The idea of a playoff to decide the champion of Division One (bite me NCAA) College Football is one that seems to gain more popularity all the time. Here we are sitting at Week Ten of the 2008 season and I see two excellent examples of why a playoff is a bad… wait, let me restate that – a horrible idea for big-time college football. The as-of-right-now unbeaten, non-BCS conference affiliated schools Utah, Boise State, and Ball State, and the Big Twelve South. Stick with me a minute.
The premise here is college football is a great game because every game matters. The de facto playoff essentially starts in Week One and goes all the way to the end of the year with the stakes getting higher at every turn. It is not a one-loss format per se, but it certainly can be. A true playoff will degrade that, not in the sense that the games won’t mean as much, but in the sense that, in a an effort to make sure that their teams have the best chance to make the playoffs, the Athletic Director and Coach at your school will schedule worse and worse competition. The quality of the opponents and therefore the quality of the games you watch will decline.
The example is the non-BCS conference unbeaten teams. Three this week – Boise State, Utah, and Ball State – and as many as five just two weeks ago. Let’s look at the most recent to fall form those ranks, Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane were unbeaten and ranked as high as 15th in the polls until they were beaten by Arkansas this past Saturday. The same Arkansas team who gave up about a billion points to Alabama, Florida, and Texas earlier this season and who is at most the the fourth best team in the SEC West. The 15th ranked team in the nation should never lose to a team struggling with bowl eligibility on Week Nine. How did Tulsa get the lofty ranking? They didn’t play any quality teams and beat them all. And that is how the other non-affiliated unbeaten teams are doing it. They are scheduling as weak a schedule as possible in order to position themselves with clean loss columns and lofty rankings come bowl selection time.
Obviously they aren’t doing that for the non-existent playoff. Instead they are doing it to place themselves in position to be undefeated at the end of the regular season and therefore be ranked high enough to be considered for a lucrative BCS bowl game. These teams can never have serious national title hopes but they can elevate their program in both prestige and revenue by having the appearance of being a quality team because their record is good and they get an invite to big paycheck game. Hawaii last year and Boise State the year before are prime examples. Don’t you find it a little odd that the number of the teams that are in this enviable position every season is on the rise? Hey, it’s good for them and I get that, but the overall quality of football suffers as does the reputation of schools that play tougher schedules both in and out of conference.
Let’s look at the three that still harbor a chance at a BCS bowl:
Utah is currently ranked 8th in the current BCS standings, 10th in the AP poll, and 9th in the Coaches Poll. They are 9-0 and boast victories over Michigan and Oregon State. This is the same Michigan team that isn’t going to a bowl for the first time in 33 years (granted they didn’t know that when they were scheduled to play one another) and Utah beat them by two points. The Utes also have a three-point win over a 5-3 Oregon State team that beat USC but lost to Stanford and Penn State. This is easily their signature win. The win over FCS team Weber State, not so much. Utah barely scraped by a 4-6 New Mexico squad this past weekend 13-10. They also have a big game against conference heavyweight TCU this Thursday night and a season finale against in-state rival BYU. Ohio State, Missouri, Georgia, and LSU are all ranked below the Utes and while they might run the table and have a legitimate claim for a good season, you can’t make me believe that they could beat any one of the four teams I just mentioned ranked below them.
Utah might run the table and at least they did schedule some so-called heavyweights but they don’t deserve a bid based on their overall body of work.
Boise State turned the football world on its ear two years ago by beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl but that might be the only prime-time worthy thing they’ve ever done. They currently sit at 10th in the BCS and Coaches rankings and 9th in the AP. The only praise worthy win they have is a five-point win over Oregon. FCS team Idaho State is on their list of victims. The only game against an opponent with a winning record the rest of the year is their last game of the season against 5-3 Fresno State. The Oregon defeat is a feather in their cap but their overall body of work is dismal. Once again, the four teams I mentioned for Utah, plus at least a couple others in the top 25 should beat them.
Ball State. David Letterman be damned, Ball State has beaten no one to make it to 8-0, 17th in the BCS, 16th in the AP, and 18th in the Coaches Poll. Their only game against BCS conference competition was a win over 3-6 Big Ten also-ran Indiana. Now, it’s obvious the voters are taking this into consideration, but you have to believe that any ranked team would take care of the Cardinals but the question remains. What are they taking space that others, who would punish them, are being denied?
The other example is the Big 12 South where , between the four teams that currently occupy the top eight (#2 Texas Tech, #5 Texas, #6 Oklahoma, and #8 Oklahoma State) , they’ve played four FCS schools (two for Texas Tech, none for Texas) compared to three BCS schools and only one team that is presently ranked and all of this coming before the first conference game. Someone touched on this earlier in the year and I apologize for not remembering who, but the point was that all of those teams front-loaded their schedules to play all of their out-of-conference games prior to conference play. The result was that they were all undefeated when conference play started and are now beating each other and getting credit for doing it, both in defeating ranked teams and not losing tremendous ground for losing to other ranked teams.
Are these team from the Big 12 South actually good? We’ll we have to assume that they are for now and the truth may not be known until bowl season. But, regardless the perception will be there. One thing is certain, those school play offense. I just want to know what will happen when they face good defenses?
So, what I have concluded is that to have a decent season a team needs to play in a weak conference and still hope for a little scheduling luck. I’ll be the first to admit that luck plays an important role in any good season. But what I fear is that with a playoff and the prestige that will come with making it as the reward college football fans will see more and more team front-load their schedules with weak out-of-conference opponents with the goal of being ranked and having the fewest losses as possible. Sure, the playoffs will carry a lot of interest, but the regular season will be diminished. Not by value but by the level of competition. So, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.
[Update – after reading the first few comments I add the following mea culpa]
Alright, this was never intended to be about Alabama. But, since y’all are going to dissect their schedule (which is only fair) I’ll do a little brief defending. First of all Kevin, I think you mistook Ole Miss (5-4) for Mississippi State (3-6). Second, personally as an Alabama fan, I am extremely happy to be where we are and believe it or not somewhat humble about it. The Tide have certainly been the beneficiary of schedule luck – no question about that. But they have no FCS opponents on their resume and Clemson was a top-ten team (maybe not deservedly so, but ranked nonetheless) when they met. Alabama did defeat the Ole Miss team that beat Florida at home and also defeated the Arkansas team that just handed Tulsa its first loss. To this point they are perfect in what – even if it is in a down year by conventional standards – is the top one or two conferences in the country. They may not be after Saturday. But in order for them to get to the championship game they would still have to defeat LSU, not to mention State and Auburn, and then beat Florida in the championship game. They will “play their way in”, if they can, and isn’t that what all you playoff fans want?
I concede that there are positives to a playoff, and I have seen the need for one more and more the last couple of years. My point however, is that there are negatives to it as well, don’t kid yourselves otherwise. College football is not other sports. It shouldn’t have to improve. I am glued to the TV or at a game every weekend because it is the way it is. And if a team loses to a La-Monroe then they should be excluded from the conversation, no questions. In a playoff situation, you could conceivably win your conference, lose to La-Monroe and still play and win the playoff for a national title. That isn’t right.
One final thing, the BCS isn’t perfect. Projections a few weeks ago were for Alabama to be in the Sugar Bowl against Boise State. I can’t imagine a worse reward for a good season than to play Boise State.