Bowling for Suckers

The new college football playoff system is a fraud.

How strongly do I feel about that? Strong enough that I wanted that to be the first sentence of the first post on the Disgruntled Fan Report.

The hype machine has been telling us for months that a new day has dawned in college football. Or at least it has in the so-called Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the fancypants name for what used to be called Division 1-A. The other college football divisions have had a playoff system for a long time, and year after year those playoffs have gone off with nary a hitch. Somehow, ol’ D 1-A never quite caught on to that eminently useful set of procedures.

Ah, but everything’s good now. There’s a committee, you see, and those poobahs will be choosing the four very bestest college football teams in all the land, who will then meet in a brief series of games that will…free at last, free at last, at long last, let my people go, blah blah blah…finally determine a true national championship.

There’s just one problem: today’s committee isn’t all that different from what went before, nor will it really really determine much of anything–at least not anything more than what the BCS was able to accomplish during its less than enchanted existence.

For one thing, what difference does this selection committee make? At the end of the day, that committee’s rankings are still a poll. It may not be a poll produced by the AP sportswriters, or the coaches, but it is still a poll nonetheless. It is the product of asking a selected set of people, “So, which college football teams do you think are the best?” The result produced by that question remains as subjective today as it was in, say, 1974.

Nor does today’s poll really choose the most deserving teams in D 1-A. The committee’s selections did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus–or, if  you prefer, Oliver Luck–on that first Tuesday when the original rankings were released. Those selections were largely informed by the polls already in place. Teams that were deemed to belong at the top before a single game was played retained that advantage in the committee’s selections. Why else then should the 11-1 Crimson Tide stay seated at the top of the rankings, while the 11-1 Buckeyes remain firmly ensconced at #6–almost exactly where they sat in the preseason poll. As it has ever been with the polls, starting at the top almost guarantees that you will stay at the top, unless you go out and really lay an egg.

Of course, that’s the point here: the same things that were going on all those years with the media polls and the BCS are still going on with the selection committee. Had college football’s overlords wanted to take the top four teams in the rankings and have them play a mini-tournament at the end of the season, it could have been done decades ago. Or it could have been done last year, when the BCS still churned out its tabulations. Nothing has actually changed, but for a minor rejiggering of the bowl schedule.

So, should college football fans be that excited about this new regime? No, because it’s a scam. What then is really going on here? In a word: marketing.

This whole spectacle of committees and “Who’s In” and A Real First Ever National Champion is nothing more than a product of the marketing wing of ESPN (known now and forever after to these pages as the “Connecticut Clown College,” for what I hope are obvious reasons).

ESPN, as one of the owners of the game (we’re being honest here), knew that few people were satisfied with the BCS, nor with the murky situation that came before it. They knew that a real playoff was what most people wanted. And they certainly knew that they’d make a lot more money off a scheme that they could call a playoff system. (CBS has demonstrated that fact with their college basketball tournament every March–and the Clown College knew they wouldn’t be getting their hands on that property any time soon.) Put two and two together and you get billions, so to speak.

Thus, the barrage of commercials telling you, the obedient college football fan, to get real real excited about this new thing that isn’t really all that new, and doesn’t really do what it promises to do. Enjoy your kinda sorta national championship; if you eat enough nachos, maybe that will cover the bad taste in your mouth when you realize you’ve been had.

What, then, is the real answer? It’s no mystery what should actually happen here; we already have the model for what should be done with college football: it’s called the NFL.

That’s how you determine a champion: you get all the teams playing your game in a league (or, if you prefer, an association); you split those teams up in to divisions (conferences); and then the winners of those divisions play each other at the end of the season. Need a few more teams to balance out the postseason schedule? Select a few wildcards, based on best records among teams that didn’t win their divisions, with predetermined tiebreakers to weed the field. Teams that win advance, the others go home. Ultimately, one team comes out on top. Simple.

And it can be done in D 1-A. Now. Today. No waiting. You’ve got a manageable number of conferences; take the champions of each and bracket them. That’s ten teams right there. Pick a few wildcards from the best records among the also-rans; use tiebreakers, like opponent’s winning percentage, to separate the wheat from the chaff. You can even get a little of that good ol’ polling action through the seeding process. And then let them play. The one left standing is the real, true, honest-to-goodness national champion.

Of course there will be objections; there are always objections, but none of them are beyond overcoming.

What about independents? They don’t get to win a conference. If they have the record and win the tiebreakers, they can get in as wildcards. Or screw them if they don’t want to join a conference. Get with the program everyone else is on board with, or stay home.

Those playoffs would make the season too long. Then shorten the regular season. Teams used to play 11 games in the regular season; they can go back to that, or even 10 games. The playoffs as envisioned here wouldn’t need go more than four weeks; the NFL wraps up its playoffs in four weeks, with twelve teams participating. The colleges can do the same. And of course, the only teams that will play the full four weeks extra are the ones that meet in the championship.

Teams from weak conferences like the MAC or the Sun Belt don’t belong playing against the Crimson Tide. How stupid are you? Or how forgetful? Are you too young to remember when no one, and I mean no one, was ever going to beat Mike Tyson? Don’t you know that Villanova had no chance against Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown team? Upsets happen in sports. The aforementioned upsets were arguably more astonishing than anything that could ever happen in football. Every once in a while the No. 1 team in the nation gets beat by some middle of the standings conference foe. Who’s to say that doesn’t happen in the playoffs? And we’re not talking about some 1-10 dumpster fire team going up against Alabama or Oregon; every team in the tournament will be either a conference champion or one of the few other worthy opponents. Who’s to say that Boise State wouldn’t take down Florida State or TCU, especially on the big stage when the lights are brightest and the pressure is on. The only certainty is that you’ll never get an upset if the presumed weaker team is never allowed on the field.

A real college football national championship is doable. It will probably happen eventually; the current set-up is most likely just another step in that evolution, as was the BCS before it. Just don’t buy the hype and believe that that’s what you’re getting now. If you’re a sucker and accept what you’re given and leave it at that, if you’re not disgruntled by half-measures and marketing shills, then there will be no reason for the powers that be  to take the next step and do it right.

ADDENDUM: After the conference championships were played, the aforementioned Ohio State leapt over both Baylor and TCU to gain a spot in the playoff bracket. This may seem to undermine part of the argument presented above, but actually it strengthens the overall point: the “new” system simply reinforces the old and protects the status quo. Most of the talk before the weekend involved the question of TCU or Baylor; no one mentioned the possibility of both being left out. But neither of those teams constitutes designated college football royalty. “You won the Big 12 and only lost one game? That’s great–now go pound sand. There’s a member of the cartel in front of you.” Undoubtedly, someone in Bristol calculated that OSU would bring higher ratings than either of the shafted teams. One wonders what the outcome might have been if either of those two teams had been Oklahoma or Texas instead…

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