College Football's Perfection Problem
College football's new playoff format was supposed to end all the bickering over the old BCS system and give us a clear and undisputed national champion. Yet nobody should be surprised that Selection Sunday is shaping up to be more controversial than ever.
On Tuesday, the college football playoff rankings caused quite a stir, placing Alabama, Oregon, TCU and Florida State as the top teams heading into this weekend, when a 12-member committee will choose the four schools to face off in the two semifinal games. Raising more than a few eyebrows was undefeated Florida State falling to fourth place, leapfrogged by TCU, which has a loss. And the ongoing TCU-Baylor debate hasn't died down, given that one-loss Baylor, ranked sixth, defeated TCU 61-58 back in October.
It's hard to believe that an undefeated team wouldn't make the playoffs, and TCU and Baylor each have compelling arguments for why they deserve a spot -- Baylor can claim that head-to-head victory, while TCU has more wins over teams with winning records.
While the previous, two-team BCS system involved a complex formula based on a combination of points and percentages and subjective polls, the new, four-team playoff system reduces the process to the nebulous "human element." It's still subjective and confusing, and we're still arguing about it.
It's also still better than it was before. As the Big Lead's Ty Duffy demonstrates, the playoff system has significantly expanded the field of "relevant" teams, making each regular-season matchup more compelling and meaningful. Florida State demonstrates the flip-side of that: It's not enough that the Seminoles have won all of their games. According to committee chairman Jeff Long, FSU dropped to fourth because "in the past three weeks, they have had struggles with unranked teams." Meanwhile, Business Insider's approximation of the BCS formula suggests that Florida State would be ranked second under the previous system.
The playoff format is clearly far from perfect, especially to those who weigh wins more heavily than subjective considerations. College football will experience some growing pains, as committee members tweak and hone their rationales for choosing playoff teams. There needs to be more public explanation, more transparency all around.
Case in point: Baylor has taken to professional lobbying. On Monday I received an e-mail from a public relations firm titled "The Case for Baylor" and listing 14 bullet-points as to why the Bears belong in the final four. The BCS system relied on several intersecting lines of subjectivity, including six separate rankings; the new playoff system relies on the ability of 12 committee members to remain unbiased and unmoved in the face of such campaigning.
That said, the answer isn't, as some have suggested, expanding the playoff field to eight teams: one winner of each of the Power 5 conferences, and three wild-card teams. Though the conference winners would be based on record, and would thus satisfy our need for hard numbers, the wild-card selections would still be based on a subjective ranking, and we'd still have much to argue about. Besides, the college football bowl season is already oversaturated; we don't need to add yet another level to the tournament, no matter how much television revenue is at stake.
Ultimately, the desire to immediately overhaul a playoff system still in its infancy is born of the idea that the ultimate goal of a postseason is to determine the top team, through the objective and unequivocal process of head-to-head matchups. As CBS Houston's Garret Heinrich writes, "In the end, isn't it about having a 'True National Champion?' An ability to say here is the best team in the country, give them the trophy."
That's a noble goal to have for the playoffs. It's also a rather idealistic view of postseasons, titles and championships, if not a little naive. As the expansion of the MLB postseason to two wild card teams and the realignment of the conferences in the NHL shows, there's no such thing as a "perfect" playoff system. The eight teams in each conference of the NBA playoffs are determined by wins and losses, but non-divisional and non-conference regular-season matchups vary greatly, so their records aren't directly comparable. And Cinderella stories are what make March Madness must-see-TV.
Furthermore, the idea that the "best" team always wins the championship is disproved by a quick look at recent history. The two teams that met in this year's World Series were both wild cards that came within inches of missing the playoffs. The 2009-10 Washington Capitals set numerous scoring records and ran away with the President's Trophy, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs. And does anybody really think the 10-win, wild-card, Super Bowl XLII-champion New York Giants were a "better" team than the undefeated New England Patriots?
If the point of the postseason is to determine the best team, then every postseason system is flawed. We can continue to make changes big and small to bring playoff fields closer to that perfect intersection between parity and meritocracy. But lets also be realistic about the limitations of ranking 127 Division I football teams (RIP UAB), realizing that as long as schedules remain unbalanced, playoff matchups will always be subject to some form of human discretion. We shouldn't stop trying to improve the playoff system, but we should stop reaching for an unattainable ideal.
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