Since the inception of the AP poll in 1934 (and probably long before), college football fans have wondered which powerhouse team was the best in the country. The AP poll was created to generate interest in and sell newspapers, goals it has achieved admirably. The ink spilled today (most of it now virtual) over the annual debate about the national rankings is impressive, to say the least. It can be a fun, even engrossing exercise, and its prominence in the college football landscape is part of the unique charm of the sport.
Traditionally, the team that finished first in a college football poll was entitled to style themselves as 'National Champions'. The most prominent (and legitimate) of these polls are the AP poll and the Coaches' poll, although a number of other polls and computer models have deigned to award national championships as well. Often, however, such polls could not agree on a champion, and the national championship was thus 'split'. To remedy this, first the Bowl Alliance and later the Bowl Championship Series were created in an attempt to pit the top two contenders for the crown in a 'National Championship Game'. This has worked to some degree, and can certainly be credited with giving us a pair of fantastic championship games: the 2003 Fiesta Bowl (Miami vs. Ohio State) and the 2006 Rose Bowl (USC vs. Texas). Yet it has just as often failed to produce a satisfactory end to the college football season, and its existence has been fraught with controversy.
Controversy? What controversy? - Image via trojanwire.com
In response to such controversy and dissatisfaction, opponents of the BCS have increased their cries for reform; in particular, calls have grown louder to determine the national championship 'on the field' by means of a playoff of some sort or other. I don't necessarily oppose such a reform. However, whatever form such a playoff might take, it will necessarily fall short of the ultimate goal of the reformers - determining, without argument or controversy, who the best team is.
There is no surefire way to determine who the best team is.
The problem with a sporting contest is that the best contestant doesn't always win. Most of the time they do, but upsets do happen. Talent and skill will most often win the day, but intelligence, surprise, and just plain luck can often work to overcome such deficiencies. Moreover, this is a good thing. How boring would watching sports be if the best team always won? A season without a single upset is a dreary one indeed, and a match in which the better team is known beforehand, and thus the outcome a complete certainty, is hardly worth watching, and of debatable value in even contesting.
So, if the best team doesn't always win, how can a playoff, in any form, guarantee to crown the best team as its champion? Obviously, it can't. How often does the No. 1 overall seed fail to win the NCAA tournament? How often is the winner not even a No. 1 regional seed? A series of contests can often mitigate this failure, as big upsets are much harder to sustain over the course of 3, 5, or even 7 games, but it cannot eliminate it completely. Sometimes teams get hot at the right time, or an otherwise mediocre team presents a matchup problem for a superior team, knocking them out of the playoff in an early round. If a playoff designs to determine which team is the best, it will necessarily fall short of that goal from time to time.
What are we playing for anyway?
So, if we cannot, by any means, determine with any certainty who the best team is, what are we even playing for? What is the point? Well, in absence of determining the 'best' team, we shall have to settle for determining a 'champion'. Really, that's all we're interested in anyway. Being The Best doesn't get you anything; Winning is what matters. Sure, the 2001 Seattle Mariners won a record 116 regular-season games, but in the playoffs, they were no match for the Yankees. Rather, it was the Arizona Diamondbacks who finally toppled the mighty Yankee dynasty, and it is they who are celebrated as champions. Conversely, one only has to ask Dan Marino or Alex Rodríguez what small consolation being 'the best' is when you cannot call yourself a champion.
"I don't get it. How come everybody loves Derek Jeter more than me?" - Image via cache.daylife.com
One of the great things about college football is that there is so much to play for; by that I mean, any given team has a number of ways it can be called a 'champion' in any given season. Some contests and trophies are more important than others, but there are very few games in any given season that can truly be called 'meaningless'. Sure, a national championship is the ultimate goal, but a successful season can be had merely by winning a conference championship or a division championship, by winning a bowl game or a rivalry trophy. That such champions are not -- or at least may not be -- the best is ultimately unimportant; they are winners, and that is what matters.
An argument for a playoff, and a rebuttal.
While a college football playoff cannot always aspire to answer the question of 'Who is #1?', it can still reliably produce a 'national champion'. Will it do this with less argument than the current BCS process? One can only hope. However, a playoff has the potential to lend more legitimacy to the eventual champion's claim of national supremacy, in that a playoff could be more inclusive of its participants, to the point where no team in the country could be denied admission except by its performance (or lack thereof) on the field.
One of the principle problems with the current system is that a team could go undefeated and still have no hope of winning a national title. Tulane in 1998 and Auburn and Utah in 2004 all felt this limitation. Would any of those teams have actually won a playoff, were one in place? That's debatable, and at least in some cases, doubtful. Still, there is something distinctly odd about a team calling itself a 'national champion' while other teams remained undefeated and yet still excluded.
Given his subsequent performance for the 49ers, it's unlikely that Alex Smith could have helped Utah knock off USC after the 2004 season, but funny things can happen in a playoff... - Image via images.usatoday.com
An all-inclusive playoff system would be a radical departure from the current BCS system. Its chief virtue would be that no team with a legitimate claim to #1 will have been left out. Although teams that just miss the cut will always feel slighted, those slighted under such a system will have marginal claims at best; 2- and 3-loss teams with suspect losses or a lack of good wins can complain about being passed over for a less accomplished team, but they can hardly be expected to claim a share of the national title.
Of course, by opening up the national title competition to a playoff, teams that are obviously unworthy will inevitably be included, merely to round out the numbers. Playoffs being what they are, one of those 'unworthy' teams will eventually win the national title playoff, causing further complaints and consternation. The 2007 New York Giants, only 10-6 in the regular season, would not have even merited BCS consideration if the NFL had a BCS-like system. During the regular season, they lost to the Green Bay Packers, the Dallas Cowboys (twice) and the New England Patriots, all teams they managed to defeat during their magical playoff run. They were also blown out at home 41-17 by the 8-8 Minnesota Vikings, a definite résumé-killer. Now, thanks to the NFL's playoff system, Eli Manning has exactly as many Super Bowl rings as his brother Peyton. (Which is to say, exactly as many Super Bowl rings as Trent Dilfer.) No, there is no perfect system.
"I'm now equally as good as my big brother, right?" - Image via assets.espn.go.com
Also, if we are to promote an all-inclusive playoff, we shall place greater emphasis on winning the conference title or as many games as possible (whatever the selection criteria may be) at the expense of the non-conference slate. As things stand now, national title contenders have an incentive to play and win tough non-conference matchups, as a weak schedule can leave a talented team out in the cold if there are too many legitimate contenders (see: Auburn, 2004). However, if all that matters is making the playoffs, and no team can be denied a playoff berth so long as they win all their games, the incentive to play tough non-conference matchups will be removed, quite possibly replaced by a strong disincentive towards such games. Sure, some teams will still seek the exposure/money that such matchups generate, and I suppose there might still be some jockeying for seeding, but anything that further waters down non-conference schedules has to be considered a detriment to college football.
What you get with a playoff, and what you don't.
I don't necessarily advocate for a playoff, or against it. What I am saying here is that if college football decides to institute a playoff, it should understand what it is getting, and what it isn't.
What we get:
- A playoff, by including more teams, would be more inclusive. It is more likely that any team with a legitimate claim towards #1 would be included, thereby reducing some complaints. The eventual national champion would have more legitimacy in claiming such a title, and the idea of a 'mythical' national champion might become a thing of the past.
- A playoff takes power out of the hands of the various polls, whose voters often exercise questionable judgement or have dubious qualifications. Perhaps a selection committee would be a necessary substitute, but other NCAA sports seem to get along OK with one.
- A playoff that is sufficiently inclusive eliminates the possibility of a split national title.
What we don't:
- A playoff does not eliminate controversy. No system could possibly do that. Sorry, not gonna happen. Good teams will be left out, inferior teams will get it, and seeding and travel will always be something to complain about.
- A playoff does not determine who the best team in college football is. It gives us a champion, but a champion of a single-elimination tournament is not necessarily the best team in that tournament. In all probability, a playoff will crown as champion less-talented teams than the current BCS system. If all the trouble of a playoff is done solely in order to determine, once and for all, who the #1 team in the country is, I can tell you right now that that effort will be wasted
Does a playoff bring an end to Mack Brown's whining? I somehow doubt it. - Image via www.journalstar.com
A place for the polls.
Frankly, I think the search for the #1 team in college football is a futile one, though the debate is certainly engaging. College football can determine its champion on the field, but leave the job of determining who's #1 to the pollsters. It's what they do best, and if we already have a champion, their work doesn't carry nearly so much import. We can all stop worrying about screwy voters and just enjoy the season. It's all for fun anyway, right?
So have a playoff if you want. It will certainly be entertaining, and will quite possibly generate more revenue that the current system. The regular season might suffer some, and who knows what might happen to the plethora of minor of bowl games, but you don't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs (or some such cliché; 'acceptable losses' would be the military term). Just don't expect a playoff to magically fix everything; if you really want to know who the best college football team in the country is, your best bet is still to ask a bunch of newspaper reporters what they think.