Writing about the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) last summer, sportswriter John Feinstein called it the “worst corporate creation since Enron.” Feinstein is the most prominent member of a loose coalition of journalists, bloggers, and politicians eager to scrap the present college football bowl system in favor of a playoff. The consensus among the BCS-haters is that absent a playoff, college football will never have a true champion. A playoff would supposedly allow teams to “settle on the field” the yearly debate over who’s number one. Feinstein and USA Today’s Jon Saraceno simply “don’t get the people who defend” the existing bowl system, but in a December 19 column Saraceno inadvertently laid bare why the BCS is preferable to the very playoff system he and others desire.
Saraceno described as “perfect” the Indianapolis Colts’ first loss of the season, which occurred on December 18. Already in possession of home-field advantage throughout the postseason, the Colts could now coast though the season’s final three games minus the added pressure of completing an undefeated campaign. Just as there were no consequences when the New England Patriots lost in late-season to the hapless Miami Dolphins in 2004, the Colts’ loss to the San Diego Chargers was meaningless in light of the NFL’s postseason structure.
Indeed, for all of the excitement they bring, the playoffs mean that NFL teams don’t have to always be perfect — and it’s the fans who suffer. Each December, NFL fans frequently endure meaningless games played by the league’s best teams, while the worst teams seemingly tank games with better draft positions in mind. (You may have heard of the “Reggie-Bowl” in recent weeks.)
Conversely, in college football’s system of rankings and bowls, teams must strive for perfection every single week. There is nothing “perfect” about a loss in college football, because a loss can mean the difference between a January bowl in Miami in prime time or a December date in El Paso.
Importantly, the existence of bowls in Detroit, Boise, and Memphis means that college teams not playing for number one still have something to play for. Far from diluting the regular college-football season, the 56 bowl spots mean that all Division I teams are playing for recruits and future rankings right through December. The recent bowl wins by Nebraska, Oklahoma, and LSU over Michigan, Oregon, and Miami respectively gives each a momentum boost going into 2006. Under an eight-team playoff, all three would have seen their seasons end in December.
Returning to Indianapolis’ December 18 loss, Saraceno correctly deduced that with a perfect record no longer possible, the Colts could “rest their starters as soon as feasible and gear up for the playoffs.” Sadly, what Saraceno suggested occurs all too often within a system that does not demand perfection on a weekly basis. Fans are once again the losers as evidenced by all the playing time Bradlee Van Pelt, Matt Cassel, and Jim Sorgi received last weekend in place of Jake Plummer, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning.
College football’s incentive structure is very different, and with every game a “must-win,” the best players are always on the field until a game’s outcome is no longer in doubt.
And the season’s end is crucial. Boston College’s final-second win over top-ranked Notre Dame at the close of the 1993 season was huge in terms of the victory itself, but the win is legendary for BC’s dashing of Notre Dame’s national-title hopes. If Indianapolis wins this year’s Super Bowl, will anyone remember the team’s regular-season losses to San Diego and Seattle? Conversely, late-season slip-ups regularly doom the championship hopes of college teams (for instance, UCLA in 1998 and Miami in 2003).
It’s said that USC’s Reggie Bush won this year’s Heisman Trophy with 500-plus rushing yards in the Trojans’ final regular-season games against Fresno State and UCLA. But if a playoff were in place, it’s likely that Bush would have sat for at least half of those last two games, with college football fans missing out on two magical performances.
Perhaps the most compelling argument made by playoff advocates is the one about settling things on the field, and in the process supposedly ending lifelong debates over who’s number one. Forgetting for the time being what fans would lose if the aforementioned debates were to end, not to mention the negative impact a playoff would have on the existing bowl traditions, is it really true that a playoff would lead to a clear-cut number-one team?
The NCAA basketball tournament is frequently held up as a model for what college football should strive for, and while many (including this writer) reveled in Georgetown’s loss to Villanova in the 1985 NCAA basketball championship, does anyone truly believe Villanova was college basketball’s best team that year? North Carolina State beat the University of Houston for the 1983 championship, but does anyone think the Wolfpack could have beaten Drexler, Olajuwon, and the rest of the Houston Cougars in a best-of-seven series? Would Joe Namath have guaranteed a Jets victory in a best-of-three versus the Baltimore Colts?
Professional basketball and baseball require multiple games to crown champions, and this is precisely because the result of one game can be very misleading. Not so long ago the Boston Red Sox swept the Yankees after falling three games behind, and went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in four. How do college football playoff advocates intend to settle things with one game on the field?
Returning to college basketball, if the current top three teams (Duke, Connecticut, and Villanova) were to lose this week, it would hardly be news. Indeed, regular season slip-ups are less important given the ability of most ten-loss teams to make the NCAA tournament. Not so for college football. Try to imagine the hysteria if USC, Texas, and Penn State had all lost in November?
And while the single-elimination nature of the NCAA basketball tourney brings great excitement to fans for a month every year, college football fans are treated to a single-elimination season. Why mess with that?
–John Tamny is a writer in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at email@example.com.