Sitting in physical pain on my aunt’s couch after a second Thanksgiving meal in two hours, I performed my annual obligation: giving thanks. After recognizing my family and the food I had just crushed, my twisted and misguided soul led me to kneel at the altar of college football. Sitting around the television all weekend, riveted by the rivalry match-ups, I found myself giving thanks to none other than the BCS system. As I watched Tim Tebow trot around the Swamp saying goodbye to his home fans, I found myself thanking the system that has put my favorite team, the Florida Gators, in prime position to possibly win their third national title in four years.
You won’t find me crying for a playoff by citing President Obama’s wishes or appealing to the greatness that a college football playoff system could be—I want the status quo. It is not that there are no rational arguments in favor of a playoff system, or that some of the arguments to keep the BCS are not utterly ridiculous—because they are—I just like the system. It’s not perfect, but I don’t want a playoff. Granted, many will note I have a biased perspective. The BCS and the pollsters love the SEC: an SEC school has won the championship the last three years and five of the 11 years that the BCS system has been in place, and the SEC is undefeated in the title game. On the other hand, keep in mind that a playoff system might actually help my Gators win more titles. Which brings me to my main point.
This Saturday, college football fans everywhere have the pleasure of getting to see the number one and number two BCS teams face off in a game that is not the BCS National Championship for the first time ever. For the second year in a row, Florida and Alabama go head-to-head in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome to decide the winner of the SEC, and for the second consecutive year, the winner will play for the national title in January. If we had a playoff, they would be playing only for the conference title and for playoff seeding. Most certainly, both the winner and loser of this game would have a place in whatever playoff system college football could devise.
Herein lies the main problem with any playoff system—the weakening of the regular season. If a hypothetical playoff were in place, Florida could lose this game and still make the playoffs. This scenario would not be a rare occurrence.
Let me begin by explaining what we will not have. Stop dreaming of a 32 or 64 team playoff (*cough* Mike Leach *cough*); it will absolutely decimate the meaning of conference championships and the regular season, would require the regular season to be shortened (which will never happen for money reasons) and, ultimately, no one really wants it outside of Lubbock, Texas. Even the more rational 16-team playoff system devised of the eleven conference champions and five at-large bids is not going to happen. The current BCS regime has too much power and would never agree to such a system.
The only, or at least first, realistic playoff picture would be an eight team playoff decided by the BCS rules as they were before the +1 BCS bowl system: all six BCS conference champions will get automatic bids (SEC, Big 12, Big 10, Big East, ACC, and Pac 10), and two at-large selections would be selected by a committee. This would include the current caveat that the highest non-BCS conference team would be selected as long as it is either in the top 14 of the BCS or ranked higher than a BCS conference winner. Seeding would presumably be decided by the BCS standings. That means that this year, if the favorites win the conference championships, and Alabama was chosen over Boise State, the teams would most likely be (in order of seeding): (1) Florida, (2) Texas, (3) TCU, (4) Cincinnati, (5) Alabama, (6) Oregon, (7) Ohio State, (8) Georgia Tech.
To some this would enhance the regular season. More teams will still be in the hunt for the title. Conference rivalry games like Texas-OU, Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Florida State-Miami would take on more meaning. Not only would bragging rights be on the line, but in many cases, the conference title and a playoff spot could be on the line as well. Because garnering the conference title would be the most important goal in this scenario, teams would be less likely to schedule cupcake November games against schools like Chattanooga or Florida International. We would see more games like USC-Ohio State and Oregon-Boise State.
These points are all true, but I still hold firm: the regular season would cease to be as great as it is now, and college football would lose the one thing that makes it so great. In December 2006, USC lost to UCLA, thus allowing Florida to slide into the National Title game. In this case, USC had already won the Pac-10 title, and so UCLA was playing the game was purely for pride. Think about how much the rivalry was enhanced by the fact that UCLA was able to single-handedly knock their arch-rival out of the national title race. Had a playoff been in place, USC would still have made the playoffs as Pac-10 champions. This Thanksgiving’s Lone Star Showdown between Texas and Texas A&M would have been for nothing more than bragging rights, as Texas had already locked up a spot in the Big 12 Championship game this Saturday against Nebraska. As it was, we saw an exciting and important Thanksgiving night game that nearly knocked a national title contender from the race. How sweet would that ending have been for an otherwise disappointing A&M season? How much more bitter would that rivalry have been next season? Auburn nearly knocked off number two Alabama this weekend, but with a playoff? Who cares? ‘Bama still goes to the SEC Championship to play Florida for a spot in the playoffs.
Worse things would happen to out-of-conference rivalry games and out-of-conference games in general. Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Notre Dame-USC. These games lose a lot of their luster with a playoff system. Conference games for Florida against Vanderbilt and Kentucky then become infinitely more important than the rivalry game against Florida State, which would only have playoff implications if Florida was vying for an at-large BCS spot. Out-of-conference games would generally just become tune-up games like they are in college basketball. Let’s say Florida loses to Florida International in November (when the Golden Panthers were 45-point underdogs)? No big deal; Florida still plays in Atlanta this Saturday for a playoff spot. Sure, the fans would see better out-of-conference match-ups, but the games would have little bearing on post-season outcomes.
All of this is not to say the BCS is perfect. The polls that are used can and should be tweaked (the Harris Poll? Really?), the computers need some work (but should not be thrown out), and the ability for coaches to lobby pollsters should be regulated. Having the National Championship take place after a post-bowl round of polling might even help. Then again, I am not even going to begin to answer the argument that the BCS is not fair—because it is not. Boise State, Cincinnati and TCU have every reason to scream bloody murder if Texas beats Nebraska, because this would put an end to their title hopes. Maybe with college athletics, fairness is what we should get. But as a fan, I love the system—and I do not understand why most fans disagree with me. The college football regular season is the best in all of sports because each and every week the landscape of college football can and often does change. Each play can change a season. At the end of the day, we get the most exciting regular season in sports—one that is relevant from September to December—and we get, more often than not, a national champion that is good—not just one that is lucky and gets hot at the end of the season. College football never crowns an unconvincing champion like playoff sports sometimes do. Thank you BCS. Let us all give thanks.