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The National, 6/28/12: Playoff Special.

You know, I hope they keep the trophy.  I kind of like it.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
You know, I hope they keep the trophy. I kind of like it. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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There are two positions I take which should be no secret to anyone whatsoever: there should be at least an eight team playoff in Division I FBS, preferably sixteen with all conference champions, and at least on an administrative and access level all schools classified in FBS should have the same opportunities to participate. The first of these two positions is mostly a matter of personal preference, but there are logistical and fair-play reasons why four teams is not enough -- and, in fact, the four-team playoff is actually worse for the teams outside the Big Four-or-Five conferences than the BCS system which the playoff replaces. The latter, of course, is an ethical position grounded in the very purpose of the NCAA, which about 200 people on the planet seem to really understand.

I wet my finger and stuck it out the window, testing the waters on Twitter with a simple question: toss me your arguments against a playoff larger than four teams (or, indeed, a playoff period). What follows is my rebuttal to each of those reasons, descending in order to the most difficult argument to rebut.

1. "They already play too many games. We can't be putting student athletes through all the additional games a playoff would require. It would hurt their class work, and it's physically too rigorous to contemplate besides."

This, of course, is the most ludicrous possible argument. Every level of organized collegiate football -- including junior college -- has a post-season playoff. The teams playing in the FCS championship game have played a 16-game schedule. The Division II finalists play 15 or 16 games; Division III and NAIA finalists play 15 games. The idea that FBS teams can't handle a 16- or 17-game schedule is abject silliness, especially when you consider the fact that unlike the other divisions we're talking about guys who are, if they're starters on teams expected to make the playoffs, trying to major in football.

That, of course, is the other critical aspect of this argument. Division I FBS players are not generally pursuing football as a hobby while trying to earn a degree. They are pursuing a degree as a hobby while trying to get drafted to play in the NFL. Yes, there are guys on every FBS squad for whom this isn't actually true, but in the main it's an accurate assessment. Meanwhile, down in Division III, we're talking about guys who aren't even on scholarship and you can count the guys who might actually sneak into the NFL while you have one hand in your pocket. They're in school to get a degree, period; they're playing football because they love football. You're telling me that a kid at Johns Hopkins* can handle the interruption of schoolwork into mid-December, but players at flagship state universities can't? Really? The same applies to the other sub-FBS divisions as well, to lesser degrees. The idea that someone who was deemed qualified to enroll at the University of Michigan can't handle classroom interruption in December, but someone who met the decidedly less strenuous admissions standards at Slippery Rock can? That's just dumb.

* - And yes, Johns Hopkins did, in fact, make the playoffs last year, in case you think I'm being facetious.

2. "A playoff diminishes the bowls."

By this, the speaker generally means either it diminishes the importance of the bowls or it diminishes the "specialness" of the bowls. I suppose it's also possible that someone might mean that it puts the survival of the bowl system itself at risk, but that argument is so laughably specious I can brush it aside with two words: "Who cares?" Look, let's be honest here: the bowl system is a corrupt quagmire of graft, bribery, and cronyism. If it collapsed and died overnight, thereby forcing the NCAA to adopt a 32-team playoff just to fill the void, it would be an ethical victory for society.

The legitimate arguments, however, require a little less vitriol and a little more nuance. It is true that the more top-flight teams you remove from the normal pecking order in the bowls, the less value the bowls themselves have (both monetarily and in prestige). It also removes the bowls from any level of importance in the national championship discussion.

That's probably exactly as it should be, however. Once upon a time, the bowls didn't even count. The national champion had already been determined before teams schlepped off to exotic faraway locales to play exhibition games. Now, in the system we've always operated under, that was wrong; the bowl games should have counted. But that's because we didn't have a playoff, and the bowl games weren't reserved for teams that didn't make the playoff. With a playoff, the bowls return to what they were originally intended to be (and for 30 years, were): rewards for a reasonably decent season, and exhibitions with no impact whatsoever on the question of who's king of the mountain.

Let's also not forget that the bowls have (or, rather, the bowl system as a whole has) done a fabulous job of devaluing their importance all on their own. As much as I can appreciate the dregs of bowl season as "football-like substance", the fact remains that a bowl game in San Francisco featuring two teams with a combined record under .500 and two interim coaches is a travesty. Are we going to cry over a shakeout which curbs some of that nonsense? Of course not.

3. "A playoff is a burden on the fans, both from a travel and ticket affordability perspective. Games would be played in front of empty seats."

No, not really. It's true that these are concerns which affect the lower divisions, but I have three counters to that. One, it doesn't stop the lower divisions from doing it, does it? Two, even if there were challenges to fill stadiums for FBS playoff games, they would still make money, which is more than we can say for sparsely-attended Division II playoff games (which, again, happen anyway). Three, this is Division I FBS football. These would be games of vast importance. We live in a world where the sort of schools which would be making deep runs into a playoff with eight or more teams are the same sort of schools which get 30,000 (or more -- many more) people to show up for the freakin' spring scrimmage. Yes, there would be some attrition as far as ticket sales, but consider this.

How many people wanted to go to the BCS Championship Game last year, and had the financial means and free time to travel to the game and purchase tickets at face value, and yet were still unable to go? You know the answer. Hell, you may be one of them. In an playoff with eight or more teams, rounds before the semifinals would naturally be at campus sites. Those games would sell out or come RealDamnClose, without question, even if it required visiting-team sales to reach that goal. Between the die-hard fans with the financial wherewithal to attend the semifinals and final and local ticket sales for games which, by their very nature, would be massive, massive events... the semis and championship game would sell out.

4. "Adding teams to a playoff format merely shifts the argument. We once argued who the #1 team was. Then we had the BCS, and we argue over who's #2. Now we'll argue about who's #4. Expand the playoffs, we start arguing over who's #8, #16, whatever."

This isn't even really an argument, I don't think, but it bears discussion. It's a true statement. It's incontrovertible. It's also the opposite of irrelevant, which is to say it's not even an argument against expansion of the playoff. It's an argument for expansion of the playoff, being used by people who don't grasp that minor detail.

Back in the old days, we argued over who was #1 because we didn't have a system to have the two best teams facing off. That was bad because, well, we were arguing over who was #1. It was a completely subjective means of deciding who we were going to call the national champion. Then we had the BCS, which at least gave us an objective answer to who #1 was (most of the time, except, you know, for those times when a team which was left out of the championship game had a legitimate argument that they might have been the #1 team going in to begin with). It shifted the argument to who #2 was, and by so doing at least ensured that most of the time the best team in the country was actually playing in the game. But not always.

Now, we've got a four-team playoff. We're now going to be nearly certain that the best team in the country is involved, and reasonably sure that the two best teams are. But there have still been seasons when there was little to separate #5 from #1. Not many, to be sure, but 1998 and 2007 leap immediately to mind without me even bothering to research. Chaos at the top of the polls those two years made "Who's #1" a question with as many as five (or more!) different answers.

You expand to eight, and you almost certainly guarantee that the best two teams in the country are in the playoff. The argument does shift to "Who's #8?"... and that's a good thing, because it means the argument isn't about the important detail, and it's a lot easier to dismiss the butthurt bleating of fans of team #9 than it is fans of team #5, just as ignoring fans of team #5 in two years will be easier than ignoring fans of team #3 has been.

5. "There are only four or fewer teams in most years with a legitimate chance to win the championship."

This actually dovetails with the previous argument, and can be refuted in exactly the same manner. However, I bring it up in this form, separately, to address why this argument is both somewhat accurate, and ethically irrelevant.

An analogy here would be the AL Central in a lot of years since 1994, or the NFC West in a lot of years since the Greatest Show on Turf closed up shop. Two divisions which are widely derided for a perceived lack of quality in their respective leagues, but their champions are still entitled to participate in the post-season no matter how mediocre they are, and sometimes they rise up and slaughter everyone in the post-season.

Why? Well, the facile answer is "because those are the rules, and we operate by different rules here so that doesn't matter." But it does matter, because there is a reason for those rules, and that reason is simple: the teams in the AL Central are members of the organization known as Major League Baseball, which is subdivided into two leagues and six divisions, with competition weighted so that teams play the vast plurality of their games within their division. The teams in the NFC West are members of the National Football League, subdivided into two conferences and eight divisions, with competition weighted so that teams play the vast plurality of their games within their division.

And the teams in the 10 surviving FBS conferences (and the independents) are members of the Football Bowl Subdivision of NCAA Division I, subdivided into 10 conferences, with competition weighted so that teams play the vast majority of their games within their conference. In the eyes of the law, as it were, they are all equals, just as the Detroit Tigers are equal in the eyes of the law to the New York Yankees, and the Arizona Cardinals are equal in the eyes of the law to the New England Patriots. So long as FBS remains what it is, it is ethically inappropriate to deny the champions of each conference the opportunity to participate in an actual playoff to determine the national champion. Will the Sun Belt champion be first-round cannon fodder? Yeah, probably. So what? Consider their participation to be both a reward for the Sun Belt champion (the kids get the excitement and experience of getting to at least go down in battle on the field, for cryin' out loud, and isn't this about the kids anyway?) and for the top team in the field (they get a relatively easy first-round test).

If they somehow manage to pull an upset? Well, two things become immediately apparent if that happens. First, everyone except their next-round opponent jumps on the bandwagon, 'cause you know we love that stuff. Who wasn't cheering for Lehigh or Norfolk State after they took out Duke and Missouri? Second, if the presumptive #1 entering the playoffs can't even knock off Middle Tennessee State, then maybe they don't deserve to be the national champion anyway, now do they?

I am digressing a bit, however, and starting to drift away from this particular objection into a different one entirely. So we'll refer back to these last three paragraphs again in a moment.

6. "It's bad enough we're exploiting these kids as free labor as much as we already are, and now you want to make them play one, two, three more games than we're already expecting?"

You know, it's really not free labor. If I could get paid $40,000 a year to basically serve a three- or four-year internship in football with hopes of parlaying it into a professional career paying me millions while simultaneously working toward acquiring a piece of paper without which you almost can't get a decent job in America anymore, I think I could get behind that. And guys, that's what really happens here. A scholarship is not a thing with no monetary value. These kids are getting paid; if they were somehow able to afford to pay their own way to school, then it's money they aren't spending. If not, it's student loans they're not having to burden themselves with. If they would have otherwise qualified for non-loan financial assistance... well, okay, they aren't getting paid as much, but rare is the Pell Grant that covers a full ride. The point is, most of these guys are, in fact, getting "paid" a hell of a lot more than my kid is getting paid to work at Sonic, and she's got to do that 52 weeks a year, not just 30 including spring work.

However, we don't actually even have to rely on that argument. We can simply point something else out to make the argument itself utterly irrelevant in terms of the question: there has never, not even once in the history of the game, been anyone who had the audacity to claim that players in Division III are being exploited like sweatshop workers for the financial benefit of their schools. The reason for that is obvious; those kids are actually paying (one way or another) to play football, without even any reasonable expectation of making football their career after graduation, because they want to play football. Go find a player for a former Division III championship club and ask him if playing a few extra games in the post-season bothered him any. I'd wait for you to come back with the answer, but I already know it so there's really no point.

Even more relevant, however, is that guys playing for high-profile Division I FBS teams play for the same damned reason. They love it, and they want to win.

7. "I don't know that I object to a larger playoff, but don't you think we should see how the four-team model works out before getting bent out of shape about it?"

That's a valid argument on its face, and it's a reasonable position. Except for one small detail which ties back to those final three paragraphs in point 6.

The contract for the four-team playoff extends 12 years. Unfortunately, 12 years from now, the four (or five) big conferences are going to run financial rings around the other six (or five) conferences as a result of the almost-certain exclusion of those smaller conferences from the big payday. This isn't something that's really happened over the last decade, as the interlopers from the WAC and Mountain West have snatched away chunks of the money, which has been pretty helpful in bolstering the smaller programs.

Before you mumble a chorus of "too bad, so sad" under your breath, remember: Western Kentucky is as much a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision of NCAA Division I as Ohio State is. I do not object, nor do I think it inequitable, to have the most successful teams and conferences benefit more financially than the rest. I do, on the other hand, feel that some level of significant revenue equalization is absolutely necessary. Even if one doesn't feel this way -- and if you don't, I'm sorry, but ethically you're on thin ice -- the simple reality is that so long as the smaller schools remain a part of FBS, the Alabamas and Oklahomas need the Troys and Eastern Michigans to be reasonably competitive. Why? Because they invariably need them to fill in spots in the schedule (or, stretching it out, they're going to be playing teams which have to play them, and opponent's opponents comes into play), and if they're tissue-paper programs then beating them is almost worse than not playing them at all.

Furthermore, allow me to provide to you two lists of eleven teams. (Because their status in the new world order isn't quite settled, I have deliberately excluded the ACC from both lists; I could easily have added two or three ACC teams to either list to make the point I'm making.)

Boise State, Louisville, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Tulsa, Brigham Young, Hawai'i, Nevada, Toledo, Northern Illinois

Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Iowa State, Kansas, Indiana, Minnesota, Washington State, Arizona, UCLA (!)

As a whole, which of these two groups is more deserving of access to a shot at a national title? Really? Why should the teams in the latter group, who have pretty much done absolutely nothing for years, be granted a better chance at an opportunity to catch fire than the teams in the first group, all of whom have at least proven themselves to be mostly competent over most of the last decade? (Note I didn't even include Ball State and Central Michigan and other teams who had themselves one or two nice seasons. That list is all "generally solid programs that would beat Kansas like a rented mule".)

Let's also be real clear about something important: we are talking about sports; a competitive endeavor which should not be impacted on its face by things which have nothing whatsoever to do with a school's ability to build a competitive program. Speaking solely in terms of football, there is no reason at this juncture why Boise State (as the prime example) should be excluded from one of the major conferences. None. Their exclusion is somewhat a matter of academics, but in stark reality it's mostly because they are in the middle of freakin' nowhere with a small stadium and a dearth of television sets from which to garner carriage rate and advertising dollars, which means they're not really that much different than Texas Tech anyway. If the only criteria was "hey, are these guys good?", Boise State would be in the Big 12 or Pac 12 right now... and the Big 10 would have kicked Indiana to the curb, otherwise known as the MAC.

Allowing the income and prestige gap to widen by essentially excluding any team outside the big four or five unless they run the table and spice it up with a couple of signature non-conference wins is only going to widen the competitive gap as well, and under the current model that's simply not acceptable.

There's a way around it that I wouldn't object to, though. If the big four-or-five want to separate into their own division... well, fine, but unless they leave the NCAA altogether (which would almost certainly lead to legislative action in Washington regarding the tax-exempt status of the universities' athletic departments), be aware that in so doing they're also going to have to compose more stringent eligibility rules for that division. They'll have to do so something like allow 100 scholarships, and/or require a 50K stadium, or some other mechanism to justify splitting the division while remaining within the NCAA umbrella. Even then, under NCAA rules, if Louisville and UConn and Houston and BYU and whomever else are willing to spend the dough to meet those new requirements, they'll end up having to let them come play with the big boys anyway. That will just lead us right back to the basic problem we're already facing, so it's not really a workable solution.

8. "The more teams you have in the playoff, the more it devalues the season."

This is the best argument against expanding the playoff, and I do not dispute it as an argument. That said, the most basic level of the argument is wrong. Not just wrong, but flat-out thick-headed wrong. I'm going to burn six paragraphs laying groundwork for a very important point, then get to the rest of the problem.

Most people will attempt to argue that college football has the most meaningful regular season in all of American sport (not world sport, as European soccer leagues have even college football beat all to hell on this). The problem is that the only truly meaningful part of the regular season in college football is the conference schedule, and even then it is less meaningful in conferences which do not play a full round-robin.

American football -- college or pro, really -- suffers from small sample size while, at the same time, observers of the game completely ignore the very real concept of "On Any Given [Saturday/Sunday]" when it's convenient while at the same time clinging to it for dear life the rest of the time. The reality is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, which we can point to in order to separate a 12-1 Oklahoma State from an 11-1 Alabama or even a 13-0 Louisiana State. The interlock of the schedules is not well-connected enough to make such a distinction with any significant level of statistical accuracy. As fans, we like to ascribe values such as grit and tenacity and toughness to our teams, and I am the last person to claim these things do not exist as part of a team's essential make-up... but at the same time, I recognize that we completely over-value them all the same. As a Kansas State fan, I realize perfectly well that all the foofahrah over K-State's mind-boggling ability to come back and win games last year (or come damned close in the case of Oklahoma State) was absolute balderdash. K-State didn't win 10 games because they had an extra gear when the game was on the line. They didn't win 10 games last year because they have intestinal fortitude exceeding that of normal college football players, or because Bill Snyder is a genius (or a dark wizard), or because they just happened to decide it was time execute to perfection in those critical late-game moments when it was win-or-lose. They won 10 games because they got freakin' lucky (or, perhaps, failed to get unlucky).

Oklahoma State faltered against Iowa State, and escaped against Kansas State. Alabama lost the first game to LSU, and had their worst defensive performance of the year was against Georgia Southern, of all teams. The primary reason for these anomalies, above and beyond all others, was the simple vagaries of random chance. Look, if 2011 Georgia Southern plays 2011 Alabama 10 times, the odds are that the result we got here in reality is probably the best result Georgia Southern was going to get. If 2011 Oklahoma State plays 2011 Iowa State 10 times, they're going to win that game at least seven or eight of those tries. As fans, we consistently look at the result of one single game as though it proves something vital about our team, because we are wrapped up in the success of our team. But the reality is that with the possible exception of LSU, who on the whole were truly dominant last year, every single other team in FBS could very easily have lost three games if the vagaries of chance had gone just a little differently. Deep down in your heart, you know this.

We don't have this argument in baseball very much. Why? They play a ridiculous 162-game schedule, and all people who don't love baseball do is bitch about how long the season is. I have news for you: the length of the baseball season actually serves to make it a lot more clear when a given team is truly dominant (or, for that matter, truly putrid).

If two football teams, one 13-0 and one 12-1, were truly as far apart in terms of talent as their records indicate, it would be the same as two baseball teams that went 162-0 and 150-12. Except this never happens, because the very best baseball teams ever manage to lose at least 50 games a year, so the real comparison would be between two teams which went 112-50 and 104-58. That said, the fact that even the most frighteningly dominant baseball teams in history still manage to lose games to teams at the bottom of the standings is relevant.

But to the main point, nobody's ever going to argue which of those two teams is better, because that eight-game gap is pretty solid evidence. The same isn't true with only a 13-game schedule, because as much as we try to convince our opponents on the internet (and, sometimes, ourselves), we know one thing to be absolutely true: unless our team won all 13 games by three TDs and had the reserves in halfway through the third quarter, there's a game in there we by God could have lost... and that 12-1 team might very well have finished 13-0 if not for a break here and there. The difference between 13-0 and 12-1 is razor-thin, and subject to error; that in and of itself means that the "sanctity" or "importance" of the regular season isn't quite as stark as you wish to believe.

There's another reason why the regular season isn't as meaningful, in and of itself, as people think. We don't truly know what it means if the SEC has a bunch of 10-2 teams one year. Did they just beat the crap out of one another, or were they mediocre? It's entirely possible that the two best teams are still in the SEC that year; it's also entirely possible that the SEC doesn't even have a team really worthy of playing in an eight-team playoff that year. We just don't know, because the interconnection of the conferences isn't robust enough to honestly answer that question. (This isn't nearly as true in college basketball, where teams play enough non-conference games -- almost universally against a broad range of competition, as well -- to make things a lot more clear.) Yet invariably, you know who's going to say exactly what when it comes time to judge the SEC. SEC fans are going to claim they were all just so good they murdered one another, and everyone else is going to point and laugh until the SEC mows down the Big Ten in bowl games. It's just the way of the world.

But even if the regular season did have the meaning we think it means... even if the difference between 13-0 and 12-1 was significant enough to say with certainty that the 13-0 team was better, even if we could say with absolute certainty that a 12-1 team from the Big 12 is better than any damned unbeaten team from Conference USA... the question of whether a playoff devalues the regular season relies entirely on how many teams are in the playoff. I do not mean "more teams devalues the regular season more." I mean there is a sweet spot (or possibly two, and in this case there are two) where the regular season has the most value, and it has less value with both more and fewer teams in the playoff.

With a four-team playoff, you can guarantee that teams in conferences which can get away with it are going to schedule cupcakes in the non-conference portion of their schedule. Maybe not entirely, but I can guarantee you that there are 62 teams out there right this instant whose only goal is going to be to survive unbeaten in non-conference play and then run the table in conference. Barring a seismic shift in perception and/or actual strength, you can guarantee that winning the Big 12 or SEC is a ticket to the four-team field so long as the league isn't a fractured mess that year with a three-loss champion, because the Big 12 and SEC are perceived to be strong enough that they can survive a weak non-conference schedule. Worse, it's true mathematically because, well, to be frank, most strength-of-schedule formulas are sort of flawed. For all the grief Kansas State has gotten over the years, there have been plenty of those seasons when K-State's SOS was in the top 5 nationally despite playing four creampuffs to open the season. Does that mean Bill Snyder's been right all along, or does it mean SOS formulas are piles of steaming effluvia?

Still, the four-team model actually does provide a solid sense of urgency to the regular season. This can't be disputed. The unfortunate thing is that we've already established all the other reasons why the four-team model is the wrong decision, so where's that leave us?

The most obvious answer is eight teams, but guess what? Believe it or not, the eight team model is more destructive to the value of the regular season than a sixteen-team model featuring all ten conference champions. "Wait a minute," you ask, "that makes no bloody sense. Morse, you've lost your freaking mind."

With an eight-team model, you're almost certainly going to get eight teams from within the consensus top ten. A team which is cruising along atop the polls late can step off the gas if they're facing a strong opponent, knowing their spot in the playoff is probably secure if they slip. For example, Arkansas vs LSU late last year? That game would have been all but meaningless. They were both going to get in regardless if we'd had an eight-team field. Deservedly so, unquestionably, but still. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma State-Kansas State game was meaningful for the BCS, meaningful in a four-team model, and would still have been meaningful in the eight-team model as well.

In a sixteen-team field with all conference champions included, however, both games are meaningful. For LSU/Arkansas, both teams have a critically important reason to win that game: the winner is going to get a relatively easy game in the first round and be broadly favored in the second round regardless. If LSU loses, they're still going to be favored in the first round, but will possibly be staring at an ugly second-round game; if Arkansas loses, they're going to get a relatively equal game in the first round followed by a date with the presumptive #1or #2 in the second round. Both teams have a seriously intense need to not lose that game which just isn't present in an eight-team format. For OSU/KSU, OSU likewise is playing for that easy first-round game; K-State is trying to play their way into hosting a game in round one (and possibly even squeaking into the top five or six to avoid a massive underdog role in round two). If OSU loses, they're in almost the same situation as LSU would be with a loss; if K-State loses, they're risking their place in the playoff entirely.

The inclusion of the lesser conference champions is a key point here. Yes, there's every chance that the first round of the playoffs includes a complete rout when 8-5 North Texas visits 13-0 Wisconsin. But that's also a plus to the system as a whole, as it ensures that finishing #1 has a very real and tangible benefit. Seeding is going to matter much more than it would in an eight-team field, and anything you do to make the seeding more relevant inherently increases the value of the regular season. The fact that every stable conference gets representation (you know, just like they're entitled to in every other NCAA or NAIA sport at every level) is a bonus, and a necessary one for the health of the division as a whole.

Four teams, however, is the worst possible plan. For the health and relevance of the smaller conferences, it is actually worse than the system it's replacing (unless there is explicit inclusion in the six-bowl rotation for any conference champion or independent finishing in the top twenty). We are still going to have violent arguments about who got in and who didn't, yet the field won't be large enough to defuse those arguments by pointing out that the #13 team in the poll shouldn't be bitching about not having a chance to play. We're still going to have a bunch of graft-ridden bowl games which don't matter, yet aren't really just "exhibitions" either.

But we'll have an absolutely undisputed champion, and I suppose in the end that's an improvement. We just could have done so much better.