Do we really need a playoff system for college football?

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

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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