Those two words are scaring the pants off of people who back the BCS system in college football. People who've resisted a playoff for one reason or another may have some reckoning coming their way this season, and if so, it's about time.
What if USF runs the table, and we're stuck putting them in the national championship game? What if more than 2 teams finish undefeated...again?
The BCS has always been purported as being the way to "finally" determine who the #1 team in the country is, and crown a national champion. The group that put together the BCS system acknowledged that the previous system was flawed. They realized that the system works better when fans, sportswriters, and players could feel confident that the team declared as "champion" deserved the moniker. Declaring a true national champion was (and still is) in the interest of the perpetuation of the sport.
But somewhere along the way, someone messed up. The current system still has bowl-style flaws. At the end of the year, only 2 teams get a shot at the national title. The path to the national title game passes through Columbus and Pasadena, but also passes through the evaluative minds of coaches, computers, and the American media machine. What sort of strange world do we live in where the championship decisions of a sport (even an "amateur" sport) are decided by people making guesses as opposed to playing head-to-head games, and getting your winners from their actions on the field?
"But Joe, the NCAA tournament uses a selection committee to determine who's eligible to play for the national championship." Right you are. In the end, even professional leagues have to make concessions; in the NFL, tie-breakers are used to determine playoff teams occasionally, and the tie-breakers are probably equally effective in choosing a playoff team when compared to a voting body of experts. But we're not talking about a field of two here. We're talking about a field of 12 in the NFL, or 65 in college basketball. We've acknowledged that it's inappropriate to have every team play every other team and hold a 300-team tournament at the end of the season. But we've also acknowledged that more than two teams are worthy of a chance.
Here's the kicker, a la Tim Cowlishaw on Around The Horn (and various others): "The college football regular season is essentially a playoff system. For the most part, it's 'win or go home' all year long." For the most part, yes, it's win or go home.
Except, Boise State went undefeated last year and never got a shot to get into the title game. So they defied logic, by winning and going home.
Except that Michigan's only loss last year was to #1 Ohio State by 3 points, but got squeezed out of the title game. (Don't talk to me about Michigan ending up losing in their bowl game and Florida winning the title; ask any poker player if the results justify the tactic, and they'll tell you the right move is always right, and the wrong move is always wrong, regardless of the results).
Except that, in 2004-2005, Auburn, Utah, and Boise State all went undefeated, and none of them were afforded the opportunity to play for the title.
Now look at this season. Right now, the following six teams are undefeated: Ohio State, South Florida, Boston College, Arizona State, Kansas, Hawaii. Of those six, five are in BCS conferences. Could we again be looking at a situation where an undefeated team from a top-caliber conference gets left out of a championship game? I wouldn't be surprised. Arizona State has a brutal schedule coming up, and Ohio State has some very loseable games, but there's a very real chance that we'll have 3-4 no-loss teams come bowl bid time.
And that's where the concept of the "year-long playoff" fails. In every other sport, if you never lose a game, you've got a shot at the title. College hoops, if you win every game, you earn an automatic bid, either through your season or your conference tournament. College football is the only sport where you can win every single game you play, and still be considered only the 4th best team at the end of the year. If it's a year-long playoff, then every undefeated team is still alive.
So BCS, I wish for you that Ohio State loses (I wish that for myself as well, just as a selfish Penn State fan), and all five of the other teams run the table. You'll get to enjoy Boston College vs. South Florida as your marquee title game matchup. You'll see Kansas vs. Arizona State in one of the other BCS bowls. Hawaii will take on South Carolina. Your ratings will go in the tube, and you'll keep paying $1.8 million to Notre Dame for the luxury of being able to include them in the BCS system.
Without question, a true playoff system is the answer. It vastly reduces the impact of politics, biases, and television exposure in the determination of who'll play for the title. Grab the top 16 BCS-rated teams, seed them according to ratings, and let 'em go at it. The fact that this is somehow difficult for college chancellors or athletic directors or anyone else to grasp is a testament to the total ignorance of the general American population.
I'll leave you with this. Beano Cook, ESPN analyst, said, "The BCS is college football's equivalent of prayer in school. There's always got to be a debate about it." He forgot to add, "It's something that only idiots think is right."
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