Friday, January 2, 2015

Remeber that thing I said?

About the playoffs not really working and still leading to too much contention?

This bowl season has already highlighted the problem with the new format (it's exactly just deferred it one step further): TCU's dominant win from the #6 spot (but not in the playoff) combined with FSU's faceplant (and the reluctance of voters all year to recognize them as the top team) should lead to questions about who should have been in the playoffs.

The inherent issue with a playoff system is that once teams are in, nothing else matters but winning going forwards. If we accept the premise that "every game counts" in college (which I'm willing to work with), then a short playoff completely counteracts it. Sure it matters that a team makes it in, but it allows a team that shouldn't really be in the "best team" conversation to get hot at just the right time.

Mixing subjective cutoffs with a short-list for the playoff doesn't work exactly because sometimes the 3rd or 4th best team shouldn't even be in the conversation, and other times it's murky beyond 4. For example, imagine if USC-Texas had been subjected to a playoff. Even if both teams emerge as winners of their semifinal game, there's a risk of injury, etc, for what amounts to a formality. And, if either of those teams had lost, few people would accept the other team as a legit candidate.

This year was murky beyond the 4. FSU was the only winless team but they kept wining in dramatic fashion. Some weren't even sure they belonged in the playoff. In retrospect, the highly competitive game between Ohio State and Alabama, mixed with the blowout of FSU by Oregon validates this thinking. And this is exactly the problem: the 3rd-6th spots often have murkiness in them (consider how to order the top teams from the BCS conferences, even) and by imposing a playoff on a subset we create an artificial barrier.

Since a 64-team playoff (where any reasonable contender is included) is not an option, let's embrace the murkiness in stages: play the BCS bowls, then vote on the top 2 teams to play in the championship. The top teams would be playing each other. We'd probably conclude that Oregon-Ohio State is the right pair this way as well, but it opens the door for a team like TCU to prove themselves against top-flight competition. Or, keep the bowl-conference affiliations. Suppose we'd have had:

#1 Alabama vs #5 Baylor in the Sugar Bowl
#2 Oregon vs #4 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl
#3 Florida State vs #6 TCU in the Orange Bowl
#7 Mississippi State vs #11 Kansas State in the Peach Bowl
#8 Michigan State vs #12 Georgia Tech in the Cotton Bowl
#9 Ole Miss vs #10 Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl

We can debate all we want how these games would have turned out, of course. Realistically, the Peach, Cotton and Fiesta Bowl will not show us anything about the national title conversation. Ideally TCU would be placed into the not-quite-aligned Orange Bowl and the winners from those 3 bowls end up in the national title game conversation. Style points still matter and everyone with any reasonable claim to the game is still alive. It's a game of murkiness, but a game we should embrace.

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