It should be pointed out here that for nearly twenty years, college football has had a playoff. It was just a very small one, comprised of two teams. Playoff proponents therefore cannot argue that college football hasn’t had a playoff, but that it hasn’t had a large enough playoff. Let’s explore that idea. Look at sports that have big playoffs—college basketball, the NBA, the NHL. What do all three have in common? Their regular seasons are next to meaningless. College football fans often complain about the lack of intersectional matchups between top-level teams, games not scheduled for fear of losing and damaging a chance to win the national championship. But consider how many regular season games between the blue bloods of college basketball—Duke, Kentucky, UNC, Kansas, UConn, Michigan State, UCLA—we’ve seen in the last decade. Do you remember the outcome of any of them? No. They may be fun to watch, but they don’t matter. The loser will make the tournament just like the winner; the loser will likely be a high seed just like the winner. The games have no significance. Same in the NBA and NHL, where 82-game seasons are torturously long. All a team has to do to make the playoffs in those sports is not be dreadful, and ask the San Jose Sharks and L.A. Kings—seeding in the playoffs doesn’t matter a whole lot. Anybody think the Miami Heat or San Antonio Spurs would bow out in the first round if they were a 7 or 8 seed? Or look even at the NFL, where 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs. In just the last decade, the Steelers, Giants, and Packers have all won Super Bowls after winning 3 road playoff games to get there. The Cardinals made the Super Bowl as a 9-7 team, and the Seahawks won a home playoff game after posting a 7-9 regular season record. Meanwhile the Patriots and Colts have rested starters and coasted to byes and home field advantage, only to bow out early. How are games in September and October relevant again? Contrast with college football, where two and only two teams play for the national championship. Every game suddenly is immensely important as a single loss is a drastic (if not fatal) blow to championship hopes. The urgency is constant from the opening Saturday.
Many fans have also complained about the method of selecting the teams to play for the national title. They lamented pollsters who voted on teams, comparing college football to a beauty pageant. When the BCS brought computers into the mix, the complaints intensified. The championship should be settled on the field, playoff proponents insisted. They pointed to college basketball’s March Madness and pro sports with a playoff. But look at college basketball. The championship is settled on the court, but only after the participants are determined by a selection committee (i.e. pollsters). The NFL settles it on the field, but only after tiebreakers (such as strength of schedule and margin of victory, the same BCS measures that were railed against by college football fans) determine which 10-6 or 9-7 teams make the playoffs and which don’t. And now, college football has a playoff, where “pollsters” will “vote” on the participants, after considering margin of victory, strength of schedule, and various other stats spat out by computers. Hmm. The only sport I can think of that determines its champion solely on the field is Major League Baseball, where after 162 games, if two teams are still tied in the standings, they will play a 163rd game to determine who goes to the playoffs. And which sport is dying in popularity and criticized the most? Major League Baseball.
There is a direct correlation between the size of a sport’s playoff and the irrelevancy of its regular season, and there is almost no way to select playoff participants without some measure of human or computer judgment. And a playoff doesn’t guaranty that the best team will win. It is a guaranty that the hottest team during the playoff will win. Which is a better indicator of a team’s quality, playing great for three months, or playing great for three weeks?
A playoff also diminishes the bowl season, and while bowl games can be a little corny and while there are too many of them, they are one of the traditions that make college football special. Now the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl (once rewards for winning a conference championship) are rotating semifinal playoff games. There’s something not right about watching LSU play Clemson in the Rose Bowl or Oregon battle Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. Charles Woodson chomping down on a peach instead of a rose or watching cotton bolls roll across the field in Lincoln or Boulder instead of oranges just isn’t right.
But alas, I’m an old fuddy-duddy in a Twitter and text generation. The playoff is here. It’s not going away. In fact, it’s only likely to get bigger. Pretty soon Alabama will be resting starters in the Iron Bowl. Michigan will be trotting out a “safe” game plan against Ohio State so as not to give anything away for the upcoming playoffs. We’ll have clashes of titans in September that will be meaningless by the time the teams square off in the quarterfinals a few months later. The last sport where every game really matters will no longer be able to make that boast.
But at least we’ll be settling the championship on the field. And you know, in the conference room. And on computer programs. And by preposterous tiebreaker rules like who scored more touchdowns against division opponents when the temperature was under 40 degrees.