If college football replaces the current Bowl Championship Series system with a playoff, particularly one as robust as that proposed by Michael Garn in his column “For a BCS playoff” last week, the result would be inevitable and familiar: college basketball.
To be more specific, adding a playoff system to college football would trade the relevance and drama of the regular season for a potentially exciting — and potentially not — postseason. There is a reason so few people follow college basketball from November through February. Any mention of college basketball to the casual sports fan elicits the response, “Oh, is it almost March Madness?” No one cares how your college basketball team does during the regular season as long as it wakes up come tourney time. And at the end of it all, we end up with cringe-inducing championship games like the 2011 snoozer in which the University of Connecticut beat Butler 53–41.
Thank goodness, college football is different. The entire season is a playoff. Lose to a bad team in September? You are going to have a hard time climbing back into the national championship race. Lose again? You may be out of a marquee bowl. Harsh as it is, every game the entire season truly does matter.
A playoff system is a safety net that would instantly water down the intensity of the season. This is not an untested theory; it is already happening with the addition of postseason conference championship games. As much as it pains me to say, my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes had a terrible season by all accounts. Nonetheless, the addition of the first-ever Big Ten championship game in 2011 left the Buckeyes in control of their own destiny as far as getting to the Rose Bowl as late as the second week of November.
Some would argue that an extended lifeline to the big-time bowls is a good thing, as it extends the drama we all crave. These critics do not appreciate that in college football’s current system, there is always something to fight for, most often non-BCS bowl placement. Keeping this late-season glimmer of a championship open to all is not filling a void; it is instead dismissing the importance of the early part of the season.
Let’s look at other sports for perspective. The NBA and the NHL are similar to college basketball in that a game lost here or there does not usually have huge implications at the end of the day. Fans only get excited about occasional games for most of the season, such as crosstown rivalries or the Cavs’ shot at LeBron, and then only for their sentimental value.
The NFL would be a naturally instructive place to look. In fact, it may well be the professional regular season fans care about the most. Nonetheless, regular season wins are nowhere near as important as in college. The attention-grabbing team of the season, Tim Tebow’s Denver Broncos, made the playoffs after literally losing half of their games. In 2011, the Seattle Seahawks earned a losing record (7–9) and a playoff bid.
Also, we really can lose this crusading tone Garn uses about needing to find a “true national champion.” There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind the day after the University of Alabama delivers a crushing 21–0 defeat to Louisiana State University in the national championship game who the national champion is. This system values what teams have done all year long and gives the best two teams, almost always by consensus, the chance to duke it out. Alabama was the best team in college football this year, hands down.
Was UConn the best basketball team last year? If Butler had not shot 6 of 37 from the field (seriously, that happened in a championship game), would we be comfortable calling them the best of the best?
As much as I sympathize with the plight of smaller, non-BCS conference schools whose impressive records have a hard time landing them in elite bowls, we have to come to terms with the fact that the Sun Belt Conference and, say, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) just are not at the same competitive level. And let’s not pretend like non-BCS conference teams have no shot in this system. We saw Boise State University’s playground-style upset of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. We saw the same Boise State team ranked No. 2 in both major polls late in the 2010 season. Then they lost.
Those of us who grew up watching college football know the drama and excitement that accompany game day each and every week for three months. I am not willing to trade that for a couple good games over winter break — games that culminate in UConn-Butler.
Correction, Jan. 19:
An earlier version of this column misstated the runner-up in the 2011 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It was Butler, not Baylor.