The Faustian Playoff Proposition

I intended to write a large(r) article, but it seems that a college football playoff is a certainty. It feels futile to break down things in a comprehensive manner when it is at best a eulogy. Nevertheless, there are a few things gnawing at me and I feel I need to get them off of my chest. I have to preface my statements by saying I would support a +1 that gives #1 a bye, and features #2 at home against #3. Without elaborating further, I think that would reward each according to their regular season accomplishments. I can not find a valid reason for including #4 though. Over the history of the BCS, the fourth seeded team has not once proven to be on equal footing with the champion. That aside, I might breath a sight of relief if we actually get a top four seeded playoff rather than some of the abominations we have seen discussed. My greatest concern is why there is such a strong desire for change.

If I was to put it into broad terms, I would say the push represents a desire for inclusion over excellence. We are entering participation trophy territory, in which simply showing up is criteria for a reward. There are people out there that just can’t comprehend why one person’s accomplishments should be more rewarded, or are better. These people tend to think everyone should be able to get a college education, no matter how stupid they are. This mentality is galled by the notion of competitions that reward excellence. The notion of only letting the top two teams have a shot at being champion? This is an affront to that type of thought. If we must compete, surely we can let more teams have a chance! Never mind that the BCS has an unparalleled track record in crowning championship worthy teams. Set aside the fact that the lineal champion nature of #1 vs #2 presents an almost unassailable champion. They have a problem with the process itself. Allow me to finish this point by quoting Buzz Bissinger, who has polluted our conscious by writing a few things about amateur football: “I still think you have the fundamental problem of sports…It’s all about winning.

Another aspect of the push for a playoff is represented by money. Ironically, a playoff is almost universally fair to the players in that amateur, or professional you recieve very little in the way of compensation. The media has incentive to push for playoffs, as it both gives them topic for discussion and gives ESPN and the like more games to air, and the powers that be them self have financial incentives. It’s the players that are generally speaking left only with their competitive spirit as motivation. Do college athletes get more free education for participating in a post season? Professional athletes get mere pittance when compared to their regular pay (hardly worth the risk financially). The NCAA? They make a majority of their money in the NCAA basketball tournament. So, it’s remarkable that college football has held out this long.

Why do I argue that this is a deal with the devil? It might not be disastrous, and surely many people supporting a playoff have good intentions (and in some cases valid, well thought viewpoints). The unavoidable reality is that, the national dialogue is being controlled by entities with dubious motivations. We have the media pushing us toward a playoff, and we have every right to question their motives. This is the same media that, in the form of the AP, refuses to be part of the BCS, but when it comes to the random home court advantage, 68 team, 31 automatic bid, wheel of fate NCAA basketball tournament, they refuse to release a poll at any point during or after the tournament. This is the same media that helped bring us terms like “Mythical National Champions”, a derisive term that acts as though #1 playing #2 is somehow less credible than two lower seeds battling for a “championship”. We have the powers that be, that despite the obvious top 4 seeded option, seem to insist on ridiculous proposals. So, I believe we are striking a deal with the devil. As good as our intentions might be, I see many, many ways for this to go wrong and consider who we’re dealing with the likelihood of that happening eventually seem all but certain.

To put this into more specific terms, and what motivated me to write this, was a May first piece by Rick Reilly I came across today. It might seem innocent enough, labelled “BCS finally gets it right”, but as I read it I saw exactly what I feared. This is the devil we’re dealing with, and I can’t consider any bargain to be a good one in that case. Here’s some excerpts:

So who wants in on my bracket contest? Where are President Obama’s picks? You have a 12.5 percent chance of a perfect bracket.

One will play Four and Two will play Three. Are you listening? The four highest-ranked teams have a chance! That’s a 100 percent improvement on what we have now, which is dog meat!”

I’ll leave the Obama, dog meat part alone. But, are we really supposed to be enthused by this because we get to fill out a bracket? Is that really a motivating factor? 100% improvement? Is this guy a raving lunatic? Is that a rhetorical question? Let’s see, we have #1 vs #2. Somehow, in the land of the media, adding #3 and #4 represents a 100% improvement. That’s like having one painting, by Leonardo and you add one by Thomas Kinkade and claim your collection has improved by 100%. To use the BCS formula, we are being told by Rick that 17809 is 100% better than 19419. Only someone that cares more about brackets than excellence could come to that conclusion.

No more Auburns (12-0, ranked third, 2004) getting robbed! No more Cincinnatis and TCUs (both 12-0 in 2009, third- and fourth-ranked) getting double-shafted! No more USCs (12-1 in 2003, third-ranked, with five first-round draft picks) getting reamed!

To be fair, I included the whole quote. Auburn didn’t get robbed. They are, one of a couple compelling cases to include the third (not fourth mind you) ranked team in the process. They played the 60th ranked schedule. They merely had a good season that fell short of either of the top two teams. The Cincinatti and TCU part is just gag inducing yellow journalism at it’s finest. TCU lost to Boise State. Let’s just stop there for a second, because his argument is that TCU, a team that finished ranked 6th in the AP poll was “shafted”. He chooses not to even allude to Boise State because after all Boise State wouldn’t even be included in a plus one. No doubt, if the same scenario plays out in 2015 he’ll be explaining the need for a 8 team playoff. The most asinine part of this is his mention of Cincinatti. Cincinatti, who finished ranked 8th in the AP. Cincinatti who was blown out by 54-21 by Florida (the second best team in reality, but you won’t see Rick take up their cause because we’re not being inclusive if we include two SEC teams). So, somehow, a team that rode a soft schedule to a meaningless undefeated regular season, a team that proved to be completely unworthy of a championship, got shafted by not being included. I am left with the conclusion that Rick doesn’t care one bit about worthy champions. As to USC? The second team in the history of the BCS that was excluded, that I believe might have had an argument for being championship worthy. Having said that, they lost didn’t they? They didn’t win a conference championship game did they? And, to tell me that including Michigan, who finished that season with three losses is somehow a massive improvement since it gives USC a second chance, well that’s a hard sell in my mind.

And there we have it. If you break things down, and really strain out the superfluous nonsense, what we are left with is the reality that USC in 2003 and Auburn in 2004 are the only legitimate reasons to have a +1. The resolution to that is simple, but we both know a 3 team +1 will never happen. The other undeniable aspect of what is going on, is we’re being lead by people that think sports shouldn’t be about winning. That think 8th ranked teams should have a shot at championships. The BCS isn’t perfect, but the results are pretty darn hard to argue with. We’ve had the BCS since 1998, and only once did a major selector disagree with the results (even then it was an overtly biased move, they actually took #1 votes away from Oklahoma/LSU and awarded them to USC in the final poll). If one is being objective, it is incredibly hard to argue with the results. I can accept the notion that if anything, the BCS accidentally got things right. That despite everything working against it, the BCS actually found a way to function. It’s possible that a +1, despite the NCAA, Rick Reilly’s, Big 10’s, Pac-12’s, and so of the world this might turn out ok. But, it’s still a deal with the devil in my mind.

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