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Playoffs Will Ruin College Football—But Not Yet

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It’s not over yet. We still get to enjoy the final showdown before the first college football playoff gets written into the history books. But the names are in, and it’s not too early to ask: what do we think of the new system?

I’m on record as strongly opposing it. I’m one of the freaks who would have kept the Bowl Championship Series. I don’t believe college football is suited to a playoff system, and I have long maintained that it’s likely to diminish the sport. Every time I see that stupid “Who’s In?” commercial, I start booing at the TV.

Despite that, here’s my prognosis. It wasn’t as bad as I feared. In many ways it’s been a fun season. If we could keep this system exactly as it is, I could make peace with the playoff.

But it won’t last. Already discontent is brewing, for all the most predictable reasons. Do you enjoy college football as it is now? Too bad. We’re going to keep “fixing” it until it’s not worth watching anymore.

Why College Football Never Needed The Playoff

Here’s the issue, in a nutshell. (For the extended argument, see here.) Playoffs by their nature focus everyone’s attention on one question: which team is number one in the nation? To provide a satisfactory answer, a playoff-oriented system looks to impose regularity and order on the entire sport. We want to level our playing fields as much as possible, so we can compare apples to apples and find the true champ.

Playoffs by their nature focus everyone’s attention on one question: which team is number one in the nation?

College football is a gloriously misshapen beast. It’s always been a charmingly messy cornucopia of tiers and rivalries and inexplicable attachments and traditions. This means there are an awful lot of bumps to level in that field. Leveling the bumps might mean tinkering with schedules, conferences, recruiting practices, or hiring policies. It might mean tossing aside longstanding rivalries and institutional ties. It might mean creating exclusive “superconferences” that effectively snip many schools right out of the system.

If that’s what the fans demand, and the glint of money seems to beckon, then mark my words: it will happen. Even if it basically wrecks the sport. People can be awfully short-sighted about killing the goose to get those golden eggs. Thirty years from now, if the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) yields to the various leveling pressures, we may find that college football has effectively become a National Football League equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues. Which are, what, America’s twentieth most popular sport? Awesome.

Of course I was never so naïve as to suppose that people wouldn’t care about which college team was number one. They’ll always care, and they’ll always argue about it until the cows come home, but isn’t that part of the fun? I think we just have to accept that we can’t pull a clear, unambiguous champion out of the beautiful mess that is college football. Not without trampling the spirit right out of it.

So, How Did Playoffs Actually Work Out?

Here’s the good thing about the playoff as it currently stands: it’s too small to dominate the entire college football landscape. When so few teams make the playoffs, we have to pay some attention to other storylines as well. That’s entirely a good thing.

When so few teams make the playoffs, we have to pay some attention to other storylines as well.

Of course, there was endless discussion of who would make it. We all felt some angst over the Decrees of the Playoff Demigods (err, I mean, the selection committee’s rankings), which was entirely predictable given that they were answerable to nobody and subject to no external standards. Their fixation on the top four was fairly obvious, leading to absurdities like Florida State’s being dropped to third place in the rankings, even though they were defending National Champions in the midst of a 20-plus-game winning streak. (Yes, I watched them. No, they didn’t look very dominant. It was still ridiculous.)

That fixation came back to bite us in the end, when Texas Christian University (TCU) had to be dropped three places following an absolutely crushing victory over Iowa State, to make room for Ohio State in the playoff. That was, umm, awkward. It was hard not to wonder whether money (and television audiences) might have had something to do with the preference for Bucks over Horned Frogs. (But why not? No set criteria, right?)

What we all quickly realized, however, was that the playoff was really just the cherry on top of the bowl sundae. It’s only three games, after all. Even on New Year’s Day, you’re still going to get most of your satisfaction from non-playoff games. Happily, there were some sizzlers this year, with Wisconsin edging Auburn in the Outback Bowl, and Michigan State overtaking Baylor in a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat Cotton Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl was fun, as Boise State fended off a comeback attempt from Arizona. And we all (Southerners excepted) enjoyed watching the Southeastern Conference (SEC) lose over and over again, including Notre Dame’s delicious and improbable victory over Louisiana State University.

it was a fun bowl season, and the playoff didn’t ruin it.

After all that excitement, the actual playoff could have been a letdown. It wasn’t. The Rose Bowl got boring in the middle of the third quarter when we all realized that FSU’s defense was definitely no match for Marcus Mariota. But the Sugar Bowl was an absolute thriller, as the Buckeyes teased us into thinking our Big-10 doubts had been justified… and then came roaring back to put the normally-dominant Tide in their place. That the victory was engineered by Urban Meyer (so, the same coach who humiliated Ohio State in the 2007 National Championship) made it that much more fun. What a way to start your year, eh?

In short, it was a fun bowl season, and the playoff didn’t ruin it. It actually added some fun quirks. For example, without a playoff, we couldn’t possibly have had an SEC-free National Championship without a torrent of Southern belly-aching. Some also noted that, sans playoff, the two teams that lost the semi-finals would almost certainly have been our National Championship contenders. Even a staunch playoff opponent like myself will concede that the uncertainty is entertaining.

Can It Last?

What has the NCAA given us? A fairly enjoyable post-season structure… if we can keep it. But let’s face it: we probably can’t. Precisely because it’s so small, the current playoff isn’t really satisfying to many people, because it doesn’t deliver a clear and unambiguous champion. Might TCU have won out, given a chance to compete in the playoff? It’s very possible. Could Boise have had a shot? That’s a tougher sell, but maybe.

A bigger playoff would increase pressure to regularize conferences into something more predictable and ordered, such as the ‘superconferences’ that seemed almost inevitable a few years ago.

Already there’s a significant group agitating for a larger playoff. Most coaches would prefer an eight-team playoff; some want the playoff to include sixteen teams. A bigger playoff would increase pressure to regularize conferences into something more predictable and ordered, such as the “superconferences” that seemed almost inevitable a few years ago. That means no more David-and-Goliath victories from once-obscure teams, which will effectively be shut out of the system. Traditional rivalries will likely be pulled apart in the formation of the conferences, while at the same time, cross-conference games will become a rarity.

Once we expect football superstars to slog their way through a longer playoff, pressure to pay them will increase. (These are, after all, the ones more likely to command enormous salaries if they can make it through college in one piece.) That will downgrade the institutional connection and strengthen the university’s argument for diminishing the “student” component of “student athlete.” If you’re paying athletes millions each year, it doesn’t really seem fair that you should have to leave them time for class. Some athletes (like Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones) might welcome the change. But for most, life won’t be better if they are forced to choose between getting a real education and pursuing a career in professional sports. Plenty of NFL hopefuls have been grateful for their university degrees after their draft day didn’t go as they would have liked. And for the rest of us, the connection between the teams and our alma maters is part of what makes the sport worth following.

As someone who never wanted a college playoff, I can accept that times do change. I’m already excited to see how the next season shapes up. Will the SEC mount a vengeful comeback? Can the Big 12 rally to reassert its relevance? Will Urban Meyer and a Harbaugh-reconstructed Michigan return the Big 10 to its glory days? So many great storylines to pursue.

But college football will only stay sweet if we can accept that it just doesn’t lend itself to perfect, NFL-style regularity. If we can learn to enjoy the rough-and-tumble uncertainty. If we can remind ourselves that the game isn’t played for the sake of the rankings; rather, the rankings are meant to infuse interest into the game.

The golden-egg goose is still laying. Let’s keep her alive a little longer.