I want a college football playoff. Most of you want a college football playoff. Many of the coaches want a college football playoff. Why can't we have a college football playoff?
Because at least by one measure -- dollars, the only one that counts to those who make the decisions -- the system ain't yet broke. The Statesman notes that local ratings for this year's Fiesta Bowl were monstrous, with the game drawing a 36.4 rating and 50.4 share in Austin. Translation? Just over half of all televisions on Monday night in Austin were tuned to the football game. Nationally, the Fiesta Bowl fared less well of course (11.6 rating), but Fox easily won the Monday night primetime ratings and enjoyed a double-digit boost (up 38%) from last year's match up between Oklahoma and West Virginia.
Elsewhere in the BCS, the Rose Bowl (up about 5%) and Sugar Bowl (up 10%) have also enjoyed a ratings boost from a year ago. Only the Orange Bowl between Virginia Tech and Cincinnati -- at 5.4 the lowest rated BCS game ever -- has seen a decline in ratings. Television ratings of several other non-BCS bowls have been up this year, as well -- from the Cotton Bowl (Tech vs Ole Miss, up 38%) to the Poinsettia Bowl (TCU vs Boise State, up 115%).
Count on the BCS propagandists pointing to these numbers as evidence the current system is healthy and thriving. I can see the press release already -- "Throngs Of Fans Tune In To Bowl Mania," with the lead a suggestion that the ratings are proof positive that the status quo is more than just okay.... but outright popular.
Do not be fooled. The strong ratings for college football bowl games speak to the health of the sport, but I think beneath the easy press tag is evidence supporting a very different storyline than the one the BCS proponents are likely to peddle. Look no further than the one BCS match up featuring two teams who would have been excluded from an 8-team playoff -- the Orange Bowl between Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. The ratings were atrocious. Why?
Because the game was not only meaningless in our current system, but would have been meaningless in any reasonably sized playoff system as well. In contrast, I think it's fair to conclude that the ratings jump seen in other bowls reflects the degree to which at least one participant (frequently both) would have been a factor in a national title playoff.
FIESTA -- Texas, obviously, was in strong consideration for the national title.
ROSE -- Both Penn State and USC would be participants in a playoff system.
SUGAR -- Both Alabama and Utah would be participants in a playoff system.
ORANGE -- Neither Cincinnati nor Virginia Tech were a part of the national title conversation.
COTTON -- 11-1 Texas Tech would have been included in most national title playoffs.
POINSETTIA -- TCU probably makes a 16-team field, while Boise State has a case to be included in an 8-team playoff field.
The interest in these games had nothing to do with the contests as situated in the current format -- which is terrible -- and everything to do with college football pitting two strong, theoretically title-worthy teams against one another. We watch in the current format when the match up (indirectly) speaks to something we care about, but imagine the increased interest if that Sugar Bowl had been a winner-moves-on contest? The ratings would double. Imagine the hysteria if Texas' last-second win had meant the 'Horns advanced to the national semifinals against Utah or USC?
As is, Utah's grand reward for their stunning thump of Alabama was a Rick Reilly column. Congratulations. You won a bundle of smuggy puns.
The strong television ratings for college football are indicative of the sport's overall health, but to use them as evidence to support the superiority of the current system is to misunderstand entirely why we're watching these bowl games at all. (Or why, as in the case of the Orange Bowl, we aren't watching.) If the money mongers really want to get me to watch post-season games in earnest, put a real stake behind the outcomes.
With that said, I'll obligatorily indulge a few arguments related to the usual playoff objections, because I'm not going to beat the playoff horse to death all offseason long:
The Regular Season Will Be Ruined. I've never understood this one. I understand the logic behind it, but haven't any idea how an intelligent person could apply the concept to reality and come out with "the BCS is better." It's pretty simple:
BCS Format -- A few games take on exceptional importance, but an enormous swath of games are rendered irrelevant from the moment a team is realistically out of contention for one of the top two spots in the BCS.
Playoff Format -- A small number of games per season which could be more critical in the BCS Format in some playoff systems become "merely" very important. As an example, Michigan versus Ohio State in 2006 would in some playoff formats be "less meaningful" than it was in our current system. The problem, though, is that scores of sensible playoff systems can be structured to counter for this, and even the worst playoff proposals hardly render these mega-important (in the BCS Format) games meaningless.
A playoff system could, as Brian at MGoBlog supports, have a home field component built into it, in which case that Michigan-Ohio State game is still enormously important. The winner receives a #1 (or #2 at worst) seed and home game (in the cold!) in the first round of the playoffs. The loser gets a road game -- likely traveling south to play a warm weather school. Now factor in that fans outside of the Big 10 care even more about the game (future playoff opponents clashing on the field)... plus the fact that every. single. Michigan/OSU. fan. in. existence. will tell you that the winner's prize could be a date with the Devil and they'd still prefer to win... and it's impossible for me to conclude that the regular season would -- could -- be diluted by a playoff. I think it's far more likely the interest would in most cases only increase.
Other proposals, like billyzane''s Flex Playoff System, counter for this as well. I'm especially fond of BZ's system precisely because it would preserve a lot of the regular season "Oh crap, will this one game knock us out of the national title" fear. In a flex system, you simply can't know in advance whether any given loss will wind up costing you a shot at the national title, so you assume at the time that it's a Must Win. If, like in 2005, two teams such as Texas and USC finish a perfect 12-0, your outstanding 11-1 isn't going to get you a bid into an expanded playoff field. In other years, like the current season, that 11-1 ledger gets you in a 6/8/whatever team field. You won't know until the end, so you can't pretend any part of the regular season is somehow cheapened by a playoff's existence.
And finally, let me just emphasize again how many additional games become more important in a playoff system than are in the current one. USC-UCLA was a rivalry game this year because the Trojans had no chance whatsoever to jump OU/Texas or Florida, but it would have had playoff implications in any other system. In some playoff systems, this year's Ohio State-Michigan game would have had playoff implications. Utah-BYU would have been an enormously more important football game, with the Utes playing for a chance to compete for the national title, instead of a chance to earn Rick Reilly's approval.
The Regular Season Is A Playoff. Quickly, let's dismiss the corollary to the point above. The regular season is anything but a playoff. It is an incoherent beauty pageant.
The vast majority of teams never play one another and undefeated teams can be and are left out in the cold. If the regular season was a playoff, neither Boise State nor Utah can be said to be included in this playoff. Auburn fans in 2004 would disagree. Texas fans felt the sting of the "playoff system" this year.
In the current system, the regular season is meaningful, as it should be. But it is not a playoff. And as discussed above, a postseason playoff needn't sacrifice the meaningful nature of the regular season just by nature of its including an actual playoff at the end.
Bowls have a long history worth preserving. Keep them. The "Big Bowls" can be a part of the playoffs, while there's absolutely nothing at all incompatible with a swarm of teams who missed the playoffs competing in these other bowls.
The debate is what makes the sport great. Move to Washington, D.C. Pick a side. Have fun with all the crybaby debate. Seriously: more power to you, if that's your bag. But football ain't a sport about ideas; it's a competition on the field. Give me as much of that as possible, with as little politicking as possible. College football is rich in traditions which make it quirky and unique. Stylistic squabbling over two top spots is not one we must protect with all the vigor we can muster.
There will always be debate and perceived slights, even in a playoff system. Granted, but it's undeniable that the injustice at being shut out as the #9 team in an 8-team playoff is less offensive than what Auburn suffered in 2004, or any of the aggrieved (USC, Texas, Penn State, Utah, Texas Tech) did in 2008. More to the point, the objection simply speaks to one important issue that a playoff system should be designed to deal with; it is not in and of itself not a reason to have a playoff.
Whether the solution is to have a flex playoff (allowing for some flexibility of pool size when necessary) or an emphasis on competency among the panelists who select the participants, filling the field in a sensible, fair way is attainable -- and in every case an improvement over the current model and its two-team limitation.
What about these kids as students? What about them? The status quo is a tragicomedy of exploitation. To say that we can't have a playoff because we're concerned for the football player as a student is akin to Congressmen saying they're opposed to pay raises for legislators because they're deeply concerned people might think they might be benefiting from their positions of power.
Not only does the current (overwhelming) indifference towards academic interests render laughably thin any objection on those grounds, but even were that priority a serious one (as perhaps it should be), the list of remedies that would better help the student athletes in question is a long one.
A college football playoff is fine in theory, but would be botched in practice. I mention last the only objection to playoffs that I find persuasive. (Oddly, it's the one I rarely -- if ever -- hear from proponents of the status quo.) If I were opposed to a playoff, I think the one thing I'd point out is that the same people who gave us the BCS are the ones who would put together the playoff system. And though the right committee could in theory spend 24 hours analyzing any of a dozen sensible proposals laid out by bloggers, fans, journalists, and coaches, the final result would instead likely be a mish-mashed amalgam of compromises centered on TV dollars and maximizing protection of entrenched interests. I honestly wonder whether -- after a playoff change was announced -- I might go from celebrating wildly to (after the actual format was presented) burying my head in my hands in disbelief.
If anyone could find a way to screw up the easiest decision in sports... it's the same people who allow Richard Billingsley to help determine the national champion.
On that point we might all agree and find ourselves unified in frustration until, one day, we as fans decide to vote with our wallets, turning off our TVs.