What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
Every year in mid-October, we get our first BCS (Bowl Championship Series) poll, which allows us collectively as college football fans to begin bitching about it. Every year, right around Thanksgiving time, the bitching hits full-roar because despite the conference championship games which yet to be played, there is always some team who somebody believes has been slighted. You’ve heard this bitching too, unless you ignore all media and live in a sports-news-free cave somewhere in the Montana wilderness for four months beginning right around Columbus Day. You’ve heard this bitching because everybody in the sports world has an opinion, isn’t afraid to share it, and it and it has the ability to start bigger feuds than arguing over who gets to latch on to that last drumstick. It is the question that always echoes between the time of gravy boats and Rose Bowl floats – how should we determine the national champion in college football?
Honestly, I think the time for this discussion is now, the off-season when we’ve already decided a champion with a flawed yet “works well enough” system, when we’ve just seen the pitfalls of the NFL’s playoff mechanism, and when after the Super Bowl there isn’t much interesting sports-wise to discuss until September…that is if we ever get past this lockout.
First, let’s look at the way a champion is now determined.
At the Columbus Day mark, we are on the verge of the BCS Poll, whose purpose is to tell us “quantifiably” through some convoluted calculus whose should be in a #1 vs. #2 Championship game. This was done largely to eliminate the posturing and moaning about who goes to whichever of the glut of bowl games. Before the BCS, the bowl committees made their selections and invitations were sent. After the acceptances and rare declinations, every sports columnist and commentator in the country did his part by beginning step two in this laborious process. This would be the unending parade of “what ifs” and “dependent ons”, whereby the de facto judges (a bunch of coaches and scribes) use some form of convolution to determine who will be the champion, but only if team A beats team B in one bowl and team C has to win by 30 points in their game in order to give team F a crack at the title. This is exactly what the BCS was supposed to eliminate.
The problem is the BCS failed at its primary goal; eliminating the quibbling.
The alternative is some sort of quasi-playoff format, which depending on the proposal involves anywhere from four to sixteen teams, chosen in the same manner as the BCS teams. Proponents of this format point to the objective nature of the NFL playoffs, which is supposed to allow the best teams into the post-season by having them earn their way in based on their performance during the regular season. In any event, the point of a playoff system is again to obviate any discussion; matters are all settled on the field.
The problem is that we just saw the NFL system fail at its primary goal; eliminating the quibbling.
I was satisfied with the BCS up until this year’s Rose Bowl. I heard all the rumbling about TCU deserving a shot at the Championship, but paid it no heed, safe in the assumption that Big Ten Goliath Wisconsin would easily crush the David-ish Horned Frogs underfoot. I live in the heart of Big Ten territory, I’d seen that Wisconsin team up close, and despite what I and the other “those in the know” types thought, TCU slew the giant. It was at that moment I realized the same people out there who say that a play-off isn’t necessary are the same people who cry about gymnastics not being a sports because it is judged. Do you know how I know that. Because before the Rose Bowl, I was that guy; the one who buys the “strength of schedule” argument, that somehow a team like TCU is less deserving because the teams on their schedule aren’t worth of so-called respect.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the Seattle Seahawks were being treated with that same lack of respect. I understand the visceral opposition to a team with a losing record being in the playoffs; it just doesn’t “feel” right. The difference between the Seahawks and TCU is the Seahawks were playing under an objective system. It really isn’t their fault every team in their division sucks, they earned their way into January football based on hard-coded rules which have been in existence for years. By the way, did you notice the part where the team which “had no business being in the playoffs” knocked off the defending Super Bowl champions?
The problem here is rather apparent; both approaches are flawed. If we are going to eliminate the bickering about a college football champion, a system must be devised that uses a truly objective system, yet incorporates the subjective “quibbling.” They are both necessary; the objective to reward the play on the field, and the subjective to continue to empower all the blowhards and Cash-zillas who are entwined in the fabric of college football.
The BCS tried this formula and failed. This failure came largely of the fact the BCS failed to incorporate the truly objective. Granted, the BCS uses a lot of heavy-duty algorithms, but many of them are lashed securely to human interpretations, namely the polls the BCS takes into account to formulate its overall rankings. Therefore, it is weighted to heavy in the subjective. The NFL model doesn’t work for college football because it involves no room for the subjective, and therefore allows no place for anything that doesn’t happen outside the lines.
Given that, any successful algorithm will need to require an acceptable level of both subjective and objective. As shopworn of an argument as it may be, if you are a supporter of the BCS/Bowl system, the fact the Football Bowl Subdivision (the league formerly known as Division 1-A) is the only major college sport that does not have a playoff to determine its champion is the “turd in the punchbowl” you just are not going to be able to ignore. Playoffs occur in every other rank of football, not to mention baseball, basketball, hockey, and every other sport that matters. To most people, the term “champion” isn’t subjective. To be a champion means you are the best; you’ve vanquished all comers. The “champion” gladiator slew all his opponents to earn the title; Nero and his fellow grape-eating orgiasts didn’t need to be bothered with thumbs up or thumbs down. In other words, the chattering class isn’t going to leave you alone until they get some sort of playoff.
However, college football cannot dispose of its “objective” orgiasts as easily as Nero did; they aren’t all just going to burn one day, even if they are the Plebians in the discussion. The problem is the bowl people are the “Patricians,” and as such they have the money and power to make any proposal just another chariot race loser to Ben-Hur. In other words, they aren’t giving up their interests without getting renumerated for the value of their interests.
Welcome to the “Play-Off for Pay-Off” theory. In short, to get a “real” play-off three things need to happen:
There are so many misconceptions about how a playoff system would work as college football is structured now; Jason Whitlock outlines them nicely:
Let’s try to clear up the major misconceptions about how a college football playoff in Division 1-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) would work.
STOP THINKING THEY’LL TAKE THE TOP 8 TEAMS IN THE BCS STANDINGS FOR THE PLAYOFF FIELD:
Hilariously enough, many 1A fans actually think the teams ranked 1 through 8 will all make the playoffs. When discussions about an 8-team playoff field were being held it was made clear that the 8 teams would really be the conference champions of the 6 Power Conferences and 2 At-Large teams. So even if we no longer call the system “The BCS” the 6 BCS conferences will still be calling the shots because of the money and influence they have. That’s not conspiracy talk, it’s just pretty much the way it goes, even in NCAA Divisions 1AA, 2 and 3 not every conference champ gets an automatic bid to the playoffs. The term “AQ”, for Automatic Qualifier, which 1A commentators are using a lot recently, was being used in the lower divisions long ago to distinguish those conferences where the champion is automatically in the playoff field from the conferences where the champ has to wait to see if the Selection Committee will give them an At-Large bid.
STOP THINKING A PLAYOFF WILL PUT AN END TO POST-SEASON CONTROVERSIES:
As the previous paragraph makes clear, a playoff in 1A will mean that even the champions of the Big East Conference and the ACC, who in recent years have finished comparatively low in the Top 25, would be in the playoffs while teams ahead of them in the rankings would be left out. This happens often in the lower divisions. To use one example, this year in the NAIA’s 16-team playoff field the William Penn Statesmen, ranked #11 in the nation, were left out, while a questionable team or 2 that were ranked lower, made the playoffs. If that happened even once in 1A try to imagine the arguments that would provoke in the 24 hour a day sports news cycle we have today.
STOP THINKING A PLAYOFF WOULD BE MORE FAIR TO THE NON-BCS CONFERENCES:
1-A playoff advocates always claim a playoff would be more fair for teams from Non-BCS conferences with teams like TCU and Boise State the poster children for that argument. Ironically if the 8-team playoff format that had been discussed was in effect last year, we would not have had both TCU and Boise State in that field anyway. With only 2 At-Large Bids available, there is no way the Power Conferences would have let both of them go to teams from Non-AQ conferences. They’d have put the highest-ranked non-champion from a Power 6 conference in 1 At-Large slot and at best just 1 team from a Non-AQ conference in 1. (Compared to the supposedly unfair BCS system in which both teams got to participate in a big money bowl last year, albeit against each other) The reason why is always the same: money. Money is the same reason why the 6 power conferences would never allow the Top 8 teams in the rankings to constitute the playoff field. Doing that might leave some of them out in the cold (And I’m talking to YOU, Big East and the ACC) while some conferences might get 2 or more teams in. (On a related note this is also why 1A football made teams with 6-6 records bowl- eligible. It wasn’t that there was a shortage of teams with winning records to fill all the bowl slots but there was a shortage of teams with winning records FROM THE 6 POWER CONFERENCES to fill those bowl slots. The powers that be would rather have a 6-6 team from a Power Conference than a 7-5 or better team from one of the other conferences.)
There is an easy answer to this question, one that the NCAA and the college football world has yet fully to realize. Despite the advent of the so-called bowl super alliance, they are still missing the boat. You can cry all you want about the romanticism of the bowls, or hide behind that absolute crap about the “integrity of the student-athlete,” but the fact remains that if you want a champion, you must have a bracketed playoff format. But they only way it is ever going to happen is to make sure there is a big enough financial carrot for all the players involved to get into the game. That means either keeping the bowl system, or incorporating it into the solution.
Why? Let’s be honest here, its all about money. Anybody who would tell you this whole argument about a playoff isn’t about money also are likely to tell you Elvis is alive, professional wrestling isn’t fake, and the earth is flat. Its not that they can’t address reality, but they continue to wrap college football in the romantic cloak of forty or so years ago. The almighty greenback drives this game, not romance, not tradition, not even the Gipper. Why do you think the Gipp’s alma mater has an exclusive deal with NBC to nationally broadcast all its home games live from the shadow of Touchdown Jesus? It ain’t because they’re paying homage to Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen seven Saturday afternoons each autumn.
Traditions, romance and the storied histories don’t mean squat between the hash marks. Cash rules this game so much both on and off the field that any successful solution will need to ensure all players involved at least the same financial reward for their participation. This means appeasing the interests of the schools, the bowls, the media, and the fans. By examining in detail the three aforementioned bullet points, one can see how the “Play-Off for Pay-Off” theory can accomplish that.
1) Dismantle the current conferences and reconfigure all participating teams into twelve regionally-based conferences
This may be the toughest sell of the three points, but it is also the most practical in the long-run. The key to this is to get the schools now members of the the “big” BCS-automatic qualifier conferences to believe such a re-organization offers a financial benefit. The advantages of forming twelve regionally based conferences are both functional and financial. Functionally, putting all Division I football teams into these new conferences allows for the teams in the new playoff system to be chosen based on performance-based (read that quibble-free) criteria.
It would also serve to create some new regional rivalries. Don’t worry, we can still keep all the old ones that may get affected by this realignment, in a 12-game regular season, there would be eight conference games and four non-conference, so preserving existing rivalries is just a matter of scheduling. But with regionally-based conferences, schools in particular geographic areas would have increased opportunities to develop rivalries with teams they normally wouldn’t face; and some smaller teams are going to get increased exposure by being in conferences with established programs. This will allow then to recruit more effectively, thus allowing them to be more competitive.
Financially, the time is now. The current conference system is changing anyway; changing in order to capitalize on regional cable/satellite television-based revenue streams. If you doubt that, just take a look at what is happening with the Big Ten (which at last count numbered twelve) and Big 12 (which at last count numbered ten, and contains Texas, which just signed a deal netting it hundreds of millions of dollars for cable/satellite broadcast rights).
The fact is the broadcast world is also changing. Instead of the few super-conferences holding all the broadcast rights with the big networks, a comprehensive collection of networks for each conference coupled with applications to allow syndication to mobile devices would form a bigger revenue pie than is currently in play, especially if it were based on a revenue-sharing model which spread the revenue equitably across teams and conferences. The selling point for the smaller programs is obvious, they would be getting a slice of a pie they never got previously; and while the bigger programs are giving away a piece of the pie, the pie is much larger than previously.
One factor that will make that larger pie a reality is the increase in regional rivalries will increase the value of the broadcast packages. Nobody thought the Big Ten Network would make any money; it did, and its the model for the deal Texas just signed with ESPN. By capitalizing on this trend, Division I college football could easily outstrip the NFL as the largest revenue-generating football league. In addition, there is a major cost-saving involved with regionally-based conferences. A reduction in the geographic size of conferences would reduce travel expenditures.
The proposed new conferences would be as follows (in alphabetical order):
1) Atlantic Conference
2) Delta Conference
3) Frontier Conference
4) Michiana Conference
5) Mid-America Conference
6) Mid-South Conference
7) Midwest Conference
8 ) Mountain Conference
9) Northeast Conference
10) Pacific Conference
11) Southeast Conference
12) Texas Conference
As you can see, each conference is a mix of established programs and smaller ones, but this is actually a beneficial arrangement. It will give the established programs the “easy” route to a playoff they will believe they deserve, and over time it will give the smaller programs to show they belong in the conversation and a reason to increase their level of competitiveness to prove it. Don’t hand me an argument that says these conferences are unbalanced; conferences as they exist now define unbalanced. If you doubt that, tell me the last time Duke, Baylor, Purdue, Vanderbilt, or Oregon State won a bowl game that matters?
2) Use the entire current bowl system as part of an integrated two-tier post-season
In order for this plan to work, there has to be a way to appease both the playoff and bowl system camps, as well as the flood of corporate money that has snaked its tentacles into college football. Contrary to popular belief, a bracketed play-off does not have to mean the death of bowl games. In fact, the traditional “big” bowl games can be play-off games. Not to mention, we have created a slew of bowl game in the last few years that involves team that never would have been in a “championship” discussion in any event, so there’s no reason why those bowl games can’t continue.
A sixteen team format offers two major benefits. Foremost, there is the idea of keeping bowl games as part of the equation. This system would allow for keeping the old-school bowl games , using them as venues for play-off games. It would then use the other bowl games as a consolation tournament, something like the basketball NIT. This way, the play-off people still get a play-off, the bowl people keep their system, the local Chambers of Commerce in all those bowl towns still get their yearly influx of bowl spectators, and the teams outside of the sixteen-team championship tournament
For the eligibility into the bracketed play-off, a team would have to do one of two things: 1) be one of twelve conference winners or 2) be one of four wild-card teams. Sixteen teams will be eligible for this post-season tournament; those being the twelve conference winners along with four wildcards. Determining these sixteen teams would be done with an NFL-style system, using criteria such as:
Teams will be seeded according to a system based on the same NFL-style system. Seeds would be determined as follows:
The physical lay-out of such a tournament would be as follows. The first-round games would be played on the home field of the higher-seeded team, and BEFORE the other bowl games extend their invitations, thus making the eight teams that lose in the first-round available to be selected into the non-playoff bowl games. The following rounds of the play-off tournament would be played as bowl games, but in a bracketed format. For purposes of demonstration, if the new conferencing system had been in effect this past season, a possible sixteen-team field would have looked like the image below. Also, whichever bowl games would be used for the playoffs isn’t really material, it just made more sense to use as a demonstration the seven with either the most history or the largest payouts. In fact the only trick to making this all work is the the “play-off” bowl games must have a bigger pay-out than the non-playoff games.
In other words, don’t be that guy who misses the point and writes me some stupid shit about the importance and the history of the Holiday Bowl or about how Stanford would never have beaten Ohio State.
3) Combine the subjective with the objective
Every other solution to this problem I’ve heard seems to be an “either-or” proposition. Realistically, you are never going to get broad support for a plan that cuts the majority of the teams out of the picture. This is why the NCAA basketball tournament keeps expanding; the more teams who at least get to wet their beaks means the more support you will get.
The current bowl system is comprised of 38 bowl games, and this plans so far has only accounted for 7 of them. As previously mentioned, there are a whole host of people for whom the current bowl system is a money-maker, and cutting them out won’t get you very far in terms of implementing a new plan.
First of all there is the cable sports networks. They are desperate for programming in December, which is exactly why they love all those bowl games in the first place. Then there are all the local merchants who make a nice chunk of change on the influx of people into their hotels, shops, restaurants, attractions, etc. The there are the schools themselves; don’t hand this hogwash argument that many of the small schools lose money on bowl game trips. Even if that is true, they still get national exposure, and if it really was such a hardship, they simply wouldn’t go.
The point is that no other solution addresses the needs of all the stakeholders. So far, this plan does that. The big bowls still get to be on the big stage with the big teams. The big teams get an opportunity for either a additional home game and/or a chance to play in a non-title bowl game. The anti-BCS people get their playoff. The small bowls still get to exist, and so the small schools can still have a post-season aspirations. The new conference structure eliminates all the regional “bias” concerns, and the traditional powers should have been given enough incentive to bail on the current conference system; they’re already doing it.
The only wrinkle left is which teams do the non-title bowl games get?
Most importantly, under this plan they will still get the same caliber of teams they have up to this point. For example, under the current BCS system, the top ten team are siphoned off into the BCS games, the remainder being the pool from which the other bowl selection committees can choose.
Under the Dubsism approach, the non-title games would get two extra “big teams” in the pool of availability, since the losing teams from the first-round of the playoff games would be eligible to play in a non-title bowl games. Hypothetically, this means if we were to use the aforementioned sixteen-team bracket as an example, then teams like Oklahoma State, Oregon, Nevada, LSU, South Carolina, UConn, and Virginia Tech as first-round losers would then end up being selected into non-title bowl games.
The only other concern after having established the available pool is the issue of traditional conference allegiances with certain bowl games, but frankly this would give bowl committees new opportunities to re-think concepts like selecting teams regional rivalries or teams that will travel the most fans as they do now.
The selection order would still take place in descending order based on the size of the bowl’s payout, so that “big,” albeit non-title bowls still get “big” teams.
Continuing the hypothetical from the proposed bracket, last season’s bowl schedule might have looked something like this:
Capital One Bowl:
Champs Sports Bowl:
New Era Pinstripe Bowl:
Music City Bowl:
TicketCity Bowl (Dallas Football Classic):
MAACO Las Vegas Bowl:
Meineke Car Care Bowl:
Beef O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl:
BBVA Compass Bowl:
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl:
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl:
Little Caesar’s Bowl:
New Mexico Bowl:
New Orleans Bowl:
As you can see, this system would allow bowl committees to make selections which they normally wouldn’t have been able, but it also allows to them to stick closely to their traditional selections should they wish to do so. The important part is that having accounted for the small bowl games, this plan is the only one to our knowledge that addresses the needs of all the parties currently in college football.
The time for such an adjustment is now. The traditional conferences are already undergoing a tectonic shift. Along with that, technology is prime to let such a change create here-to-fore untapped revenue streams. After all, families fight enough at Thanksgiving; college football doesn’t need to add to the reason why.