Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Trying to figure out college football

(Posted for Frostburg's The Bottom Line this week)

For several years now, the discussion of whether or not NCAA Football (Bowl Subdivision) needs a playoff has been ongoing. Many fans are dissatisfied with the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and the confusion of whether or not the best teams are meeting at the end of the season.

Some people have expressed their desire for a simple playoff where the top four teams would have the chance to square off and ease the pain of identifying the two best teams. Other people would like to see eight or even 16 teams given a shot in a playoff system to give more teams the chance to show they belong among the elite programs in the nation.

Many coaches, college officials, and analysts, though, have been rejecting any such system for years. They frequently use the same excuses: it would be too time consuming, too difficult to figure out, not fair to the players, it would make the regular season less important, etc.

A playoff wouldn’t take up a significant portion of the season if strong teams were forced to schedule fewer games against overwhelmed opponents. Previously #2 ranked Kansas’s schedule serves as a perfect example. Surely the Jayhawks (11-1) didn’t expect to have such a successful season, but their first four games this year included wins over Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo, and Florida International. Those four teams have a combined record of 15-31. Football teams that want to have their programs taken seriously shouldn’t schedule as many terrible opponents. A game like Michigan vs. Appalachian State can still happen where a stunning upset can occur, but the opportunities just won't be as often.

Teams may be forced to play a tougher game or two, but then again, several teams already play uneven schedules. If Ohio State played in the SEC, they probably wouldn’t come out of conference play with only one loss. Ohio State is definitely one of the nation’s top five teams, but it's too confusing to try and weigh schedule strengths while certain teams continue to play soft schedules and still get into BCS games. A team like Hawaii may have a smooth ride through its regular season this year and in the future, but if there's a playoff, fans would get to see them matched up against an LSU or USC and see how they'd really fare.

Complaining that a playoff system would too be confusing is also overlooking the currently baffling BCS system, which has been in place since 1998. Some of the matchups fans have seen over the years have been terrible, and the BCS hasn’t consistently enabled the right teams to face each other.

Much of the confusion began in 2003 when USC and LSU shared the #1 ranking at the end of the season. LSU defeated Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game and ended the season 13-1, and USC beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to finish with a 12-1 record. Even though LSU had won the official BCS Championship, USC held onto the #1 AP poll ranking, sparking debate around the country. A similar dispute took place the very next season when Auburn won the SEC, beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, and finished with a 13-0 record. USC, though, defeated Oklahoma 55-19 in the BCS National Championship Game and were declared the champions. Both teams finished undefeated, yet they couldn’t play each other.

Instead of worrying about who plays who in certain BCS Bowl games, teams should have the chance to play each other and determine their own fates. Other teams that have relatively successful seasons can still participate in other Bowl games -- just not the playoff. At the very least, Bowl games should reward teams who played well during the season. But when determining a national champion, the best teams in the country need to play each other in a playoff format.

Another knock against adding a playoff is the belief that it would negate much of the importance of the regular season. Every other major sport at the collegiate and professional level has both a regular season and a postseason, and the entire sequence is important. Teams want to do well in the regular season so they can get a better seed and more of an advantage if possible. If they don't play well to begin with during the regular season, then they don't participate in the postseason anyway.

Though these are just some of the reasons people have used to argue against having a playoff, they only get in the way of what's really important -- that millions of fans want to see a playoff system, and many fans are intrigued to see what would happen. Sure, it would force the NCAA to change the way it arranges Bowl games, but there definitely wouldn't be any money lost since that's usually the main concern for those in charge.

Even if current feel-good story teams like Hawaii and Kansas were to get blown out in a playoff game, many people would pay to see those games just to see what would happen. Even though some Bowl games in the past turned out to be outstanding battles, there still has to be some limited motivation when teams know they can't be number one, just number four or five.

In the end, the dilemma basically boils down to one main issue -- many fans would rather see a system where several teams meet to earn the right to be in the championship game by actually beating other top teams. The current Bowl system occasionally prevents the best two teams from meeting in the championship game, and the other Bowl games only serve to prove where teams rank after those two.

In this case, the NCAA should get rid of the BCS and organize a playoff system. Fans should get what they want; they're usually right anyway.

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