Do we really need a playoff system for college football?

Menexenus's picture
December 3, 2011 at 11:17p

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I was watching The Game with my 90 year old grandfather.  And he was generally perplexed by all the fuss over the BCS and the general opinion voiced by most college football fans that a playoff system is necessary to determine a national champion.  In a very endearing "in-my-day"-style rant, he said that for most of his life, college football teams played for school pride and for love of the game, not for national championships.  Getting to a bowl game was icing on the cake, and winning that bowl game was all the validation a team needed.  Sure, some newspaper folks polled a few insiders to determine a "national number one," but more often than not, the voting was split and most fans put very little stock in the results of these polls.

My grandfather's views gave me an opportunity to reconsider the conventional wisdom that a playoff system is needed in college football.  Although he didn't put it exactly this way, my grandfather was essentially asking why we all have to be so focused on who's number one.  Why can't we enjoy the games, the pageantry, the traditions, the highs, and the lows without needing to crown a national champion at the end of it all?  After all, (as Lou Holtz is fond of pointing out) over the course of a season, you get a different team every week.  Each week a team has to contend with injuries, illnesses, studying for midterm exams, travel time, home field advantage, etc.  All of these varied inputs can affect the outcome of a game and have nothing to do with the skill of the players or the planning of the coaches.  And then there are also factors related to sheer dumb luck, like freak weather conditions and how the ball bounces during a fumble.  Given all of these uncontrollable factors, even a victory on the field of play does not even really decide who the better team is!  And we all know this already.  We acknowledge it when we say things like "Ohio State beats that team 9 times out of 10."  When we say something like that, we are recognizing that an inferior team can beat a better one on any given Saturday due to a combination of factors, at least some of which are beyond either team's control.  So if the best team is not guaranteed to win any given game, then even with a playoff system, there's no guarantee that the best team will be crowned national champion.  Then there are other factors, like improvement over the course of a year.  So a team that loses two games at the beginning of the season (and thus would probably get left out of any 8-team playoff scheme), could end up being the "best" team at the end of a season (i.e. a team that could beat those other 8 teams that do make the playoffs).  For these reasons, it is unreasonable to expect a playoff system, no matter how it is devised, to reliably select the "best team in college football."

Then why is it so imperative to create a playoff system for college football?  I've heard some exclaim with dismay that football is the only sport in college athletics without a playoff system.  But isn't that what makes college football unique?  The bowl games are part of the character and tradition of college football.  Taking that away and replacing it with a generic playoff (just like in every other sport) would be to eliminate something that makes college football special and contributes to its sense of history and tradition.

So I know some of you will call me crazy for voicing this contrary opinion.  If you feel it necessary to demean the people who disagree with you, then do what you have to do.  (I'm used to it from my last blog post.)  But consider whether the desire to rank order that which is inherently unrankable is a rational goal.  To put the question another way, isn't an Ohio State victory over the Pac-10 (or 12 or 16) champion in the Rose Bowl just as satisfying as winning the "National Championship Game" against an opponent picked by some inscrutable combination of people and computers? 

I guess all I'm really tryng to do in this blog post is give you all the same opportunity my grandfather gave me to reconsider the "need" for a playoff system before automatically jumping on the bandwagon.

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Baroclinicity's picture

I'm anti-playoffs as well.  I don't necessarily think the BCS is the perfect answer, but I'm not willing to trade the current issues that we have with new ones that would come with a playoff system.  For me, I don't like rewarding teams that get hot at the end of the year; I prefer the team that has played the best all year long.  For example, in a 16 team playoff, I don't believe the 3rd place B1G team that ends up #16 should ever have a chance to win it all.  I also agree that the fact college football does not follow the traditional playoff makes it special.  Each game matters.  Look at hoops.  If we lost to Duke the other night, in the end, would it likely matter?  Probably not.  Is it going to make any difference to Duke that they got their doors blown off at our house?  Probably not.  Yes, it's nice to see if you can win/compete with top teams, but the majority of the time, it won't matter.  Win 20 games, give or take, and you're in the tourney.  Win 10 games in football, you're likely in, maybe in with 9 wins.  I don't want to talk about "quality losses" that would come up in football, either.

I like the plus-one scenario that has been thrown around by such people as Mandel and others.  In most cases, it's pretty safe to say that if you don't get into the top 4 overall, you don't deserve a shot. 

A playoff would also eventually eliminate any pre-conference marquis match-ups.  In the end, we'll basically be counting the number of wins needed to get in, which I think would ultimately make it more beneficial to schedule North Texas instead of Texas. 

Just my $.02.  I'm always the minority in this argument.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

onetwentyeight's picture

" Do we really need a playoff system for college football? "




If D-2/3 has been doing it for decades, no reason why D-1 shouldn't/can't. 

Buckeye Chuck's picture

So the main argument is that a playoff system wouldn't really choose who is "best?" Yeah, that's true, but the same is true of all playoff systems everywhere. People still accept those champions as legit, though, whether they are the 2011 UConn Huskies (not as good as the Buckeyes, obviously), or the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals (barely made the playoffs; likely inferior to several teams), or the 2007 New York Giants (which beat an 18-0 team in the Super Bowl). We don't pick our champions in those sports by voting on it.

I've offered the opinion before that if a playoff system came to major college football, within five years people would forget that the bowls ever existed. THAT'S how big it would be.

Think how huge March Madness is, and then think about how much more popular football is than basketball.

The most "loud mouth, disrespect" poster on 11W.

BuckeyeSki's picture

The New York Football Giants absolutely deserved to be in the playoffs that year, beat a terrific GB squad @ GB, and then beat arguably the best team of the decade in the SuperBowl. They shouldn't be lumped with the others.

/Homer Rant

//BuckeyeChief agrees with me

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

BuckeyeChief's picture



Now I will say, I am for a 16 team (of the highest rated teams) playoff, but am of the opinion that RIGHT NOW you should have to win your conference (or tie) to play for the MNC.

FWIW, I didn't think Nebraska in 02, nor Oklahoma in 04 should've made it.

"2014 National with it!!!"

ShowThemOhiosHere's picture

The Super Bowl champion isn't always the best team in the NFL (see '07 Patriots, who were undefeated until losing to a team in the Super Bowl that they beat in the regular season).  The Stanley Cup, World Series, and NBA Finals winners aren't always the best teams in their respective sports.  Don't even get me started on NASCAR's stupid chase for the cup (which has almost completely turned me off from NASCAR, I used to love NASCAR just as much as I do football). 

How many times have the first round bye teams in the NFL playoffs ended up losing that home game vs. a Wild Card winner?  It happens at least once a year.  The NCAA tournament!  That speaks for itself.  Buckeyes were probably the best team in basketball last year, but thanks to one off night, they went out of the tourney in the Sweet 16.  Not to mention the 8 over 1 first round series upsets that have happened in the NBA and NHL. 

I don't think any playoff system is ever going to determine who's the best team 100% of the time.  Yet, these playoffs in the four major professional sports and the NCAA tournament exist, and are enjoyed by fans every year.  Which is why I do like the idea of a CFB playoff.  CFB is unique in many ways, but as far as what you said about teams improving, all the factors that can go into what happens in individual games, etc, CFB is really not that much different from any other sport.  Those same factors can play in other sports.

I do very much understand the points made in this blog.  If I had to choose between a playoff or complete disappearance of the BCS, I'd choose the latter.  I do like the concept of college football being that one sport where natioanl championships are secondary.  In the old school days, it was all about winning the Big Ten championship and going to the Rose Bowl.  If we win those things, then it's a championship season no matter what some people who don't even watch all the games say.  If they say we're the best in the land, great, if not, oh well.  I'd take that over a playoff, but I would take a playoff over the BCS.  It's just so hard when you have to rank 120 teams where the gap from top to bottom is so great, and each team only plays such a small percentage of the other teams, and you have hammer out all of the fine details because the picture is so complicated.

Class of 2010.

M tots's picture

A playoff may not lead to the "best" team becoming national champions, but a playoff does crown an undisputed champion.  It takes all the guess work out... For instance, we can speculate all we want about well, Oklahoma St may have beaten LSU this year, if they were given the chance.  But we'll never know because there's no playoff system in place, but rather a "beauty contest."  Take the guess work out.  Playoff all the way

BED's picture

So much this.

The Ohio State University, College of Arts & Sciences, Class of 2006
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Class of 2009

Another Jason's picture

Want to return to the days when winning your conference was important and STILL have a satisfying national championship?  16-team playoff featuring all conference champions.  Yeah, there will be some at-large bids for teams like this year's Alabama and Stanford, who were great, but fell short of their conference championship.  Would that really bother anyone?  They still have to prove themselves against great competition to win the title.

onetwentyeight's picture


DJ Byrnes's picture

thanks another jason for condensing pretty much my entire column tomorrow into a 50 word post. I agree with everything except the conference championship requirement. i think it should be the 16 highest rated teams. 

Californian by birth, Marionaire by the Grace of President Warren G. Harding.

dancorona5's picture

some of the argument against a playoff is that these teams would playing a considerable amount more games.  I mean, go through your 12 game season then possibly play 5 more games to the championship? thats a lot to me...and you cant use the NFL season as an argument because those are professionals who get paid to be that physically fit. and like stated somewhere above, these kids have tests to take, classes to would be asking alot

JakeBuckeye's picture


No offense.

The FCS (division two college football) has a playoff, and a very successful one at that. I believe that is all I need to say.

P.S. Almost none of the FCS players end up going pro, where as a large amount of those that would play in the FBS playoff would probably end up in the pro's.

dancorona5's picture

wrong.. a lot of the fcs teams play 9 game seasons...Pitt St. (Div. 2) in the championship game is 12-1...this will be there 14th game...check mate

onetwentyeight's picture

And what is wrong with D-1 teams playing a 9 game season? Is anybody here really going to die at night crying themselves to sleep after we strike Toldeo and Akron from our schedule?


Weed out the 2/3 cupcake games every program schedules (better for everyone involved), and you're looking at ... 3 games extra max from what the guys play today. 

dancorona5's picture

thats my point..before just saying 16 team playoff or whatever, you need to look at the whole picture. do reg. season games need to be cut down? where are the games played? better record at home? neutral sites? they are gonna need to be sponsored obviously because too much money will be lost...etc. etc.

johnblairgobucks's picture

I favor a 16 team playoff.  If we keep the Current Bowl system, could we please make it so BCS conference teams need at least an 8-4 record to be eligible.  This would cut down the # of Bowls, but it sure would improve quality.  Illinois vs UCLA?  I would rather watch the 15 games that would make up a 16 team playoff than any collection of 35 Bowl games.  Go with  the playoff but give all the Div 1 teams the option for the extra months practice.

johnblairgobucks's picture

in a 16 team playoff, conference champs would have 1st round home field advantage:

Big 10 champ would play in Indianapolis

Big East Champ would play in San Diego (since San Diego State is joining)

Pac 10 Champ would play in L.A.

SEC Champ plays in Atlanta

Big 12 Champ plays in Dallas

ACC Champ Plays in Miami

Highest rated at large plays in New Orleans

Highest rated #2 plays in Pheonix

2nd round games, the teams would be reseeded, and using the current BCS formula, the 4 highest rated teams would get home games

3rd round games, also reseeded with top 2 getting home games

Championship played in revolving stadium of current BCS Bowls

JakeBuckeye's picture

Sigh. Pitt State is not FCS, they are the division below. The FCS has an 11 game regular season and a (successful) playoff. The "too many games" argument just doesn't work.

JakeBuckeye's picture

Sigh. Pitt State is not FCS, they are the division below. The FCS has an 11 game regular season and a (successful) playoff. The "too many games" argument just doesn't work.

nickma71's picture

No. The college football season is one of the best things in all of sports. I like the bowl season, even though it has in fact, gotten out of hand. A playoff does not determine the best any more than bowl games. If they go to a 5 or 7 game series, then yes you could say that. Think Georgetown-Villanova. Villanova was a 10 loss team, including twice to Georgetown. So go 1-2 against the G-men, and you are the best. Wrong. And there won't be a series in football. The BCS has given us some of the best post season football ever. I like it. I just don't like the favortism built into it by altering it in favor of polls. (bias) If there is one, it has to be 16 teams or more. 4 and 8 are a joke, and designed as such to stack the deck by networks for whom they want to win.

jenks's picture

My dad would always say the same thing.

1) Just as many problems and uncertainty with a playoff; and

2) Who cares. Why does being #1 matter? Win your conference and a bowl game, the rest is all guess work anyway, even with the playoff.

Menexenus's picture

Here's the compromise I could live with (a variation of a suggestion propsoed by M Man, which he said he got from MGoBlog):

Take the 4 Bowl games that have already been bastardized by the BCS (Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, and Rose) and turn them into a 6 team playoff system:  3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5, 1 vs. 4/5, and 2 vs. 3/6.  And then the Championship Game finishes it off.  (I think the 6 teams that get in should be the 6 highest ranked conference champions, but others seem to prefer just the top 6 ranked teams period.)

But the important part of this compromise is that the rest of the bowl structure remains intact as-is.  So the playoff folks get their undisputed champion, and us non-playoff folks still get to enjoy bowl season.  It is a shame to lose the traditional Big 10/Pac 10 Rose Bowl match-up, but let's face it: that's already gone and has been gone for a while.  So it's not that much to give up, IMHO.

Real fans stay for Carmen.