Friday, December 11, 2009

No game counts

It's about that time of year again: time to argue about the BCS.

This year the problem is that there are *FIVE* undefeated teams, and one "national championship" game. And of course, no playoff. The arguments about this are legen (wait for it)...

We argue about this every year. Not having a playoff in college football is ridiculous. No, a playoff would ruin college football. Back and forth. This argument is RAGING. Again. I am not a huge follower of the college game, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage at this time of year; and that turns out to be part of an argument the anti-playoff faction uses. Sez they, the people who most loudly clamor for a playoff aren't even fans of the sport. They come in at the postseason, like carpetbaggers, and want to change everything around to make it like some other sport (the NFL, college basketball) that it's not, without appreciating what is beautiful and tragic about college football.

The beauty and tragedy revolves around the fact that in the absence of a playoff, one loss can dash your aspirations for a title that year. "Every game counts", is the tagline one friend of mine uses for this. With a playoff, you lose one game, and you can say "Eh, we'll make the tournament and go on a run." But without a playoff! With the championship determined by voters and power rankings – one loss and it can be all over! College football as grand opera.

I have some sympathy with this argument, actually. But I can't really do justice to the anti-playoff arguments (Patch does it better), and I don't really want to delve into them in detail. Let me just perfunctorily acknowledge that those arguments exist, note that some of them have some merit, and move on. What I currently find curious is how acrimonious this argument gets every year. Why do people (like me!) who don't really follow CFB, get SO pissed off at the postseason structure of the sport? And we do get pissed off. Five undefeated teams, and no playoff? Teams assigned to the championship game basically by fiat? It offends something: I am personally offended every time this season rolls around. Why? What is it that is so offensive?

One thing that seems obvious is, that "every game counts" tagline is BS. Every game counts *if* you're Alabama or Texas or Florida. But TCU and Cincinnati and Boise St went undefeated, and they have no shot at the championship. No shot at all. For purposes of a championship, they might as well not even have played their season. None of their games counted. There are about 10 or 12 teams that are in consideration for the championship, whose games counted. And everyone else was playing hopscotch or something. A different game. Their games don't count at all.

Just about concurrently with the BCS bowl lineups being announced, the Ravens are fighting for their playoff lives. I just discovered this site: They have the AFC Playoff Picture. Red means a team needs help to get into the playoffs, green means a team controls its own destiny. The site has another page with the Magic Numbers, which makes that even more clear, because most teams are marked with a big red DNCD: Does Not Control Destiny. The Jaguars can wrap up a playoff spot just by winning their games. The Ravens need Jacksonville to stumble, and maybe Miami & the Jets too. The Jags control their own destiny; the Ravens do not.

I am in love with this site, and wonder where it's been all my life.

It took a couple days for the obvious connection to sink in. The red and green highlights.

In most of our sports, every team starts the season in control of their own destiny. After you lose a few games the picture changes, and you get to the point where you need help to make the playoffs (a couple teams ahead of you losing). But when the season starts, you may be just a little upstart, but if you keep winning you will eventually find yourself under the bright lights. This is like THE fundamental tenet of sports. If you win, you're in. Gary Williams talks about this sometimes, as the great thing about basketball: it doesn't matter what clothes you wear or where you live or whether your parents got divorced. If you can play, that's all that matters. If you win, you're in.

The Detroit Lions started out this season on the ashes of 0-16, and we all expected them to be bad. And they haven't been good: but our opinion of them does not control their destiny. If they had won their games, they would go to the playoffs this season. Little tiny UMBC, where I went to college, is not a traditional basketball power, and they are not ranked this season. But if by some chance they came up with Bill Bradley, Stephon Curry and Jay Greene (or Ray Barbosa & Darryl Proctor) on their roster, and started winning all their games, it wouldn't matter what anyone thought. They would win their conference, get the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and have as good a chance as anyone to tear thru the tourney field and make the final four. Everyone controls their own destiny, at least to begin with.

But not in college football.

This season we have graphic proof that at least 3 teams (TCU, Cincinnati, Boise St) did not control their own destiny. They could win every game, but they would still need help to make the championship. And of course, it's not just them, they're the tip of the iceberg. Most teams don't control their own destiny. Ultimately, perhaps no team controls its own destiny in CFB.

No wonder fans of other sports get pissed off every year. It offends the most fundamental values that drive sports.

I don't have any great solutions. I mean, there's one proposal that I like a lot, but I'm not really prepared to address all the objections to a playoff system. It's just nice to be able to put a name to precisely what is so offensive about college football's postseason.


  1. Most of the objections to the BCS could be resolved with more objective and transparent selection criteria but the fact is that wouldn't appease the majority who simply want a playoff for the sake of having a playoff.

    Wins aren't equal in any major sport other than baseball, and no sport is fair. Calls for 'greater fairness' are really just calls for 'make it like [this other sport which I understand better]'.

  2. I fall on the playoff side, albeit I'd like a small one. Four to six teams at most.

    But regardless, I wonder how much the NCAA just wants the controversy because it ensures college football is the hot topic of conversation around this time when the NFL is heating up and playoffs are around the corner. It almost can't be a bad thing for them...


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