Sunday, November 30, 2014

NCAA football playoff

2014 is the inaugural year of the college football playoff. It's finally here, a fair path to determining the top team in the nation!

So what was wrong with the old system? Opponents point to the somewhat arbitrary choice at the end of the year for determining the top 2 teams. In some years, there's a clear top team and a handful of nexts. In other years, there's a clear top 2. Yet again in some years, there are more than 2 contenders for legitimate number 1 status. Or there are undefeated teams from one of the other conferences who have a potential claim as well. It was simply unfair to always pick two teams when it wasn't clear which those two teams are. Sometimes they are vindicated (ex: Florida leapfrogging Michigan to #2 in 2007, then trouncing Ohio St), other times they look foolish (ex: USC destroying Oklahoma 55-19 in 2005 while Auburn was left out of the game). A playoff solves this because more of the top teams are in, and they play it out. With enough rounds (ex: NCAA basketball) it's fair because all the legitimate contenders are included.

So why hasn't there been a playoff before? The argument against it in football was that the extra games present too much wear and tear on the players, as well as force them to miss too much school.

The current playoff increases the arbitrary pool of eligible contenders to 4, and adds one extra game for the two teams who progress to the championship. While it may not be entirely likely, a team who has earned being one of the best could be knocked out in a bad game by a team who's arbitrarily included in the 4 (ex: USC, Oklahoma, Auburn in 2004, but did Cal or Texas really belong in that group?). It devalues the position a team has worked for all season; reducing the "every game counts" mantra we keep attaching to the sport. Also, what about teams like Hawaii from 2007, and the Boise State and TCU teams from similar years. They'd continue to be left out, forever making us wonder "what if?"

I propose an alternative:
Let's keep the BCS system similar to how we've had it, where approximately the top 12 teams make it to BCS bowl games. There's no preference for one bowl being "the championship", we just pair up top teams from various conferences. We let the BCS bowls play out. Then, we do one final ranking. The top two teams play once more for the championship.

Why it works:
Using the proposed system ensures that every team's ranking is calibrated by a matchup against another top team, from another conference. This addresses the gaps in quality matchups by those in lower conferences, and alleviates conference bias (ahem, SEC). It lets us re-evaluate if season rankings have just happened in conference bubbles and gives the non-BCS teams a chance to show how good they are (or aren't).

Why it's tricky:
The current system has the advantage of giving a more concentrated set of fans early warning that their team may be in the championship game. However, there's still the matter of people waiting to see that their team actually made it. It's not really any different from the pros where we only find out 2 weeks before who actually made it to the Super Bowl. Ticket planning is the only downside I can think of, and I'm not sure it's any worse than what the current playoff system creates anyways.

With the current system, some team is going to feel slighted at #5, or some clearly worse resume #4 will cause an upset. I think my system is better.