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Introduction to the Great Debate: Part One

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Great Debate. As the momentum for a college football end-of-season playoff continues to build, it behooves all of us to ask whether it would be, in fact, a good idea. The venerable SMQ and Kyle have agreed to disagree in public, a debate many of us have been looking forward to for a long time now. Here to set the stage for the debate is one of our own - frequent commenter and diarist billyzane. Below is Part One of his long essay about what's at stake in this debate. It's long, to be sure, but well worth your time. Part Two will run tomorrow. Enjoy.
  • The Primary Issue: How should we determine the national champion?
  • The Predicate Assumption: We want to determine a national champion because this isn't golf or tennis, damnit.
  • The First Underlying Problem with this Issue: Do we know what we want the national champion to be?
  • The Second Underlying Problem with this Issue: Do we know what we want the system that determines the national champion to mean, or represent?
  • The Ultimate Debate: Which system is the best at determining the national champion according to what we want the national champion to be and what we want that system to represent?
The problem I have with most of the debate over the BCS or a playoff, etc. is that most people skip over the "underlying problems" and go straight to the "ultimate debate."  If you don't have reasons for wanting a playoff other than "it would decide things on the field rather than by a formula," then you don't have much of an argument.  Why is deciding who plays in the national championship game based on a tournament inherently better than determining it based on an evaluation of the regular season results of each team?  You may be right that it's better, but you're effectively stating a conclusion as your argument for that same conclusion; it's a circular argument.  So we need to look at both of the underlying problems listed above to determine our arguments in the "ultimate debate" for why one system is better than the other.

The First Underlying Problem seems straightforward: we want the national champion to be the best team in college football.  But there are several ways to look at "best."  This gets into the debate between allegedly objective resume rankings vs. unabashedly subjective power polls.  (Obviously, resume ranking cannot be entirely objective, but it's probably closer to it than power polls are.)  And here is where the first divergence in opinion comes.

  • Resume Rankers: believe that the notion of "best" is based on what you have done or not done so far in relation to what everyone else has done or not done so far.  This can cause some weird-looking rankings at the beginning of the season, but logical ones towards the end.
  • Power Pollsters: believe that the notion of "best" is a subjective analysis based both on what teams have done and the pollster's own opinions on how good each team is according to what cannot be captured in the win-loss column and the margin of victory totals.
  • The difference this year:  This year, many power pollsters are apt to rank LSU and USC ahead of Ohio State because OSU just lost by 27 points on the big stage while USC and LSU scored blowouts on the big stage against good (UM) or decent (ND) competition.  A notion that OSU would lose to USC and LSU would also cause this ranking.  Many resume-rankers, though, would put OSU ahead of both LSU and USC because, no matter how badly they lost, they won several very big games and only lost ONCE, as opposed to USC/LSU who both lost twice.
  • The difference last year: Resume-rankers and power pollsters unanimously put Texas #1 and USC #2 last year, with one glaring exception.  In the BlogPoll, USC blogger Boi from Troy ranked USC #1 because (although USC had lost to Texas) he still believed USC was the "best" team.  This is the danger of "power polling," in my opinion.
So how does this apply to the "Primary Issue" or the "First Underlying Problem"?  These diverging methods of ranking teams lead to different ways of determining who is the "best" team, and thus different ways of determining which system is the most ideal for crowning this "best" team the national champion.
  • The resume ranker looks at the results of the regular season and determines who the best teams are based on those results.  The regular season results don't just play heavily into the rankings; they ARE the rankings.
  • The power pollster of course pays attention to the regular season results, but then adds in his own subjective analysis of who he THINKS is best.
I'm not going to get into a full-fledged debate as to which is the best method of ranking teams, but I will note my opinion that resume ranking is the ideal method of ranking teams.  I believe you can only rank teams according to what has happened, not on "potential" or what you believe would happen.  It is for this reason that I don't believe teams should be ranked for the first half of the season (or perhaps even until the end of the season).  Power pollsters have no problem ranking based on potential and some notion they develop of "who would beat whom."  Thus, the notion of preseason ranking offers no philosophical dilemma for them.  Neither does ranking USC or LSU ahead of OSU at the end of this season because they believe that, based on what they just saw, if either of the former teams played OSU tomorrow, OSU would lose.  That may be true, but it HASN'T happened, and I believe we can only rank teams based on what HAS happened.  The power pollster will then retort that we should MAKE it happen with a playoff.  This conveniently gets us into "The Ultimate Debate, Part 1."

The Ultimate Debate, Part 1 Now, because the resume ranker determines the "best" teams based on the regular season results, he SHOULD also then be appalled if those results are rendered meaningless by a playoff system that includes loads of 2-loss and even 3-loss teams.  If 2- and 3-loss teams are allowed to contend for the national championship, then this most certainly does not jibe with what the resume ranker thinks the national champion should be (i.e. his notion of the "best" team in college football - the team whose overall season results have been the best).

However, the power pollster, because his ranking system is based on mushy, subjective analytic components, is not so sure who the "best" teams in college football are because of the relatively small sample size he has to deal with and the fact that not everyone plays each other.  His system of ranking is built heavily on what teams are more "powerful" than others (i.e. who would beat who head to head).  Thus, a playoff (preferably a large one) is the ideal solution for the power pollster because it allows him to see these teams all play each other head to head and one team comes out on top, thus making it the "best" (according to the power pollster's notion of the term) team in college football.

So what type of system would the resume ranker want in order to determine the national championship according to his notion of what the "best" team in college football is?  There are several options.  First is the old bowl system, where the bowls act as merely another resume-enhancing opportunity in an effort to be voted by pollsters as the "best" team in college football and thus the national champion.  Second is the BCS, or something similar.  That is, the top two teams based on their regular season resumes are pitted against each other in a game, with the winner being declared national champion.  Third is a very small tournament (maximum 4 teams) that is put together among the teams with the best 4 regular-season resumes, with the winner being named national champion.  Fourth is some combination of the above three options, which I have developed and named the "Flex System."  Much more on that one later.

On a purely resume-ranking analytical level, the old bowl system provides the most ideal system for determining the "best" team in college football because it does not insist on the winner of one single game being named the national champion, as the BCS system does.  For instance, if the #1 team (A) was undefeated and unchallenged during the regular season, and the #2 team (B) had 2 losses and B won the BCS championship game, B would be the national champion automatically whereas a resume ranker would prefer to take that game into consideration in determining whether a 1-loss A was the "best" team over the course of that entire year over a 2-loss B that beat A.

But determining the "best" team in college football (and indeed figuring out what a national champion should be) is not all that should go into an argument for a certain system of determining that national champion.  Hence, the Second Underlying Problem and the Ultimate Debate, Part 2.

The Second Underlying Problem is more oblique than the first: what do we want the system that determines the national champion to mean, or represent?  One way to look at this is in relation to other forms of post-season play in other sports.  For instance, the college basketball tournament is all about fun and entertainment and appealing to the mass audience, with its upsets and wild, wide-open format.  The NFL and NBA are all about making the postseason more important than the regular season.  About half the NBA teams make the playoffs and 40% of NFL teams make the playoffs.  The NFL playoffs are, obviously, more comparable to college football due to the single elimination and, you know, it's the same sport and all.  Once you get in, anything can happen, as evidenced by the Steelers winning the Super Bowl last year. You just have to do enough in the regular season to get in.

Major League Baseball used to be one of the bastions of anti-playoff sentiment.  Teams played a 154-game schedule and the team with the best record in the NL played the team with the best record in the AL.  Plain as that.  It was about crowning the "best" team according the resume ranker's notion of "best."  But with expansion, each league first split off into 2 divisions, and the winner of each division played each other for the right to go to the World Series.  Then, the each league got split into 3 divisions with a wild card also allowed in the playoffs.  By now, teams like the 2003 Marlins and 2006 Cardinals (who only won 84 out of 162 games) are winning the World Series.  

Is it more exciting?  Undoubtedly.  Does it produce a "more deserving" champion? That depends on a how you view things.  One of the reasons college football power pollsters want a playoff is the lack of enough games to accurately determine who is the best based on the regular season.  With MLB, that's not a problem, so I tend to think that the MLB playoffs actually serve to crown a less deserving champion much more often.  MLB's playoff now stands for entertainment more than as a way to figure out the best team between two leagues that don't play each other that much.  College Football is today like MLB was before it went to the Division system.  Games are played and the two teams with the best resumes are put in the national championship game/World Series.  The method for determining the best resume is different because of the nature of the games, but it's resume ranking nonetheless.  But this is not the MLB system any longer.

So essentially it boils down to the following questions.  Do we want the college football postseason system to be one that serves itself (just get in and anything can happen) or serves the regular season results?  Do we want a system that caters to a wider fan base by being more exciting?  Should that be a consideration at all?  Should we develop a postseason system in order to make the regular season more interesting or just to determine the national champion?

The crux of all of these questions is, do we want our system of determining a national champion to be designed solely for the purpose of determining that, or do we want to design it to also have other effects that we deem positive for the sport?  Some examples of other effects we might want are: a) making regular season games more exciting, b) encouraging teams to schedule better OOC games, or c) increasing the fan base and television revenues.  An analysis of this question in relation to the several postseason systems is below.

The Ultimate Debate, Part 2 According to a resume ranker, the most ideal system for determining the national champion, according to his notion of what that is, is the old Bowl System.  But as I said above, that's not all that goes into it.  The problem of what we want the system to mean, or represent is also a factor.  And while some (Kyle from Dawg Sports has argued this point in the past) will say that the Bowl system worked just fine at determining the national champion and that there were actually multiple championship games some years with that system, you can also argue that it's confusing to the lay viewer and isn't very exciting at all.  There is no EVENT showcasing college football.

There has to be some sort of balancing between devising a college football postseason system in order to determine the "best" national champion (according to whatever criteria you might have) and devising that system in order to accomplish other tangentially related goals.  I believe that having a showcase for college football is important.  Thus, while I am a resume ranker, and believe that the bowl system would do just fine at determining the national champion, I realize the need for a showcase and believe that a well-designed system can be just as effective under the resume ranking ethos at determining the national champion while also providing an exciting showcase that brings in new fans and creates an EVENT.

However, I believe that these secondary reasons for certain postseason systems cannot be made primary.  I have heard one too many arguments for a playoff that consist of "it will encourage strong Out-of-Conference scheduling."  That's great for you if strong OOC scheduling is what you want, but the primary reason behind devising a system for determining the national champion should be to determine the most ideal system for doing just that.  Making the argument that a certain system is the best possible system for determining the national champion because it will be more exciting for more teams and encourage strong OOC scheduling is a terrible argument if it would also crown an undeserving champion.  Don't make the secondary reason your primary argument or your argument will fail.

One more point on what we want the postseason system to represent.  I personally do not want the postseason to consume the regular season.  I don't want it to be the main part of the college football season.  I want it to be a capper on the regular season.  If you think the postseason should be a playoff because it's "settled on the field" then let's just do a 120-team tournament starting in week one with the winners advancing in the brackets and a series of consolation games for the losers, and that'll be the season.  Then it will REALLY be decided on the field.  This is my main problem with the 16-team tournament (and, obviously, bigger versions).  It will consume the regular season to the point that, while there will be more teams involved in the postseason and thus more excitement for those teams, the results of the regular season will not matter as much.  You lose twice or thrice, no big deal.  It ends the week-in, week-out life or death mentality of college football.  Is that what you want your postseason system to be about?  Squeezing the life out of the regular season for the benefit of the playoffs, like in the NBA or college basketball?  That's not a college football system I want any part of.  But maybe you do.  It's certainly a debatable point.

Coming next time: An explanation of what I think is the ideal system for determining the national champion is (hint: I conceived it, named it, and therefore won't shut up about it).