Is it Really Time for a Playoff? (Part I)

Last season GBW explored the question of whether it really was time for a playoff college football. After all, the BCS had done its job last year, pitting the top two teams against one another in an epic battle. But was last year the best scenario by which to measure the current system's success? In this two-part feature, we revisit the issue that we first addressed last year in GBW the Mag.

The seemingly age-old debate regarding college football's postseason reared its head ugly again in recent weeks.  As the Bowl Championship Series prepares to enter its tenth season in existence, it is coming under more and more fire.  Last year, one of the most notable deserters from the BCS camp was Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr.  Widely known as a traditionalist, his new advocacy for a playoff system late in 2005 surprised many around Ann Arbor.  He is part of a growing contingent of coaches dissatisfied with the current arrangement.  His change of heart was certainly newsworthy, but it failed to garner much reaction nationally at that time because of Congress' inexplicable entrance into the fray.

"College football is not just an exhilarating sport, but a billion-dollar business that Congress cannot ignore," said Joe Barton, the Texas Republican that called for the hearing to scrutinize the controversial system.  "Too often college football ends in sniping and controversy, rather than winners and losers.  The current system of determining who's #1 appears deeply flawed."

The government's dalliance in this matter was so unbelievably ridiculous that it further brought into question the way our tax dollars are being spent.  While this publicity stunt was certainly a trivial use of their time, they did manage to support the statements of Carr and other playoff proponents with very strong arguments.

BCS backers were patting the system on the back last year for managing to match the country's top two teams in the Rose Bowl, but that didn't garner much respect from Barton.  "It just hasn't worked out very well," he said. "The fact that only two teams remain undefeated this year does not mean that the system works."

Barton's point is a good one.  Arguing that the BCS is a successful system because it properly handled a scenario whose outcome was completely black and white is extremely misguided.  A much more substantive measure is analyzing how the system has done when dealing with a few shades of gray, like the one that will exist this year if USC, Michigan, and Florida all finish the season with one loss.  History has proven that it hasn't handled that kind of scenario very well.

- In 2004 the BCS pitted an undefeated USC against an undefeated Oklahoma squad.  The Trojans systematically dismantled the Sooners 55-19 to take home the national title.  The problem was two other teams finished unbeaten as well.  Both Auburn (which was playing better ball than Oklahoma at the end of the year) and Utah were left out in the cold.

- In 2003 Oklahoma limped into the title game after being blasted by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game 35-7. Despite failing to win their own conference, the Sooners were still awarded the chance to play the one-loss LSU Tigers in that years title game.  Nick Saban's squad won the contest 21-14, thus earning the National championship.  Meanwhile, a one-loss USC squad, (the team that should have been playing for the title), defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl 28-14.  If the BCS was left completely to its own devices, LSU would have been crowned the outright champ.  Thankfully, the media saw the absurdity of that outcome and broke ranks.  They rightfully voted for USC and forced a split National Championship.

- In 2001 an undefeated Miami team was selected for the championship game where they took on Nebraska.  This was again a case where the BCS rewarded an undeserving team with a chance at the title.  Prior to the Rose Bowl the Huskers got destroyed by Colorado in the Big 12 title game, 62-36.  Forget the fact that Gary Barnett's squad may have been playing the best football outside of Florida at the end of that season…the Huskers were selected over one-loss Maryland, Illinois, and Oregon teams as well.

Need more proof?

- In 2000, Oklahoma clearly deserved to be in the national title game since they were the only undefeated team at the end of that season.  Their opponent, however, wasn't so clear cut.  Florida State finished #2 in the BCS that year, but Miami finished with the same record and won the head to head.  Meanwhile Washington, another one-loss squad, defeated the Hurricanes 34-29 in an early season match-up in the Pacific Northwest.  However, at season's end Miami was clearly playing the best ball amongst those three teams.

With all those notable malfunctions on its resume', how could any objective person deem this structurally weak system a success? The stated goal of the BCS is to match the top two teams at the end of the year and it has failed miserably.  What's worse is the bowl picture gets murkier the further removed from the BCS title game you get.  Carr got a taste of that last year when his 7-4 Wolverines were snubbed by the Outback Bowl in favor of an Iowa team that finished with the same record.  What made that particularly infuriating was the fact that Michigan won the head to head.  That served as a wake-up call to the 11th year head man.

"I think where I am is that the BCS has been relatively successful in pitting the top two teams against each other," Carr said.  "But I think the other side of that is that when you look at the other bowls, you have the commissioners, the bowl people, and the TV people doing the scheduling. And I think it's only fair that what happens on the field should dictate where you play. And for that reason…I never thought I would say this…I think we should go to a playoff. I think we should play the top 16 teams and do it on the field because I think that's only fair to the guys that play the game."

Carr's opinion on the BCS's ability to match-up the nation's top two teams may also be in flux if the Wolverines are left on the outside looking in at this year's title game.  Nevertheless, the veteran headman's previous epiphany shined a light on the triumvirate of forces collaborating to stand in the way of a playoff.  Commissioners, athletic directors, and bowl representatives have kept the archaic bowl system alive.

"Doesn't it come down to that you guys just don't want a playoff system because it would affect how much money you make?" Barton asked the panel of bowl represntatives and commisioners. "I mean, I just don't see the danger of a playoff. The way you talk about it, it's like somebody's going to get cancer or something."

"The allegation is preposterous," responded Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney. "The amount of money that could be generated by a college football playoff would dwarf the revenue created by all the bowl games. The media and others are not willing to accept that we took a step forward [with the national championship game], but we are not willing to go further."

If a playoff would be so lucrative, why then have college football's power brokers so rigorously opposed it?  Delaney offered a four-pronged answer.

1. A multi-game, NFL-style playoff will likely harm the bowls.
2. A multi-game, NFL-style playoff is inconsistent with the goal of maximizing post-season opportunities for our student-athletes.
3. A multi-game, NFL-style playoff would have a detrimental impact on the regular season in the Big Ten and in all of college football.
4. The bowl system is consistent with the academic missions of Big Ten universities.

Those arguments sound good, but none really holds water.  In part two, which is set to publish tomorrow, I'll explain why.

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