The Death of the BCS?

SCOTTSDALE AZ - JANUARY 07: The coaches trophy is displayed during Media Day for the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game at the JW Marriott Camelback Inn on January 7 2011 in Scottsdale Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
So, it's official: beginning in 2014, college football will use a four-team playoff to determine its national champion., beginning in 2014. At least one good thing came out of the LSU-Alabama shamfest.

You can head over to the SBN mothership for details and news updates on the forthcoming playoff, but their headline -- "RIP BCS: College Football Playoffs Have Arrived" -- reminded me of a more nuanced (and better, in my view) take on all this from our own Billyzane six weeks ago. If you haven't read it, you should. If you have, the comment thread is open. --PB

So is that it then? Are we done? Is it over?

Two weeks ago, on a Thursday afternoon after days of meetings, buffet lunches, tweets from reporters about buffet lunches, and DeLoss Dodds big timing Jim Delany, BCS director Bill Hancock finally made the announcement about college football's post-season that many have been anticipating for years: "I can take status quo off the table. The BCS as we know it - the exact same policies will not continue."

A few hours later, the first round of the NFL Draft started and we all moved on to debating the latest trends in NFL draft picks' socks. After years and years of painful exasperation, argument, hatred, and potentially unjust champions, the head of the BCS comes out and says the BCS is effectively done, and a college football-obsessed nation musters a collective "Meh"?

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

But look at that Bill Hancock quote again. That en-dash is quite curious, isn't it? Pregnant, if you will, with potential meaning. You can only imagine what he was about to say before he paused and continued; what he could have said instead, had he not caught himself. "The BCS as we know it is dead." It would have been a bookend. The logical and symmetrical valediction to be given at the end of a successful onslaught of rage by college football fans and reporters, embodied most notably by Dan Wetzel's 2010 polemic, "Death to the BCS." It could have been poetic.

But he didn't say it. He paused halfway through, however briefly. And then he said, "The exact same policies will not continue." Pregnant. Ambiguous. And decidedly not poetic.

There is no one playoff format that has been agreed to by the conference commissioners, but from press releases and statements from various participants in the discussions, it is clear that college football is going to have a 4-team playoff. You heard that right. A playoff.

"Yes, we've agreed to use the P word."

Well, how magnanimous of you, conference commissioners! But, as I have long argued, college football has had a playoff since the BCS began in 1998 and arguably since the Bowl Coalition came together before the 1992 season. The BCS is and always has been a two-team playoff between the top two teams in college football as determined by a formula agreed to before the season begins. The outright refusal of the BCS to call itself a playoff, when it was clearly a playoff, is what has allowed such opposition to foment and rally around that one simple word.

Playoffs are the opposite of the BCS.
Playoffs are the antidote to the BCS.
Playoffs settle things on the field.
The BCS settles things with a computer formula.

These are all potent rhetorical arguments. But they are utterly meaningless because the BCS is already a playoff system. If you oppose the BCS, then you oppose the way the teams are chosen to be in the playoff, or you oppose the number of teams that take part in that playoff, or you oppose any entity other than the NCAA running that playoff. But you don't oppose the BCS because you want a playoff. You already have a playoff, whether you are willing to admit it or not.

So when Larry Scott broke down and finally used the P-word, he looked for all the world like an East German guard stationed at Checkpoint Charlie on November 9, 1989, craning his neck from left to right, slowly taking in the sight of the figurative barbarians at the gate, and realizing that this is the end of something. Bill Hancock even went so far as to call the new system a "seismic change" from the BCS. But it turns out that this may be nothing more than a ruse. A misdirection. A feint. Because really, ask yourself, what has changed?

***

To get this out of the way, I am okay with the general outline of changes proposed by the conference commissioners. I think they are fine. And that is what worries me about you. You never agree with me on college football playoffs. You think that anyone who has supported the BCS is persona non grata in the college football world and that one would have to be crazy not to support a playoff.

But that is where the ruse comes in: this new system is not a playoff. The BCS has just convinced you that it is. Or, put more accurately, this is the exact same playoff that has existed for 14 years, but with four teams instead of two. Are you excited? Maybe so. Maybe two more teams are enough for you. But the BCS is not dead. The NCAA still is not running things. In all likelihood, the method for selecting the four teams that make the playoff will be a slight variation on the formula currently used.

The BCS will, for optics purposes, probably be called something else. Just like the Bowl Alliance became the BCS before this, and the Bowl Coalition became the Bowl Alliance before that. The names change slightly, the rules change slightly, but the fundamental underlying logic of college football's postseason remains the same. And yet, by convincing you that this is a playoff, they have side-stepped the problem. There is a statute of limitations on a brand name because the brand name gives you something to rally against.

Death to the BCS!

A generic word, however, is timeless and insulated from criticism. You cannot write a book called "Death to the College Football Playoffs." Because you want a college football playoff. And so, the conference commissioners have decided to slightly modify the existing system and call it by a generic word, rather than its existing proper name, making it seem as though they are giving you what you want. But are they?

***

College football is about more than just championships. Really, every sport is about more than just championships. No one who has been to a tailgate or an ex-pat viewing party, become misty-eyed at the playing of his alma mater, or celebrated a rival's loss despite the fact that he knew it would adversely impact his own team's standing, could tell you otherwise. But professional sports leagues in the United States have about 30 teams each, and while some are perennial doormats, hope springs eternal for their fans because even the worst professional teams are no more than two to three good and lucky years away from competing for a championship. Major college football, on the other hand, has 120 teams, and only about half will ever really have the chance to win a championship. For the other half, and in any given year for about 100 teams in all, college football is about something else entirely.

There are some who argue, and I am sympathetic to their cause though I do not support it entirely, that college football does not need to crown a champion and that the very act of doing so lessens the unique place that the sport has in our culture. My personal beliefs are a variation on this theme: crowning a champion of college football can be a great thing, but it cannot be the only thing that the sport is about. It cannot consume the culture, pomp and circumstance, rivalry and sense of community that have developed around the sport for over 100 years. All of which is a long way of saying that any playoff must be small so that it becomes a fitting conclusion to the regular season rather than, for all intents and purposes, becoming the college football season.

In order to do that, I believe that any postseason system that purports to crown a champion must only allow participation in that system by teams who have a legitimate claim to have had the best regular season. If a playoff includes sixteen teams, you will by nature of the game be including teams that have two, maybe three losses and it will make the results of the regular season less important in exchange for having the possibility of a more exciting postseason tournament. I have exhausted this argument elsewhere and I do not wish to re-hash it in its entirety. But suffice it to say that I believe that any college football playoff should be a method for doing only what the regular season could not on its own: choosing that season's best team from a pool of teams that have a legitimate claim to be the best. If the pool you draw from - be it eight, twelve or sixteen - is significantly larger that the pool of teams with legitimate claims to be the best, you are doing the sport a disservice.

I have in the past proposed Flex System, in which the number of teams eligible for the college football playoff would vary from year to year depending on circumstances at the end of the regular season. That is, we apply a set of rules to determine who has a claim to have had the best season and we put that number of teams in a playoff. No more, no less. I still believe that this is the most intellectually pure way to determine the champion. Given the uncertainties involved with it, however, I understand it is unlikely to ever take hold. In its absence, I believe that a four-team playoff, as the conference commissioners have proposed, would be an adequate response to the completely fair criticism that, more often that not, there are more than two teams that have a claim to have had the best season, but there are rarely more than four.

***

What has not been decided yet is how the four teams who make the playoff are determined. The BCS currently uses a pretty simple big picture formula (2/3 human votes and 1/3 computer votes) with complicated underlying metrics (computer formulas are confusing and most human voters fall somewhere on a spectrum between uninformed and incompetent) to determine the best two teams in the country. I expect the conference commissioners to take this opportunity to make some tweaks to the formula, but leave the fundamental logic the same.

There cannot be, as Dan Wetzel himself would prefer, a single computer formula that spits out the top teams at the end of the year. Such a system leads to too much gaming of the system and even someone as data driven myself understands that there is nuance to football that cannot be entirely captured in stats, especially stats that are as simple as wins, losses, margin of victory, and strength of schedule. Computers can spit out rankings based on these input statistics, but they are no more reliable than one human deciding at the end of the year which teams are the top four.

Eliminating computers altogether also does not make much sense, for the same reason computers were initially incorporated: humans are humans. We have psyches, biases and a limited ability to store and process data. In short, we are not computers. It is the combination of the hard logic of computer formulas and the soft nuance of human beings that balance out each other's faults and create an overarching formula that begins to make some sense.

There are two possibilities floating around that do not make any sense, however. First is the idea of an NCAA-style selection committee that determines the top four teams at the end of the regular season. Vesting this much power in a small group of human beings with no accountability is a terrible idea, not only because the number of people contributing to this decision and the possibility that those people will screw it up are inversely proportional, but also because of the potential for impropriety.

Though by "impropriety," I do not necessarily mean exclusively actual impropriety by committee members, but the mere implication of impropriety (or even its less malicious cousin, "bias") would be enough to cast as much doubt on the eventual national champion as the current system does now. A selection committee works for college basketball because their biggest decisions are always about seeding rather than who actually gets into the tournament. And even with seeding, there are plenty of claims about bias (e.g., the perception that Duke almost always gets an easy draw). A college football selection committee is going to have to occasionally make a decision to exclude a team that, if it were included, would have a legitimate chance to win the playoff. In that case, it does not make sense for a couple of guys in a room behind a closed door picking these teams. The formula has to be determined before the season starts.

The second possibility floating around that makes no sense is the requirement that all four teams be conference champions to be involved. In short, this would mean that the top four ranked conference champions would make the playoff. A slightly less severe variation on that arose earlier this week with a proposal that the top four conference champions make the playoff so long as they are in the top six overall (with any leftover spots being given to the highest ranked teams that did not win their conferences).

To put it simply, this is a terrible idea that appears to be nothing more than a ploy by some conferences to prevent the SEC from dominating the playoff, all under the guise of attempting to give the little conference champions a title shot. But if a team is ranked third in the nation, then by the rules for determining who the top four teams in the nation are, they are the third best team in the nation. It is a tautology. Refusing them the ability to play in the playoff in order to allow a team that won a different (presumably easier) conference, and that everyone by consensus agrees is not as good as the #3 team, is insanity.

2008 College Football Playoff Under Conference Champion Proposal:
#1 Florida (SEC Champion, 1-seed)
#2 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champion, 2-seed)
#3 Texas (not in playoff)
#4 Alabama (not in playoff)
#5 USC (Pac-10 Champion, 3-seed)
#6 Penn State (Big 10 co-champion, 4-seed)

***

Regardless of the details of the proposals, however, I cannot get past that Bill Hancock statement with the pregnant pause. "The BCS as we know it - the exact same policies will not continue." I called it decidedly not poetic. But maybe I am wrong about that.

"I am a fan of the four-team playoff, and I will like the eight team playoff when we go to that in about five years."
- Steve Spurrier (
paraphrased)

Like it or not, college football will probably not stop at a four-team playoff. For the reasons above, I hope that it never does get any bigger, but I think Steve Spurrier is right. "Playoff creep" as it is called, is inevitable, if slow. The numbers will get bigger and the methodologies for choosing the participants will change. Although the conference commissioners have sold the general college football fan on the idea that this is something new when it is in fact something old dressed up with a more palatable name and size, at some future date the sport will likely reach a point where the playoff system more or less resembles that of every other sports league in the United States. For those of us who despise the very thought of that, we must enjoy it while it lasts. For those of you who want nothing more than for college football to look more like the NFL, I present to you The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot.

Its most famous lines are the last four, which I quoted previously, but its entire fifth verse holds meaning here for those who believe college football is somewhere between where we started and where we are eventually going; between where we want to be and where we are:

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

***

All that in one pause in the middle of a sentence. I take it all back. Bill Hancock is a hell of a poet.

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