Mar 22, 2010

Nightmares of a College Football Playoff

It's hard to judge the general sentiment of college football fans across the country, but by looking at internet polls and discussions, it seems like the vast majority are in agreement that the BCS system is unfair and/or ineffective, and there needs to be a playoff for FCS (Div. 1A) football.

It's only natural that watching the NCAA basketball tournament would re-ignite this discussion during the football off-season. For me, thinking of a college football playoff is a little bit unsettling.

The proposed playoff systems have been numerous and varied. There are calls for an 8-team, 16-team, and even 32 or 64-team playoff. The 8-team proposal usually calls for the "Big Six" conference champions to receive automatic berths, plus two other teams, determined by some sort of ranking as a wild card. These teams would essentially play in the BCS Bowl Games, and then have another semifinal round followed by the championship. The 16-team proposal is often based on the BCS rankings or some other ranking system. Here are my worries about a BCS playoff.

1. I love bowl season. Every December, we get to look forward to having interesting non-conference matchups almost every day as the bowls roll on. Even the low-tier bowls are fun to watch, and I usually watch as many as I can. How would a playoff affect the bowl season? I'm afraid a 16-team playoff would mean trouble for the bowls. It just seems like there would be too many games to mesh along with the other teams playing normal, non-playoff bowl games. The 8-team playoff could work with this better, but still, it's hard for me to let go of the bowl season the way we know it.

2. It would greatly lessen the importance of the regular season. Generally, an undefeated SEC, Big 12, Big 10, Pac-10, or ACC Champion would make the national championship game. (I leave the Big East out because, unfortunately, that conference doesn't have the same reputation as the others.) Auburn faced an unfortunate scenario in 2004 when three Big-Six teams were undefeated, but this is recently more of an exception than the rule.

Now imagine a playoff scenario. An SEC team dominates the regular season and becomes SEC Champion. Then comes the playoff game(s). The SEC Champ plays another conference champion, maybe the Big East or the ACC, a team that largely unimpressed during the season and lost 2 or 3 games along the way. Then comes the playoff game. We all know that upsets are fun to watch, but not when it's your team being upset. And often, upsets are upsets because the better team lost. Yes, the best team doesn't always win. So let's say the SEC team, largely considered the best in college football, faces some unfortunate circumstances and loses to the team that has generally sucked throughout the season. That's the end of the SEC team's season. One loss, and they're done, doomed to be the team that almost made it to the national championship game.

In the current system, your dominant SEC, Big 12, Big 10, ACC or Pac-10 team can go straight to the big game and win it all. In a playoff, it's possible that a 13-0 SEC Champ could lose to a 10-2 Big East or 11-2 ACC Champ. For many fans, this would be great and exciting. Who would have guessed that the team that no one liked could make it to the national championship game? But for fans who still considered the SEC team the best (especially fans of that team), it's an unfortunate consequence of a playoff system.

SEC Fans: A playoff would be an effective way to destroy the importance of the reputation of the Southeastern Conference (your guarantee for your undefeated team to make it to the big game). The same goes for four of the other Big-Six conferences. The winner in this scenario is the Big East (and of course the non-big-sixers).

3. A playoff won't eliminate common college football arguments. One frequent complaint of fans is the unfairness or bias of voters in creating the college football polls. They wouldn't go away, and in some playoff proposals, those biased rankings could determine which teams will even get a shot at the playoff. And of course, the big argument: Which is the best team in college football? Scenarios like the one above in #2 show why that will still be an issue.

It's a bit silly to think that a playoff will answer all of college football's problems, or "once and for all, determine the best team in the nation." That's, frankly, impossible, and will remain so. Even in a playoff system, there will still be complaints, arguments and unsettled issues. Instead of leaving an undefeated or deserving team out of the national championship, people will argue that deserving teams are left out of the playoffs altogether. Imagine an 8-team playoff with a 10-2 Big East Champ in, and a 10-2 SEC team left out.

I'm not completely against a college football playoff, I just don't know for sure what would be best. In fact, I'm not sure if there even is a "best" system. The arguments and complaints of college football will always be with us, no matter how we determine a champion. But if you think about it, those arguments and complaints are part of what makes college football so much fun.

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