Monday, November 21, 2011

Isn't this chaos awesome?

Every year, it seems, we are subjected to the various talking heads complaining about how unjust the BCS system is, and how college football needs playoffs like every other sport. But what exactly would a playoff accomplish? Instead of pitting the two best teams against each other for one shot at the national title, a playoff format would give a second life to teams that proved they weren't good enough in the regular season, while drastically increasing the odds that the two best teams play for the crystal football. I'm going to echo the sentiments of my good friend Clay and say, F@#$ a playoff system!

Is the BCS system perfect? Absolutely not. Does it do a good job of ensuring that the best teams get a crack at the national title? Almost always. Except for the 2003 and 2004 seasons, when there were three teams with identical or nearly identical claims to play in the title game (LSU/Oklahoma/USC in 2003 and USC/Oklahoma/Auburn in 2004), you can't argue that the best team over the course of the season has not gotten to play in the championship game. In virtually all of those years, also, it's hard to argue that the second-best team hasn't played in the title game also. The exception there (in addition to the three-way tie years of 2003 and 2004, when the BCS was going to take a PR hit either way) would be 2001, when Nebraska, fresh off getting thrashed by Colorado, was the sacrificial lamb served up to a ludicrously good Miami team instead of Oregon. Otherwise, the BCS tends to get it right.

So why do we want a playoff? Sure, every other NCAA sport, not to mention professional sport, has one, but that would diminish what is far and away the most pressure-packed regular season in all of American sports. If you're a good team, you have to prove it week in and week out, with precious little room for error. Unlike in college basketball, where you can, for example, finish 9th (!!!) in your conference, then catch fire in March and win six games in a row to claim the championship, the BCS system does not set up roadblocks that can prevent the best teams from getting a crack at a championship.* True, the NCAA tournament is almost always the three most exciting weeks in sports,** but football has four months of excitement week in and week out. You don't get a pass for losing at home to Texas Tech, or getting blown out at home by Oregon; those losses, which are critical and often fatal to championship dreams under the BCS system, would mean much less under a playoff system because of the likelihood that those teams (Oklahoma and Stanford, in these examples) could conceivably get a second life and topple a team that has proved itself every week of the regular season (LSU, which has, in addition to the usual brutal SEC schedule, knocked off two top-10 teams away from Death Valley).

*In the past decade, you could make a pretty convincing case that four NCAA basketball title-winners were not the best team that year: Syracuse (2003), Florida (2006), Duke (2010), and UConn (2011). I mean, as already mentioned, UConn finished 9th in their own conference! And while the Big East was tough, it didn't exactly produce a ton of NBA talent (three draft picks, # 9, #25, and #30, in one of the weakest drafts ever).

**Let's not include last year in that statement, since the overall talent level was down and the final weekend was brutal.

And so here we are, heading into the homestretch of the college football season, and the top three teams are not just in the same conference but in the same division. How tremendous is this? I'm sure that we're going to have to listen to tons of bloviating (particularly if Arkansas knocks off LSU, admittedly unlikely in Baton Rouge) that now we need a playoff more than ever because of this, etc. No, we don't! Since the beginning of the season, it has been pretty clear that LSU and Alabama are better than everyone else (especially on defense), and no other team has stepped up to the challenge. A quick rundown of the pretenders and their pratfalls:
 - Oklahoma State (although probably a bit distracted by tragedy) couldn't stave off a middling Iowa State team in a trap game before playing their nemesis...
 - Oklahoma, who has followed up that head-scratching loss to Texas Tech with a loss at Baylor
 - Oregon, who lost at home to USC when they could least afford to (the loss to LSU at JerryWorld doesn't count as a bad one)
 - Clemson, who delayed their how-the-hell-did-they-lose-that-one game much later this season then usual, but got housed twice
 - Stanford, who lost at home to Oregon, and not only that, but got run off the field
 - Boise State, who erred when they had the absolute least margin for error of any title pretender
 - Virginia Tech, who was held to a field goal at home by Clemson defense that tends to allow only slightly fewer points than its explosive offense, and who has played one other legitimately good team all year (Georgia Tech)
 - pick your Big Ten contender, all of whom have lost twice and all of whom would get manhandled by any of the big three SEC West teams (ask Penn State about that).

Apart from Arkansas (who of course got steamrolled in Tuscaloosa, and whose uppance will likely come Friday at LSU), the only other team without a head-scratching loss is Houston, who hasn't lost yet. But the Cougars have only played three above-.500 teams, and their one attempt at collecting a big scalp (as Boise State does early each fall) was against a very mediocre UCLA team that might somehow sneak into the PAC-12 championship game (because USC is ineligible). So while it's fun watching Case Keenum average almost 400 yards and 4 touchdowns a game, it's hard to argue that they belong in a championship game with LSU or Alabama (shades of the Hawaii-Georgia Sugar Bowl, anyone?). And so we will likely wind up with a divisional rematch for the national title game, but so what? Those are the two best teams in the country, they have proven it all season long, and they deserve to play again to hoist the crystal football, rather than face a potential upset in some 8-, 16-, or God forbid, 32-team playoff. Geaux Tigers! Roll Tide! And may the best team win.****

***I have a sneaking suspicion that a Hogs offense that relies heavily on their passing game might have a wee bit of trouble against the Honey Badger, Morris Claiborne, Eric Reid, et al.

****Don't forget, after the LSU-'Bama game, when asked about the hypothetical rematch, the Mad Hatter said, "We would be honored to play a team like that again."