BCS System Keeps College Football Fans Interested, but It's Still Absurd
Imagine, if you will, that the NFL's postseason was the Super Bowl...and only the Super Bowl.
Wait, hang on. How about if it were the Super Bowl and then five exhibition games to accommodate the other 10 teams that were deemed worthy of participating in the postseason. Winning one of these postseason games doesn't do anything for the teams other than give them a nice trophy, mind you, but the players still seem to enjoy it.
This would be stupid compared to the NFL playoffs, right? But hang on, we're not done.
Currently, the 12 playoff teams in the NFL are chosen by some fairly easy, logical guidelines. Every division winner is in. The best two at-large teams in each conference are then also in, according to record. Tiebreakers are applied therein, but that's the entire framework right there. No subjectivity is involved whatsoever.
Now, let's take that process and throw it in the garbage, because it doesn't make nearly enough people feel important about themselves.
Let's allow the coaches of the teams involved to create the rankings. Let's also create a giant second poll that, despite not starting until midway through the season and thus eliminating preseason bias, just so happens to mimic the coaches' poll in the entire Top 15 except for switching around the No. 4 and 5 teams.
Wait, there's more.
Let's also throw in a handful of computer rankings, the vast majority of which use secret and unverifiable calculations, and then let's not let the computers use scores in their calculations; only opponents. Never mind that scoring points is a much more reliable predictor of future performance than considering only records and opponents, because, apparently, that incentivizes winning too much.
The resulting rankings make sense on a macro level—like, it's not as if Arkansas State is ranked No. 1 in the schedule/record rankings—but as seen in the Sagarin ratings, within the Top 10, the rankings are a jumbled mess compared to when scoring is factored in. The average departure between the non-score rankings and the complete computer rankings in the Top 10 is 3.2 spots—or about what a random number generator could accomplish.
We're still not done.
Let's give these teams unequal seasons. Some will play for conference (here, the NFL equivalent of a division) championships, some won't. This adds another opportunity for disaster in a sport where one loss can cripple an entire season, and one need only look at the history of the Big 12 championship to see a graveyard littered with BCS title dreams. Meanwhile, winning this championship game rarely confers any benefit past simply not playing at all and hoping other teams lose.
The risk-reward breakdown of that situation is roughly akin to running through traffic to chase down a dollar bill.
The BCS setup is...
Would you watch the NFL if it had a college football-style postseason? Would you think everything that we just described is even remotely a legitimate postseason setup?
Now, sure, the one major difference between the NFL's and college football's scheduling setups is that the NFL has 16 games between 32 teams, while college football features 12 or 13 between 124 (plus whatever amount of FCS opponents get thrown in). The records in the NFL are thus more reliable indicators of overall strength than in college football.
That's fine. It doesn't make college football's postseason OK, but it does explain why the NFL's setup is so easily allowed to be objective-based.
There's another collegiate sport in which 347 teams play about 30-to-34 games a year against each other before the postseason is decided. That'd be college basketball, and wouldn't you know it, that sport gets a few things right.
For one, all conference champions are in. One might quibble with the fact that conference tournaments are used to determine these champions rather than regular-season records, but at least every conference goes through this same tournament—and losing in this tournament isn't an automatic disqualifier for the postseason (though we really don't recommend it).
Further, in this sport, roughly one-fifth of the teams in the league are eligible to compete for the national championship rather than under two percent, as in college football. The at-large teams are chosen by a committee of high-level administrators in the sport working as a committee, spending hundreds if not thousands of man hours determining and seeding participants.
A BCS-style computer ranking (here called the RPI) is considered; it is not sacrosanct and is certainly not given a full third of the weight in a team's ranking. Further, the hurried, low-information rankings of pollsters is ignored entirely. As it should be.
Fortunately, college football understands this mistake that its postseason has become. One of the major breakthroughs of its postseason setup in 2014 (once the four-team playoff rolls around) is that selection committees will be involved, and they can carefully consider—and then publicly defend—their choices for participants and seeds.
No more treating the USA Today Coaches' Poll like gospel. No more Sunday BCS ranking specials. Just plain careful consideration.
Going back to the earlier point about the size of the playoffs relative to the size of the league, though, one-fifth of the FBS division is 25 teams. And for all the chatter about how a college football playoff might expand, nobody's seriously exploring the notion of a 24-team playoff.
And why should they?
It's deeply unfair to college football players to add up to four more games to their workload without a commensurate increase in their compensation. Oh, whoops, wouldn't you know it, their compensation is limited to education expenses.
This, then, ultimately goes to the heart of "amateur" athletics.
A college football playoff would make sense if players could be adequately paid for the increase in time commitment and risk to their health. You know, the things most of us want to be paid for. College athletic administrators say they can't afford that, all while they build massive new stadiums and athletic facilities and shovel millions of dollars into coaches' hands. And maybe a lot of college athletic programs can't afford to pay its athletes what they're worth.
That's not a compelling argument to continue not paying people what they're worth; that's a compelling argument to overhaul the bloated mess of a sport this has become—from the postseason on down.
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