College Football: Why a Playoff Is a Bad Idea

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2012

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 10:  Signage is displayed at the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game between the Oregon Ducks and the Auburn Tigers at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 10, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

What if the one thing we’ve been screaming for in college football is not what we really want or what the sport needs?

Yes, what if the BCS’s proposed four team mini-playoff is ultimately an even worse system of determining a champion than the current logic-starved format.

The case for not having a playoff is simple…a playoff scheme, no matter how carefully drawn up or operated, comes no closer to determining the best team in a sport than does the BCS system.


Yes, and this is coming to you straight from the mouth (or keyboard) of someone who has beaten her playoff drum as loudly as anyone in this great nation.

Let’s approach the question of the true validity of a champion determined by a single- elimination playoff system by throwing out a couple of illustrations (both are admittedly extreme).

Were the 2011-12 New York Giants, who ultimately finished the season 9-7, really the best team in the NFL last year?

And, were the 1982-83 N.C. State Wolfpack, at 26-10 and tied for third in the ACC, the best team in college basketball that season?

These were glorious, memorable and tremendous achievements that left indelible marks on sport, but still the question begs asking, were these teams truly the best in their sport in the year they won a championship?

On the other side of the same issue was another squad, which had been dominant or perhaps just more consistent throughout a given season. Was it really not the best team by virtue of losing a single game in a playoff system?

In other words, were last season’s Giants really better than Green Bay (who was 15-1 overall and 6-0 in their division) simply by virtue of the results of one game?

The obvious argument against this approach is found by rightly pointing out that the champions listed above are not indicative of the majority of playoff champions or, in other words, yes, sometimes they get it wrong, but most of the time they get it right.

Indeed, it may be flawed, but at least it’s better than pitting the two “best” teams against each other based on human and computer rankings that are far from perfect.

But what if this well-played and easily argued methodology is incorrect and the BCS actually gets right what we’ve accused them of getting wrong?

The single-elimination bracket system that rules the NCAA basketball tournament and the NFL makes it absolutely possible for a team that didn’t even win its division (in the NFL ) or conference (in basketball) to be declared the best team in its respective sport.

Isn’t that precisely one of our major gripes in college football today?

And based on this logic, can you truly say that this is the superior method to determine the very best team in a given sport?

What if the BCS system, even with its flaws, is inherently superior to a sudden-death playoff, not just in the extreme cases, but on a consistent basis?

What if LSU and Alabama playing in a national title game was sickening and unpopular, but also pitted the best two teams in the country against one another (regardless of their conference affiliation)?

What if having LSU play Stanford (BCS No. 1 vs. No. 4) and Alabama play Oklahoma State (BCS No. 2 vs. No. 3) in a mini-playoff last season would have, in reality, done nothing more than risked not having the two best teams in the country play for all the marbles?

What if Stanford (with two losses) and Oklahoma State (with one loss to a team that  was 5-4) had no business being in a playoff for the national title?

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 15:   Mathias Kiwanuka #94 of the New York Giants tackles  Ryan Grant #25 of the Green Bay Packers during their NFC Divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 15, 2012 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Ge
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Going back another season, what if adding TCU (which played a dramatically easier schedule) and Stanford (which got blown out by Oregon earlier in the season) into a playoff with Auburn and Oregon would have, in essence, allowed for the possibility of the two best teams not meeting in the title game?

Let’s say TCU went on to beat Oregon in the playoff, should the Horned Frogs really have been in a position to play Auburn (given it had beaten Stanford) for the national championship?  Think about arguing that a Mountain West slate had equal street cred to an SEC schedule.

Beyond this, does a four- or eight-team playoff in a sport with 123 teams and 11 conferences offer any more inherent fairness than a system that tries to pluck the two best teams in the land based on their entire body of work?

The examples above clearly illustrate the fallible nature of a single-elimination playoff scheme, but at least the NFL and NCAA basketball schemes allow a higher percentage of participation.

To illustrate, of the approximate 345 teams in Division I basketball, 68, or 20 percent, make the playoffs while in the NFL  12 of the 32 franchises  (or 37.5 percent) make the postseason.

Under the new scheme in college football, four of 123 teams, or a dismal three percent, will compete for a title.

Perhaps it’s that the current system doesn’t need to be completely scrapped in favor of a playoff, but instead it just needs tweaking.

What about introducing a sliding scale that is weighted in such a way that the BCS and human rankings mean more (and therefore have more impact on the final calculations) as the season goes on?   

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 02:  The Stanford Cardinal defense lines up on the line of scrimmage against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on January 2, 2012 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Doug Pensin
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Speaking of human rankings, why not throw out the coach's poll and bring in other humans, those who aren’t burdened with the conflict of interest inherent to coaching a team or being an opponent of a team included on the ballot?

And what about cutting the current FBS into two subdivisions (SMU and Texas A&M are not actually competing for the same title) that would allow each level to compete for its own individually determined championship?

Yes, why not require squads to be a reigning conference or at least division champion as a prerequisite for inclusion in the championship game or for top BCS billing?

The list could go on forever…

What if (and this is a big if) the BCS is indeed the obnoxious, money-making monster we think it is, but what if it also has laid the foundation for the best way of determining a champion in sport?

Yes, what if the only currently utilized method to fairly and equitably crown a champion, other than a series-driven playoff scheme (i.e. like those used by the MLB, NBA and NHL), is found by modifying  the dreaded “BCS approach?”

And, what if these amendments should absolutely not include a playoff system?





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