Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Don't Get Too Excited About This CFB "Playoff" Just Yet

Sort of

The topic many college football writers and bloggers will be talking about this week is the now-approved, so-called four team college football playoff to replace the 1-vs-2 BCS situation currently in place.

Let me start by saying the BCS system, while much-maligned, basically did what it was outlined to do back when it was brought to college football in the late 1990s. The goal was to make sure that 1 played 2 in a big-time bowl game. That was it. It wasn't intended to solve all problems with the college football championship boondoggle. Sometimes it didn't quite please everyone, and there were several years where it could have been a complete mess had a couple of teams not obligingly rolled over late in the season. But for the most part, it pitted 1 versus 2, which is neat on that given night.... but which doesn't really feel like any other playoff in any sport.

You might insert the obivous joke here -- "Why is a Purdue site owner writing about college football playoffs? Pssshaw! Purdue won't be in there!" But maybe that makes me that much more qualified, since I'm unbiased and, usually, unaffected.

ESPN is happy in their coverage of this new "playoff" because they're supposed to be. Remember, ESPN isn't independent any more than the GM of the NY Yankees is independent. ESPN has a vested interest in people being excited by this playoff, so they've got writers talking about it being "celebrated" and giving "kudos." I'd say not so fast, because this isn't really what anyone has been pining for. Is it better? Sure, I suppose it's a step forward, but it's really only a playoff in the most basic sense and it's not even going to be based on obvious, on-the-field stuff. The four participants are going to be a committee.

The thinking here isn't hard to see -- let's call it a committee and everyone will accept it since the NCAA basketball tournament is so popular. But that's got 68 teams, and every year people criticize the committee for something. Now their margin for error is far slimmer. Make a mistake here, and people are just as pissed off as when an undefeated Boise plays an undefeated TCU so that at least one of them will have to go away. Or when an undefeated Auburn team in 2004 doesn't get a shot at the title.

I also don't think people are thinking about the in-the-moment differences. As the season winds down right now, we know who is in contention for the top 2 spots and who isn't. Then there are usually a few long shots who could sneak in if the chips fall right. With the new system, even if a team is unbeaten and is #4 in whatever ranking system we're using at that point, they won't know for sure that they're in.... they'll have to then sit around like fringe teams do on selection Sunday in March. While that's fine for fringe teams that barely deserve consideration, it's not fine for an undefeated college football team in November.

And what rankings will we be referring to? I'm all for not having rankings until mid-October. Let the teams play and do the first voting/calculating on October 15. No more preseason nonsense that gives some teams a downhill grade to start with and others an insurmountable uphill climb. Play 'em out, and then when you have a real idea of who's who, then rank them.

I'm also fine with using some iteration of the BCS rankings...combine computer polls, human polls, etc., an algorithm to include a factor for just dag-nab, awersome the SEC is, ya'll, and then spit 'em out. But to have everyone play to the finish line and then have a committee decide? A committee that will most certainly have sketchy ties to those who run the BCS bowls? It all but guarantees corruption and more lying to college football fans. Just like the previous asinine lies about how a playoff would "ruin" the "tradition" of the Mineke Car Care Bowl or the majesty of the Pinstripe Bowl when two 6-6 teams duke it out. Or that a playoff brings unnecessary expense to fans or interferes with all those exams that these very serious students are taking....between Christmas and New Year's Day, one presumes.

Anyway, the point is, we've been fed blatant lie after blatant lie and I just want to put it out there that I only think it's going to get worse. When an 11-1 LSU team is 5th in the nation and Utah is 12-0 and 4th and the committee decides that LSU should go, we're going to be right back where we were.

And no, I'm not one of those people who says "Well, just like the tournament, wherever you cut it off, the next team will whine." Yes, I know that, but I don't care about that issue. If you don't make it, tough. If the rules/qualifications are clear from the beginning, then you can't bitch when you fall just short. However, the rules on how to qualify for this new, wonderful, unicorn-filled, utopian playoff system are very much not clear. It's the same crap -- everyone play hard and maybe you'll get rewarded.

Only now, instead of knowing that you absolutely must finish #1 or #2, you don't know what you have to do. Win a conference title but finish #5? Go undefeated but be in a certain conference? Pay off the committee? Who knows?

The ESPN article lists the following as things the committee will consider:

The committee will consider win-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and whether a team is a conference champion.

Wow. So W-L record is easy. Strength of schedule is hard. Are we talking a computerized, defined, hard-to-argue strength of schedule? Or those Doug Gottleib-type graphics where someone like him (think Mark May) decides what's a good win and a bad loss?

Head-to-head results? Uh, what? Like if the #5 team has beaten the #4 team, the #5 team gets selected? That's weird and if that's indeed what that means, it doesn't sound like it's too likely to happen often. Or do they mean the committee will look at opponents that teams being considered have in common? Who knows?

And, of course, there is the perceived importance of winning your conference title. I suspect this is here just to keep conference commissioners happy as well as those who think it's stupid for Alabama to be in the position to win a national title when they didn't even win their division within the SEC, much less the conference. (Yes, I know they were great -- but they lost on the field to a team that shouldn't have had to play them again.)

So there you have it! It's all so simple! A committee will make a decision.... and so all those sycophants currently chirping -- "Finally, it will be decided on the field!" -- are actually wrong. It'll be decided on the field after who gets to go onto the field are hand-picked.

Yeah, sounds like heaven.


Anonymous said...

So I'm not sure what your gripe is here. Is it with having a committee in the first place, or what is perceived to be ambiguous selection criteria?

I don't know what the problem is with committees; they work well in other sports (most notably, baseball and basketball). This one is going to be big enough (12-15) where a broader perspective on the landscape of college football that year can be presented. As for the selection criteria, nothing is new there. As you said, W-L record is pretty simple, but contrary to what you said, strength of schedule is a known entity. It's been around forever (and no, it's not something some idiot like Doug Gottleib or Mark May put together; it's tied to the RPI) and it was already being used as part of the BCS program, by both the voters and the algorithm developers who made up the computer portion of the BCS score. SoS isn't perfect, but it's very well known. Head-to-head results are also pretty basic and were previously included in the BCS score, and the conference championship thing was just something thrown in to make some of the ADs shut up and approve the measure.

It's clearly not a perfect system, and college football is as close to a "good ol' boys" network as there exists in college sports. Conference commissioners, ADs, and school presidents are always going to protect their own. Media types are always going to slobber over the same teams. But this is a more (emphasis on "more", which doesn't equate to "completely) open system than the BCS, which was a truly ignorant and corrupt system (my favorite story from the "ignorant" side was a certain BCS algorithm developer, whose algorithm included extra points for margin of victory, even when the BCS rules explicitly forbade it. He didn't change it; the BCS didn't try to make him).

The point is, this is an improvement. It may not be the ideal system, but it's also not the bill of goods you're making it out to be.

John J. said...

Anyone that has been to the Rose Bowl knows what a great, powerful tradition it is. It is especially meaningful to Big Ten/ Pac 12 teams -- honestly, I would much rather go see Purdue in the Rose Bowl than some other generic BCS championship game. Losing the Rose Bowl would be a huge mistake for fans and teams alike. I am all for a playoff, but I just don't see how we can preserve a meaningful Big Ten rose bowl with a playoff system. If someone has good idea, let me know, but I just can't envision a way to do that. I have no attachments to the bowl system in general, just in the rose bowl

J Money said...

Hank -- Is RPI and the current BCS ranking system a certainty to be used? I hadn't read that. If it is and we're going to have a semi-impartial/computerized SOS system, then yes, I find that a little better. But if "strength of schedule" means, "Durrr, they play in the SEC!" then I think everyone will be just as irritated.

The problem here -- to me -- is that they took a mess that nobody liked and only made slight improvements... not big ones, very slight ones. It still kind of sucks.

It's not really a playoff. It's a plus-1. A committee is selecting bowl game participants for the semi-finals -- which is kind of how bowl games always used to be handled -- and then the winners are playing.

I don't like it because it leaves WAY too much room for corruption (or continued corruption) and is only a slight improvement to a problem that has existed for decades.

J Money said...

John -- At BS, we've never understood the fascination with hokey bowl "traditions." Yes, we were there for the Drew Brees-led Rose Bowl appearance and we'd likely be at the next one... but that was because that was all we had to look forward to. Just like people complain about the BCS but still watch the title game -- we love college football and it's all we've got in terms of a playoff.

If you're saying we can have moldy old bowl traditions (oooh! A parade!) or a real playoff like every other sport has, then we choose a real playoff every time. Sure, I'd love to see Purdue win the Rose Bowl over a "generic" bowl, but a national championship game is far from "generic," isn't it?

Ryan said...

The B1G agreed to not make the Rose Bowl special anyway, when they agreed to the current BCS system. Remember Vince Young winning a national title in the Rose Bowl?

The Accidental Expat said...

I don't get it-- DIII, DII and D1-AA... er, FCS... have had playoffs for years, it works quite well, and nobody ever complained when these schools that played an extra 2-3 games on their way to the championship game were being exploited or their student-athletes (and I can say that with a straight face, seeing as most of these kids are paying out of their own pockets) somehow couldn't handle the physical and academic load. D3 has a 32 team playoff; D2 and FCS have 24 teams in the mix.

One early idea was to simply keep the existing D1-A... er, BCS... bowls in place and use them as playoff sites. Because it made sense and included non-AQ conferences/teams, it was almost immediately shouted down as being "unworkable." Feh. So what we have here is a stacked deck and a class of Super-AQ teams (+ Notre Dame of course!) that will no more decide Who the best team in College football than the current broken system. This is progress?

Question to the board-- and I honestly do not know this-- but I am under the impression that the BCS ranking system had to be altered every year of its existence on one metric or another because it was so flawed. Is that assumption correct? And exactly how will these rankings be any different to get to the D1-A Football Final Four?

John J. said...

J -- maybe I am just too old-fashioned and sentimental, or at least far more than a 21 year old computer engineering student should be. Heck, my friends accuse me of that on nearly a weekly basis. But I am a sucker for tradition, and it meant something to me that I was watching a Big Ten vs. Pac Ten match up in Pasadena on New Year's day, just as millions of fans have been doing for nearly 100 years. It was cool to feel that connection to the past.

Could many of the things that left such an impression on me be carried over into a college football playoff? Probably. I guess the Rose Bowl itself could still be used as a venue. All of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the game could still be done. Though it wasn't my favorite part of my Rose Bowl experience, the Rose Parade is a piece of Americana. As long as the Parade is within a week of any Rose Bowl game, I don't see that as an issue.

I admit, I am uncomfortable with big changes. I give you full permission to write me off as a crazy. But there are some benefits to finishing a season at the Rose Bowl. Everyone knows this is the final game of the season, win or lose. It give fans the opportunity to make travel arrangements, request time off work, and coordinate with all their friends to go see their team in the biggest game of the season. In a playoff, every game could be a team's last. In a playoff, a fan might have around a week to figure out which regional site the games will be played at, how they will get there, and, frankly, if it is worth it to go see their team in the 7 vs. 10 match up.

If we played a 16 team playoff, a the top two teams would have played 4 playoff games -- which is 1/3 of the regular season, and take 4-5 weeks to complete. By the time the National Championship would roll around, I want to be focusing on what seed the Boiler basketball team is projected to get in the NCAA tournament.

I know, some of my complaints are part of why the NCAA basketball tournament is so compelling, but I don't think that football lends itself as well to a large tournament like basketball. The rest time between games is much longer, games run longer, and rankings usually hold truer in football. The first rounds of the basketball tournament are exciting because of the shear number of games played in a 96 hour period and the shocking upsets. By the time the first weekend is over, we have some really meaty match ups set to go.

I apologize for the length of my rebuttal, but I just wanted to raise my concerns. Maybe they aren't as big a deal as I am making them out to be, and I am not claiming that my thoughts are the way it should be. I guess in the end, my opinion is this: Bowl Games are good for fans in attendance, and a playoff is great for the fan watching on TV. Since TV brings in way more money that the paying attendance, I don't see how we won't have a full-fledged playoff before I am 40.

For now though, I think the new format is enough to keep me satisfied. Who knows, maybe I will come around over the next several years.