The Real Sin of the College Playoff Decision in 2017

I will start this piece off with a stunning admission: I believe Alabama is a better football team this year than USC.  From all I have seen – every single USC game start to finish, and at least four Alabama games, by whatever subjective grounds I can muster, I would guess Alabama is marginally better than my beloved Trojans.

I will continue with another claim:  Alabama is most certainly better than Ohio State.  Ohio State is impotent offensively, inconsistent defensively, and their wins have been unimpressive, and losses were atrocious.  My eyeball test says they are not in the same league as Alabama.

And yet here is my conclusion: Without a shadow of a doubt, BOTH Ohio State and USC should have made the final four playoff bracket over Alabama.

How do I reconcile these claims – that Alabama appears to be better, but does not belong in the playoff?  It actually is very easy to reconcile: In no sport I take seriously is the playoff structure which creates an eventual champion determined by what “I think” or what “you think” or what “a committee thinks.”  A very objective system exists that forms a bracket, and from that bracket, teams who win (best of seven series, like baseball and pro basketball, or single elimination, like March Madness and the NFL) advance towards the eventual role of King of the Mountain.  We do not have a committee to say, “I think the Saints are better than the Rams,” even if ten out of ten people think it; we have divisions, conferences, or whatever other structure, which results in a bracket.

Let’s grant that over the course of history, it is at least frequent, and very possibly, the majority occurrence, that a team not considered by consensus to be “the best” results from this process as the champion.  It is what we call “upsets,” and in most schools of thought, it is what makes sports awesome.  Expressions like “cinderella teams” are not perjoratives, but compliments.  When a wildcard Denver Broncos team wins the Super Bowl, we celebrate it.  When an undefeated Patriots team loses to a mediocre Giants team, it becomes historical.  When #8 seeds make the Final Four, we rally behind that team.  There is no need to deny that sometimes “the best” team does not win the championship; there is just no need to bemoan it!  In fact, it should be celebrated!  It is the very basis of drama, thrill, and passion that defines the American sports experience.

College football is admittedly complex, though there is significant gamesmanship and denial as to why this really is.  There are different conferences, with different rules, and different schedules, and the tradition of bowl games is both commercially lucrative, and importantly nostalgic.  However, the notion that a Big-12 conference champion cannot end up in a playoff bracket with a Pac-12 conference champion is a matter of will, and nothing else.  The NFC South champion makes the playoffs even if the third place NFC East team is better.  That is how it works, and it has worked just fine, even the year a 7-9 NFC west champion Seahawk team actually BEAT the highly rated defending champion NFC south Saints team; especially in those years!  The top three teams in the NBA Western Conference have often been better than the top one team in the East, and yet having a West vs. East structure has worked just fine for decades.  No part of “conference incongruity” means they cannot form a REAL playoff system; they don’t want to, because there would be beneficiaries in such a system, but also economic losers, and no one wants to take that risk.

The simple solution is to maintain the bowl game system by having various bowls through Decembers that invite teams (perhaps on a formula of second and third place conference teams, or whatever) just as they do now, featuring various winning teams that do not make the playoffs.  But then, to have a playoff bracket featuring each of the conference champions, and perhaps allowing some at-large teams.  The idea that some conferences have advantages because they do not play a conference championship has now been worked out, or that some advantages because they do not all play each other can easily be worked out with needed streamlining.  Teams should not be incented to play certain non-conference teams (or not play them) based on playoffs.  First of all, it is inconsistently applied, and second of all, it is preposterous.  Have an objective way to end up with 6-8 teams that get to a playoff.  If someone believes that the third place team in the Big-10 is better than the first place team in the Pac-12 in a given year, too freaking bad.  It happens in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and not to mention all college sports, ALL THE TIME.  Because we do not live in the dark ages, we celebrate objectivity and modernity in this culture, and repudiate bureaucracy, corruption, and inefficiency.  The system right now is beneath even those terms.  It is pitiful, and it is altogether avoidable.

The counter-argument when we start talking about “at large” bids is that you replace controversy around who is #4 with who is #8.  That is fair enough prima facie, but upon further glance, actually absurd.  First of all, at-larges can be avoided with first round byes for top two teams (six teams in an eight-team bracket with wildcards for certain objective achievement – like the NFL does).  Or two wildcards can be objectively determined, based on a formula, as baseball and football and college basketball do.  The point about controversy around #8 is that with five major conferences, it will not leave conference champions out for teams who did not even play in a conference championship. 

If your argument for or against a team getting in over another team starts with, “sorry, but I just think that …”, you are part of the problem.  What we think does not matter.  What the committee thinks does not matter.  The goal in sports is objective determination of a champion, and that has been done for a century across all sports at all levels, besides D1 college football, through divisions or conferences seeding an eventual bracket, and then that bracket going to war.  It is unimprovable.  And I love college football too much to continue in this nonsense.  My beloved USC Trojans did not win their conference last year because they lost to Stanford and Utah early in the season.  They handily beat both of the teams that played in the conference championship (Washington and Colorado).  But they didn’t play in their championship game, let alone win it.  They went on to the Rose Bowl, and beat in dramatic fashion the incredible Penn State team that also got left out of the bracket.  No reasonable person would deny that Penn State and USC were among the top four teams in the country by the end of the year (Washington getting crushed by Alabama, and having gotten crushed by us; Ohio State having lost to Penn State, and getting crushed by Clemson).  BUT, my Trojans did not want their conference, and would not have deserved a seat at the playoff table in any real world.  I accept that, and accepted it a year ago.  Last year Ohio State did not win their conference, but got into the bracket over the team who did.  This year, they did win their conference, and did not get in for the sake of a team that did not …  It is cartoonish.  It is random.  It is unfair.  And frankly, it is unethical.

And worse than all of that, it is solvable.  It is solvable by merely tapping into what every sport at every level has done since the days of Jim Thorpe.

Stop this madness.  But don’t stop MARCH MADNESS – that is working perfectly.

Stop this four-team playoff with a five conference system that only takes from three conferences at times.  Think about what I just said.

A quarterfinal-based bracket with either six or eight teams …  Do it because it is right, and do it because the precedent for it is quite literally universal.  Higher education shouldn’t be so stupid.