Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Your playing days are over, my friend. But, you can always fall back on your degree in...[reads chart] communications!? Oh, dear Lord!"

Now, I know nobody wants to talk about college football in May. Nevertheless...

As you may or may not know, the college football Powers That Be voted against adding a plus-one game (two seeded semi-final bowl games--1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3--followed by a championship game a week later, as opposed to the present 1 vs. 2 championship match-up) to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), all but foreclosing the chance for a much-needed college football playoff until, at least, 2014. In doing so, the various conference commissioners made the following fatuous points:

1. We want to preserve the student athlete tradition.
2. Adding a playoff game would make the college football season too long.
3. A playoff would cheapen the regular season.
4. Even if we added a plus-one game, that would only ensure that the top four teams had a chance to compete for the National Championship, leaving teams from number five on down out in the cold.

To which I say (in case the use of "fatuous" wasn't a dead giveaway): what a bunch of bullshit. Let's go over this point by point, with a special bonus point for the especially heinous conduct of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

But, before we move on, I hasten to point out that I love college football. I think Saturday afternoons in the fall are a thing of beauty. I think there is nothing quite like the college football regular season. Hell, I even love the crappy 7-4 vs. 6-5 December 27th bowl game match-ups. All of that said, I continue to be disappointed by the way the NCAA packages the big games. (I still have nightmares about the totally execrable National Championship game in 2001--Oklahoma 13, Florida State 2--about which, trust me, the less said the better.) It's especially irritating because it could all be so easily avoided and improved. we go:

1. The "student-athlete" tradition. To borrow a line from President Bartlet from one of my favorite episodes ever of The West Wing ("17 People"): "You know, your indignation would be a lot more interesting to me if it weren't quite so covered in crap!" guys are opposed to a one-game playoff because it threatens the delicate balance between student and athlete? How interesting. To test the strength of your convictions, let's take a quick look at the Graduation Success Rates (GSR) for some leading Bowl Subdivision football programs (just a quick reminder here that, for calculation purposes, college athletes are given a six year window to graduate--i.e. 50% longer than an average student): Alabama (49% GSR), Arkansas (53%), Boise State (63%), Cal (52%), Florida (72%), Florida State (58%), Georgia (41%), Hawaii (45%), LSU (51%), Louisville (55%), Miami (70%), Michigan (73%), Michigan State (43%), Ohio State (53%), Oklahoma (44%), Oregon (55%), Penn State (76%), USC (57%), Tennessee (52%), Texas (42%), and Wisconsin (61%). All told, the twenty-one schools in question--comprised of the nine different schools that have won a BCS title (with LSU being the lone two-time champ) along with other traditional powerhouses (and Michigan State!)--have a completely mediocre 55.5% graduation rate. Put another way, for every 100 students who play for a Top 25 college football team in the United States, approximately 45 (!) of them will not graduate, even after six years. I'm sorry, that's appalling.

(I would, of course, be remiss if I didn't mention the programs that had commendable grad rates--Air Force at 92%, Army at 87%, Northwestern at 94%, Notre Dame at 93%, and Stanford at 93% --but they're very much the exception and not the rule. But that's not really my point, so let's just move on.)

And for anyone that thinks, by highlighting how ridiculously low the standards are (without even going into the fact that it's safe to say that the curriculum is often more or less rigged in an athlete's favor, or mentioning things like this or this), I'm advocating moving even further away from a proper student-athlete balance, I assure you I'm not (see point #2 below). Rather, my point is that the average Athletic Director/Head Coach, presently, doesn't give two shits about his team's grad rate, so it's totally disingenuous for Conference commissioners to hide behind this point.

2. A playoff would unreasonably lengthen the season, effectively turning football into a two-term sport. Well, on the one hand, I would argue that college football became a two-term sport about 15-20 years ago, when they started scheduling kick-off classics in late August (meaning that teams had to be practicing at least 6-8 weeks before that). On the other hand, the last six National Championships have been played on: January 8th, January 7th, January 4th, January 4th, January 4th, and January 3rd. In a plus-one system, the two semi-finals would be played on New Year's Day and the final--one presumes--would be held a week later. Meaning that the season...wouldn't be extended at all. But nice try.

3. A play-off cheapens the regular season. Really?? More than, say, LSU losing twice in the regular season last year (both in triple overtime, prompting Les Miles to make that idiotic quote in January that his team hadn't been defeated in regulation all year) to teams (Arkansas and Kentucky) that would finish the season unranked and yet still qualifying for (and winning) the national championship? More than that? Or the fact that, eight times out of ten, it comes down (for no real reason at all, if you think about it) to which one-loss team lost earlier in the regular season? More than that?

Does the NCAA basketball tournament cheapen the NCAA regular season? Does it seem like teams often phone it in once they've secured a tourney bid? I know that I routinely nod off during Duke-UNC (or Memphis-Tennessee...or Texas-Kansas....or UCLA-Stanford) match-ups.

Look, at one time--when, because of the massive disparity between the haves and the have-nots, combined with ridiculously easy schedules for powerhouses invariably led to two teams being undefeated at regular season's end--this was probably a valid point. If two teams from two power conferences were clearly the cream of the crop year in and year out, a playoff would be pointless, and would only serve to complicate things. But in a day and age when remarkably few teams emerge from the regular season unscathed, it makes little sense to cry out that the regular season would be watered-down by adding a playoff. Either it already is (and no one has bothered to complain) or it never will be (in which case there's no need to fret).

4. A plus-one playoff game would leave teams ranked #5 and #6 (and #7 and #8) out in the cold. Now...thanks to Civ Pro II (God, I hate you, Civ Pro II!) I know that lawyers, in their statement of defense for their clients, can plead in the alternative--in other words: if defense #1 and #2 are rejected, #3, which, in admitting certain aspects of the charge, may fly directly or indirectly in the face of the original defenses--but this one may take the cake. Basically, the Conference commissioners seem to be saying "a playoff would be too taxing on our student-athletes, would make the season too long, and would devalue the do-or-die intensity of the regular season....oh, and also: the playoff isn't remotely extensive enough." Um...ok. To borrow a line from David Foster Wallace: this is so stupid it practically drools.

Aside from all the arguments raised in point #3 (by that logic: should March Madness be extended to 96 or 128 teams? What about 256? Of course not), I can only say this: I can remember several years where three teams had a reasonable claim to playing in the championship game: one-loss Oklahoma, LSU, and USC in 2003 (with USC being left out); undefeated Auburn, USC, and Oklahoma in 2004 (with Auburn getting jobbed); and Michigan getting totally screwed over in 2006, when LSU faced off (and later crushed) Ohio State. I can't ever remember it being a dead-heat between four teams, let alone five or more, making the argument that such a system unjustly punishes #5 and #6 teams (last year: USC and Georgia, respectively) pretty spurious. (Furthermore, in any playoff system, there has to be some sort of cut-off--except, seemingly, the NHL--and capping it at four in college football strikes me as very reasonable.)

5. Specifically, this one is for the Big Ten. While I think my pithy Twitter remark from a couple of weeks back effectively summarizes my position ("Fuck you, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. If you're not going to support a +1 BCS game, then I refuse to defend the conference when it gets hosed"), I'll elaborate. I have to say, after all these years, I'm starting to get a bit tired of defending the conference (example #1: me loudly proclaiming that Michigan got jobbed two years ago--which they did--only to have them come out looking completely disinterested, shitting the bed in the process, and losing, badly, a glorified third-place game to USC; example #2: coming right up). Frankly, the Big Ten not backing this playoff system is totally gutless. Allow me to explain.

Just to clarify, here are the potential scenarios for the Big Ten in any given college season:

a. Michigan or Ohio State (or, conceivably though significantly less likely, a Big Ten upstart) finish the regular season undefeated and ranked #1 (see Ohio State in 2006 and also OSU in 2007--though they weren't undefeated).

b. Michigan or Ohio State win the Big Ten, but have a loss (or two). In the ordinary course of things, this would guarantee them a slot in the Rose Bowl (and, probably, a top 5 ranking), but they'd be on the outside looking in for the National Championship (see )

c. nobody escapes conference play unscathed, and the Big Ten winner has two or three losses. The Big Ten winner plays in the Rose Bowl (likely getting crushed by USC) but is barely ranked in the top ten.

Now, obviously a four-team playoff hurts the Big Ten in one of the above cases (as the team in scenario A would have to play an additional game), helps the conference in another case (in scenario B, the playoff probably allows the Big Ten to be represented in the final four), and has no effect in the third case (playoff or no playoff, the Big Ten winner in scenario C won't be vying for the National Championship). So, in effect, the Big Ten has voted no so they can protect scenario A, which is, frankly, a totally craven move. In other words, they're hoping that a B10 team will run out and hide at 12-0...and then somehow survive a championship game 45 days later against what is sure to be a more athletic squad from the SEC or Pac-10 (or, possibly, the Big 12). The problem with that is that the Big 10 rep invariably gets slaughtered in the big game, meaning that the Big Ten Powers That Be are defending a scenario where they're, more or less, doomed to fail. Any Delany had a chance to fix this (or, at the very least, make a stand)...and totally pussied out. There isn't a single thing I don't hate about this.

Also (if tangentially): is it not bad enough that I already despise our new coach--former WVU coach Rich Rodriguez--for feebly (and unforgivably) gagging when WVU lost to Pitt in last year's regular season finale (and thus costing his team a chance to play for the title) and then having the nerve to blame his players; for gracelessly bailing on his former program; for poaching talent from said squad for his new team; for losing out on highly-touted recruit Terrelle Pryor; for claiming he was forced (or, alternately, yet equally unsatisfyingly, "tricked") into signing a contract containing a penalty for early departure (I'm pretty sure that argument hasn't worked since 1870s Sicily, but whatever); for implementing an idiotic spread offense that suits three yards and a cloud of dust Michigan about as well as the Harlem Globetrotters running the four corners; and for generally being so disagreeable that our presumptive starting QB (Ryan Mallett) has fled to the University of Arkansas? Do I also have to put up with a conference commissioner who is a dick? Perhaps it's time to look for a new team...

6. Final Points and a Proposal. If I were making my case to TPTB of the BCS (instead of, you know, to no one), I would point out the following things, Harper's-style. In the ten years since the BCS's inception (details found here):

-The number of quality national championship games: 2 (Texas over USC in '06, OSU over Miami in '03).

-As a percentage: 20%

-Average margin of victory in the National Championship: 15.2 points.

-The number of quality BCS games (out of 42): 8 (the two championship games listed above, plus the '07 Fiesta, the '06 Orange, the '06 Sugar, the '05 Rose, the '00 Orange, and the '99 Rose).

-As a percentage: 19%

-Average percentage decline in the Championship game Nielsen rating since 2006: 22.5%

...I mean, I'm willing to bet that Grey's Anatomy is probably pretty good 19% of the time (something I refuse to verify), but that? Is not a good standard for college football.

Here's my modest proposal for a playoff. Eight teams (I'd prefer four, but I think that the major conferences will continue to balk at that number). The winner of the Big 10, Pac 10, ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big East, and Notre Dame get an automatic berth (unless they're not ranked in, say, the top fifteen, in which case they wouldn't participate in the playoff, but would instead play in a stand-alone BCS game), with the rest comprised of at-large bids. No more than two teams from one conference would be eligible. Four quarterfinals on January 1st (at the Cotton Bowl, the Citrus Bowl, and two of the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, and Fiesta Bowl), two semis on January 8th (the two of the big four that didn't host a quarterfinal--this would rotate every year), and a National Championship game on January 15th (which makes the season a negligible seven to ten days longer than it currently is).

[Dusts off hands triumphantly]

OK, OK...there are a few problems: how do you determine the at-large teams? what if more than two teams from conference are deserving of a spot (see Mizzou, Kansas, and Oklahoma in the Big 12 last year)? And Rose Bowl traditionalists will lament that they will no longer get their Big Ten-Pac-10 match-up--to which I say, without being too glib (hopefully!): players used to routinely die while playing college football (read The Real All-Americans by Sally Jenkins if even remotely skeptical) and blacks couldn't play in the SEC until well into the 1960s--in other words, you can't hold onto the past forever and sometimes change is a good thing.


Mark P said...

Agree 100 percent with your post.

btw, I love that you busted out Monich's "dusts off hands triumphantly." Awesome.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall was hilarious. Further review is forthcoming on my blog

Kyle Wasko said...

Thanks, Shuk. I've been waiting to drop that reference it a post for ages.

For anyone who is interested, is doing a whole "BCS at 10" thing this week:

Taylor said...

I don't think you can blame the Big Ten Commissioner for not wanting a playoff because considering the scenario A team always seems to get blown away in the big game, what makes you think they'll be able to win 2 such big games? Going into the championship game, Ohio State was the clear #1 for the past 2 years with the #2 team being up for debate. Yet Ohio State got pounded both years. So although I agree Delany totally "pussied out" by protecting this scenario, what choice did he really have given that winning one big game has proven to be too difficult for the Big Ten (even when favoured)?

But what I really wanted to talk about is the fact that a plus-one playoff format absolutely cheapens the regular season. Part of the excitement of college football is the fact that only two teams get to play for the national title and these two teams are determined entirely from regular season play. No other league does this. In fact, wouldn't it be kind of boring if every league had the same playoff format? I think it's nice to see something more do-or-die. In the NBA and NHL, half the league makes the playoffs, which makes the regular season incredibly uninteresting. So, if two of the four major pro sports' leagues (sorry Mark, I'm not counting MLS as the fifth just yet) can be on one extreme, then I think College Football should be allowed to be on the other, in which there's no way the regular season can be cheapened whatsoever. I would argue that the fact that you get so angry about all of this only adds to your excitement of the bowl game selection process. It's a unique and exciting playoff system.

And I do think it makes sense that a team is punished more harshly if they lose a game at the end of the season than at the beginning. Just like any sport, it's better to do well at the end of the season. If Michigan went 11-1, but the loss was to, say, Appalachian St. at the beginning of the season and they finish the season with an impressive 11-game winning streak (including a win over Ohio State to end the season), then yeah, they should be looked upon more favourably than a team who loses at the end of the season. And it's simply because they're hot and could contend with any team in the country at that point in time. To use another sport, the Tigers could still make the playoffs despite their horrendous 2-9 start, but only if they get really hot. But, if instead of that, they had a decent start this year and ended the season 2-9, they wouldn't have a chance because the AL Central is too tight to finish the season so poorly.

Also, what if viewership is declining because of the BCS and its shift away from tradition? I would imagine that if I was a 60-year-old man who remembered the traditional bowl game match-ups, I wouldn't be too thrilled with the idea of computer ratings determining bowl games (computers replacing humans? Hasn't anyone seen The Terminator?).

I guess I should expect a comment from you soon.

Kyle Wasko said...

First of all: Taylor, I'm sure I instructed you to begin your comment with "hi, Kyle. Longtime reader, first time commenter." That said: very good comment (though, since I'm pretty sure your in favour of a playoff, I do believe you're playing devil's advocate today). But I'll indulge:

1. re: it not being fair of me to blame the Big Ten for voting against a playoff. Possibly. Though I will say, aside from the advantage that not playing a Conference championship confers on the Big Ten (i.e. an undefeated team doesn't have to risk it's title game berth one more time only to lose it...a la Mizzou and West Virginia last season), there's also a major disadvantage: mainly, the lonnnnnnng layoff--usually upwards of 40 days. Sure, it helps your team get healthy, but there's no doubt that it compromises your competitive spirit. I would argue that having a shorter layoff could only help the Big Ten and that playing a semifinal game gives them an opporunity to be in game shape for the eventual plus-one championship. Of course, there's always the risk that they'll lose said semifinal game, but you never know...

2. Plus-one cheapens the regular season. See, but my point was that the regular season has already been cheapened. So the question is really: does the plus-one game cheapen it more? And maybe it does a little...but not enough to make a difference in my book.

Going back to material from my post, by what logic did two-loss LSU deserve to be in the Championship game last year instead of, say, two-loss Georgia (who missed out on playing in the SEC championship due to a tiebreaker), or two-loss Oklahoma (who won the Big 12 title game), or two-loss Missouri (both coming to Oklahoma...and who entered the Big 12 title game ranked #1), or undefeated Hawaii (kidding about this one)? Or, for that matter, why did one-loss Florida get in instead of one-loss Michigan? In that case, this occured because Florida lost to Auburn in mid-October while Michigan lost to (there's no need to remind you but I will anyway) #1 ranked Ohio State (by three points) in late-November. But given that the schedules are set upwards of five years in advance and the fact that Michigan and Ohio State always play at the end of the regular season, is there really any significance to when a team loses? I would argue: not really. (Your Appalachian State-OSU example isn't really relevant because, obviously, there's a vast difference between the caliber of those two teams.) A playoff, I'm fairly certain, would lessen (but not, of course, eliminate) the impact of when a team loses (so, too, one would hope, would it reduce the shameless politicking of the likes of Florida coach Urban Meyer in the lead up to the BCS selection show--which, I think we can all agree, would be desirable.) Otherwise, we're left--far too often--at the whim of the voters, who, in deciding to knock a team down from #2 to #10 after a loss (instead of, say, #9)--can inadvertently determine whether or not a team is on the outside looking in months later come National Championship time.

Given that there are so many factors at work most years (ie. many seemingly "deserving" schools), why not pick four and have them play it out? It would still exclude teams with more than two losses (or, in some years, more than one), but would at least put teams on a more even footing.

3. Viewership dropping because of the BCS and its shift away from tradition. Doubtful. Americans are fucking crazy for college football. I would point to the USC-Texas Rose Bowl in 2006 as proof that, if Americans get the match-up they want, a monster number--there: a 21 share and 35.6 million viewers--is attainable. Problem is, we so rarely get that dream match-up.

Anyway...that's my long (and, perhaps, not entirely cogent) response.

Kyle Wasko said...

One thing I forgot to mention:

4. comparisons to the four pro sports. I dunno. Is it really accurate to compare the NBA (where 30 teams play for 16 spots) or the NHL (same) to a future version of the NCAA that has a plus-one playoff (let's say--conservatively--120 teams playing for four spots)? Wouldn't the intensity still be there? It's not like the margin for error would be that big.

I think the NFL (32 teams, 12 playoff spots) or MLB (30 and 8) are much better analogies. In both cases (though certainly the former more than the latter), the last couple of weeks are utterly riveting...while, as presently constituted, much of the NCAA drama comes from off-field intrigue.

In closing, I do find this very interesting to talk about--you're right, it is part of the BCS's appeal--but it's also incredibly frustrating at times. And I happen to think that a plus-one system would--all things considered--make things less unfair (note the deliberately cautious wording).

Jesse said...

Don't get me started on how baseball let's 8 teams into the playoffs. It's a travesty. 4 was my limit. 4 I say!

Isn't a stronger comparison between NCAA football and NCAA basketball (where 64 teams compete in a GLORIOUS tournament that apparently you're too much of a chicken to write about in advance so I know what to think)?