You cannot know which team in the country is the best team in the country unless you have a playoff. Therefore college football has a playoff."

* Argument No. 4: "The bowls are corrupt and meaningless. So college football should have a playoff."

Let us now parse these arguments, one by one, and do what we can to debunk them, though it should be noted right up front that they are not difficult to debunk at all.

Argument No. 1. "The NFL has a playoff. I like the NFL. Therefore college football should have a playoff."

This one can be broken down fairly easily. Here goes: The NFL (snore) has 32 teams, all with equal resources, all competing under the same umbrella organization. College football has 119 teams, all with varying amounts of money, influence, power and potential, all competing under the sub-fiefdoms known as the "conferences"—disparate organizations that quite literally have their own rules, their own regulations, their own peculiarities and, again, their own financial limitations. My point? Simple: Creating a fair and equitable playoff for something as basic (AND BORING) as the NFL is really quite simple; creating a fair and equitable playoff for something as unwieldy as college football, by contrast, is tremendously difficult. If not downright impossible.

Argument No. 2: "College basketball has a playoff. I like college basketball. Therefore college football should have a playoff."

Yes, college basketball has a playoff, and it is undeniably true that March Madness is one of the most exciting events of the American sporting year. It is also undeniably true that college basketball's regular season is essentially meaningless, that big-conference teams can finish .500 in their league and still make the tournament (thereby removing most, if not all, of the drama from conference play), that most fans barely pay attention to the sport at all until January at the earliest, and that the "playoff" itself—that massive tournament at year's end—so completely dominates the sport that it seems almost nothing else matters at all. What college basketball has is a great, great postseason; unfortunately, that postseason lasts less than a month, and the rest of the sport's calendar is essentially meaningless.

Argument No. 3: "You cannot know which team in the country is the best team in the country unless you have a playoff. Therefore college football should have a playoff."

In 2007, the New England Patriots (snore) of the NFL (snore) finished 16-0 during the (meaningless) regular season. It was a momentous achievement. The New York Giants, meanwhile, finished 10-6. Both teams made the playoffs. Both teams reached the Super Bowl (snore). And in the end, the New York Giants won, knocking off the previously unbeaten Patriots, 17-14. The Giants were crowned champions. End of argument.

Now, let's move on to No. 4 ...


Argument No. 4: "The bowls are corrupt and meaningless. So college football should have a playoff."

Well, yes, it is indeed true that some bowls are corrupt. On that point, there can be no debate. As the events of the past few years have taught us, some bowl officials do indeed run afoul of the law. Some of them do indeed engage in shady back-room deals. Some of them do indeed use their positions of power as leverage. And yes, some of them do indeed screw over deserving teams in favor of The Almighty Dollar.

But let us not overreact here. Not all bowls are evil. Not all bowls are corrupt. And besides, politicians do all of that stuff, too, and unless I missed it, nobody is pushing for the abolition of Congress.

That's beside the point, however. What's important to note here is that the second half of the above argument is flat-out wrong. Because no matter what the bowl haters might try to tell you, the bowls are not meaningless; in fact, I would argue quite forcefully that most bowls are very meaningful indeed. And the reason they are meaningful, you see, goes back that section up above about the English football pyramid—the section in which I explained the profound beauty of a system in which everyone has something to play for, every week, every season—and also back to Argument No. 1, in which I explained the vast complexity of college football itself—a game that is played by programs both big and small, some rich, some poor, some with great potential, some with almost no potential at all.

This, you see, is where the playoff propagandists lose the plot. This is where their argument falls apart. This is where they prove that, while they may indeed to love college football, they quite certainly don't "get" college football.

And here is one reason why: The Indiana Hoosiers, just to pick one program out of 119, will never win the college football national championship.


Hasn't happened yet. Won't ever happen. No chance. Sorry, Hoosiers fans.

And if we were to be perfectly honest about things, it would also be quite true to say that, should college football ever adopt a playoff format—whether that format involved a four-team playoff, or an eight-team playoff, or a 16-team playoff—the Hoosiers would never earn a bid to that thing, either. Because, of course, Indiana football is what it is: A historically bad program that does not have the money or the resources or the history or the tradition to play with the big boys. That may be mildly depressing for Hoosiers fans to hear, but it is the God's honest truth.

But here's the good news, Indiana loyalists: You don't have to worry about never qualifying for a playoff, or about spending season after season playing games toward ultimate nothingness, because under the current system we have here in college football—under the oh-so-imperfect and oh-so-lambasted but-oh-so-wonderful bowl system—your team does have something to play for, something to dream about, something to aspire to.

That something is this: 6-6.

A bowl bid.

A bowl trip.

A chance to experience something you don't experience too often—a postseason game, and all the fun and excitement and, yes, drama that comes along with it.

Now, to the anti-bowl snobs out there, a lower-tier bowl game doesn't mean anything, because to the anti-bowl snobs, the only thing that matters in the entirely of each college football season is the process by which we determine a national champion. It's hard to blame them for feeling this way, of course. They have been brainwashed by the American sports machine to believe that a playoff is the only way to do things—and the only way to determine the best team in the land.

But you know what?

College football isn't just about determining the best team in the land. Never has been. And that's a good thing, too, because if it was, what would the Indianas of the world really be playing for? Why would Baylor send a team out every week? Why would Maryland or Purdue or Vanderbilt even bother? Why would so many schools with so little chance of ever winning The Biggest Prize spend all that money, and waste all of that time, knowing full well that they cannot and will not ever win it?

Well, simple: Because they know there is more to to this game—for players, for coaches, for fans—than just winning the national championship.

Just ask the TCU Horned Frogs

Last season, Froggies finished a perfect 12-0. They charged all the way through their schedule, ended up No. 3 in the final polls, and therefore missed out on a bid to the BCS National Championship Game. So instead, they went to the Rose Bowl—the greatest bowl of all, the grandest scene in college football—and then they went out and won the Rose Bowl, knocking off the Wisconsin Badgers, 19-17. It was the single greatest achievement in TCU football history.

No, that win didn't earn them a share of the national title.

All it did was give them a moment that TCU fans will remember for generations to come—a moment that will live on in TCU football history long after we're gone, long after the NFL inevitably collapses under the weight of its own greed, and long after this pointless debate about a college football playoff is finally put to rest.

You can continue to believe, if you wish, that TCU's Rose Bowl win was meaningless.

You can continue to believe the bowls themselves have outlived their usefulness.

You can continue to believe that the only thing that matters in Our Great Game is the race for the national championship

But if you do believe that, well, I have some bad news for you: You don't get college football.

And you probably never have.

miscellany: notes from the college football fringes

♦ UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma seems like a real jerk, and I certainly wouldn't be interested in having a beer with the guy, but let's give him credit: On Thursday, he said precisely what everybody else in the Big East is simply too afraid to say. Speaking about The General Downfall Of His League, Auriemma correctly pointed out that this crisis could be solved, and all at once, if only Notre Dame would simply join the league. Like, for real. Instead of, like, for pretend. Said Auriemma: "I'm pissed about it. We've got one school that holds the future of our league in the palm of their hand and they are not really concerned about it. They have been in our league, what, 18 years? How long are we going to date before we just we decide this isn't working? I'm not happy about it. That's not the opinion of the University of Connecticut, the Big East Conference, my president, my AD. That's just Geno Auriemma's opinion." For just this one time only: VIVA GENO AURIEMMA.

♦ Meanwhile, here is the response to Auriemma's comments from The Fast-Crumbling Big East's de facto leader, commissioner John Marinatto: "I think Notre Dame is as committed, if not more committed, in this conference than any other member because they view it as a very positive place. I think they're really committed to growing with us. I mentioned all of our schools are excited about this (12-team) model. Notre Dame is included in that in a very strong way. They like the model and I think they're excited about it as we go forward." The Emperor he is not.

♦ So apparently, Missouri officials believe that if they move to the SEC, they will make $12 million more each year than they do now. In exchange for that $12 million, they will agree to suck for all eternity in college football. Enjoy, Tigers fans.

♦ Tyrann Mathieu, aka the LSU cornerback known nationwide as Honey Badger, is one hell of a football player. And yet, given the news of the week, we must certainly question just how committed Mathieu is to The Larger Tiger Cause. Because you see, the kid has been suspended for this week's game against Auburn (along with tailback Spencer Ware) because, according to reports, both failed drug tests. Couldn't the drug-taking be delayed until the end of the season? Advantage: SABAN.

♦ Michigan coach Brady Hoke said this week that Denard Robinson remains his starting quarterback. I don't buy it. Hoke seems intent on moving forward with The Devin Gardner Experiment. Perhaps Denard can transfer back home to Ole Miss. If this were to happen I would officially become an Ole Miss season ticket holder and relocate to Oxford.

♦ The Incredibly Stubborn Joe Paterno is one win away from tying Eddie Robinson for second place on the all-time college football coaching wins list. Robinson currently has 408. Paterno has 407. [Note: John Gagliardi, also still coaching, is first on the list, with 480]. Said Paterno this week: "[Robinson] was a delightful person. Obviously did a fantastic job at Grambling. When there was no place for the black athlete, what (Robinson) did with Grambling ... was something special." Paterno later defended his continued use of two quarterbacks thereby causing Penn State fans to wish that Gagliardi was their coach.

♦ Looking for this week's TCFA Podcast, in which Mike and I talk about the Honey Badger, rave about the Maryland-Clemson game, and debate which state is the very best football state in our great nation? Well, click here.

♦ Looking for picks, in which we actually take a look at a Friday night game, thereby breaking with Longstanding TCFA Tradition? Well, click here.

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