In Defense of the BCS Over a College Football Playoff

If the BCS entered a popularity contest with Saddam Hussein, Leprosy and Hurricane Katrina, it would lose. Badly. No one cares about the two teams that make it into the BCS Championship game nearly as much as they care about all of the teams that are left watching. This issue is being brought up in congress, as though it matters to the country on some sort of a larger scale.

People HATE the BCS because at the end of the year, it turns out to only let the best teams into the title game.

As far as I know, I’m the only person who doesn’t favor moving to a college football playoff system. I like the BCS. I believe in math and computers. I believe in objectifying the decision and turning teams into numbers to come up with a definitive way to determine which team is actually the best. I believe in rewarding every game evry week equally. In my opinion, this year’s national championship game is proof that the BCS works. Sure it leaves room for discussion at the end of the year because it doesn’t end like every other sport, but college football is completely unlike other sports, and needs a championship system unlike that of other sports. Get those bullet-proof vests out, because your about to get hit with a ton of them.

Before I dig into any specifics, let me make a share a few overarching thoughts:

  • Determining a team’s value is very difficult –There are 120 D1 football teams, and each one plays about 12 games against one team at a time. Obviously every team can’t play every other team, and schedule strength mixed with the small sample size of games muddles the lines between a team’s quality and the strength/weakness of its opponents.
  • The “best team” is an abstract value, not a definite title – There is nothing concrete about head-to-head competition.  Even if Team A is better than Team B, Team A may still lose to Team B in 30% of the games they play against each other. If those teams only play once a year, the inferior team may end up winning three games every ten years. Wins are the best available measure of a team’s value, but it’s really hard to say that any stat actually measures how “good” a team is.
  • A playoff system doesn’t measure how good a team is in an entire season, it measures how good that team is at the end of that season – Sure, at the end of a playoff tournament, there is a clear champion. That much is definitely true. But that doesn’t mean that team is actually the best over the course of the whole season. I wrote about this during the World Series and I feel like it’s still true; using the results of one month to determine the best team over half a year is illogical.
  • Pre-season rankings are bad for the BCS – I have never understood why a system like the BCS, which used computer logic to rank teams does something as illogical as pre-season rankings. I hate pre-season rankings in any sport because they are an acknowledgment that the competitive field isn’t really starting on a level playing field. The people voting at the end of the year should be voting based on what each team has done that season, and if they have an interest in proving how right they were 6 months ago, they can’t do it correctly.
  • These teams all agreed to play by the BCS rules at the beginning of the season, so shut up about it not being fair when you get to the end of the year and the BCS is the system in place.

Here are a few thoughts about the BCS and this year’s Championship Game:

  • The BCS is designed to get the two best teams from the regular season into the Championship Game– It’s hard to take all of the teams with what little we’ve seen and to put them into an order, but the BCS does so with a lot of objectivity. The computer system is designed to neutralize subjective factors like early wins vs. late wins and turn every team into one solid number. There is still some human error in it, but a while a playoff is openly about which team is better the last few weeks of the year, the BCS is an attempt to evaluate every game the same throughout the entire season to determine which two teams played the best.

    Nick Saban and Les Miles coach the two best regular season NCAA football teams

  • The two best teams really are in the Championship Game this year – LSU isn’t up for debate, that was the best team in the regular season by any measure and the Tigers should be in this game. Alabama is the team in question. At the end of the year, Alabama was 11-1. That one loss was to LSU. And it was in overtime.  The other one-loss teams fell to Iowa State (Oklahoma State), Oregon (Stanford), TCU (Boise State) and Southern Miss (Houston). By far the best loss is Alabama’s.  If you want to look beyond just which one-loss tam had the best loss, look at who the teams beat. Alabama beat four ranked teams. Compare that to Oklahoma State (beat four ranked teams), Stanford (beat two ranked teams) Houston (beat no ranked teams) and Boise State (beat one ranked team) and you’ll see that only Oklahoma State is even in contention for this game in terms of notable victories.
  • It’s entirely possible that the best two teams in the country can play in the same conference – I keep hearing the argument that this game shouldn’t be between two teams from the same conference, but I never hear a reason why it shouldn’t be between two teams form the same conference. It’s entirely possible that the two best teams from the regular season play in the same conference, especially when that conference is as good as the SEC is this year.
  • It’s also entirely possible that the two best teams have already played each other – the only thing keeping this from being a matchup of two unbeatens is that they’ve played each other already. The regular season proved that LSU is better than Alabama. The regular season also proved that LSU is better than Oklahoma State, Stanford and everyone else in D1 collegiate football, but we don’t just hand them the trophy and call it a day. They played a close one already, and they’ll probably play a close one again. This game is meant for the two best teams in the country during the regular season, not the two best teams that didn’t play each other in the regular season.

Here are a few of my big issues with a playoff system:

  • It doesn’t prove anything about the entirety of the season – I’ve banged that drum hard enough already.
  • A playoff system will still leave teams out, the cutoff just moves further down the list– The biggest complaint about the BCS is that it leaves teams out. But that’s what it’s supposed to do, leave out all the teams but two. Right now, the championship contention cutoff is between the second and third best team. Having a playoff would only move it to cutting off after the fourth-, sixth- or eighth- best team, depending on your preferred bracket. There still isn’t a good way to determine which teams qualify for a shot at the championship. Even a plus-one game wouldn’t be a fair contest because no playoff bracket starts with the top two teams playing in the first round. An eight-team playoff bracket would probably inspire some sort of conference equal-representation tie-in that would never truly give the bracket the eight best teams. The BCS was set up to definitively tell us the two teams that play for the championship. If we were looking for the top eight teams, would we just take the top 8 BCS-ranked teams? That’s just admitting that the system works.

    To win this, you have to be the best team all season, not just the last couple of weeks.

    If there were an eight-team playoff this year, which teams would make it? LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and Arkansas seem like easy candidates (as does USC, if not for the ban), but which teams get the other two spots? Boise State and Houston would make annoying cases. Wisconsin, Kansas State, South Carolina, Michigan and Virginia Tech all have a worthy case. The problem with college football isn’t how many teams play for the trophy at the end of the year, it’s the method of rankings the best teams, which is impossible no matter how you try.

  • Specifics of a playoff are never offered– It’s easy to point the finger at the BCS and complain about how it doesn’t work because your favorite team lost two games this year and you can’t understand how they don’t have a shot at the title. It’s more difficult to put together a system that actually is practical and works every year. The details are left out of most complaints because there aren’t working details that make a playoff any more effective than a one-game championship. If you have a specific system that you like, leave it in the comments, and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.

Critics of the BCS love to say that the current system is full of games that don’t matter. Even if Oklahoma State wins over Stanford, they can’t go any further after that. But here’s the thing: the current system makes the entire season full of games that actually matter. If you lose in week 3, too bad, now you’re out of the title picture. That game mattered. Try telling the seniors on the Oregon team that their Rose Bowl victory this year didn’t matter.

And what about the teams that fall inside the bowl system, but outside of a hypothetical playoff. I’m sure Florida State fans really enjoyed beating Notre Dame in this year’s Champs Sports Bowl. That game mattered to them no matter what the national title picture was.

Every year at this time, we hear a lot of clamoring for a playoff system because in general college football is awesome and we want more of it. A playoff would give us that. It might make a few extra dollars too, but would definitely have a negative impact on revenue for games not in the playoff. Either way, I view the college football postseason as a means of determining the best team in college football that year, and I think the BCS does it.

Feel free to leave respectful comments with your thoughts.