Death to Your College Football Playoff Proposal(s)

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

It's that time of year. Now that the games are over, the bowl selected, and the National Championship set, its time to give your poorly reasoned argument for the BCS or for a playoff. As Zach already noted, some of the crackpots, hacks, and media types have already started doing this. But it's not just them. There are several respected members of the blogosphere and MSM that have proposed dumping the BCS in favor of a NCAA Football National Championship Playoff. 

I started drafting this a few days ago and it turned into a monster piece. New ideas, new arguments, new issues to resolve. Then, in the midst of writing this, Mgoblog and Orson picked up a piece in USA Today claiming victory for the BCS, and tore it to shreds. So I know what I'm getting myself into here.

The cry for a playoff is alive and well. For the hack newspaper reporters at your local rag, this is an annual tradition of fecal writing in place in lieu of actual content. For the reasonable, it's an annual plea for sanity in what is perceived to be a broken system. Some ideas seem feasible. Others are so ludicrous that the writer should be tarred, feathered, and put in the Serengeti during the ostrich mating season. But no matter home logical or illogical these proposals seem on their face, there's one simple truth that applies to all of them.

They don't work any better than what we've already got.

Despite the noble purpose behind these proposals (a true and undisputed college national football champion) they are either unworkable, or do so at the expense of a number of different people, interests and common sense. For those of us who actually like the bowl system and the status quo, it's a knee jerk reaction to say "you can't make it work", smile self-confidently to ourselves, dismiss the proposer as an idiot, and walk away. So, in an effort to clarify not just why the playoff idea is stupid but why it simply won't work, here goes.

Death to Your Proposed FBS College Football Playoff!

The desire to have an undisputed national champion is an understandable one. As is the desire to get a couple of extra weeks of the most glorious sport on earth. However, it's not just that. There is the argument that the BCS is broken and must be replaced. And must be replaced with a playoff.

On the surface, it makes sense. Basketball, hockey, baseball, all the woman's sports do it. Even D2 football does it. That's fine and dandy, but they're all different sports (I get in to the FCS issue below). You can play basketball, baseball, and hockey on back to back nights. It's physically possible to do so. Football, however is a different animal. It's in not physically possible to do that in football. You must have time to allow players to heal, recuperate and recover. You could conclude the NCAA basketball tournament in a fortnight if you wanted to. It's simply nowhere near as taxing on the bodies of the players as football is. If you try to do that with football, a lot of kids are going to get seriously injured. What it comes down is when we're talking about college sports, the health of the players must come first.

And that is my biggest issue with expanding the season past it's current length; the danger to the players. At a certain point people need to realize these players are still just kids. As it stands, the regular season is 12 games long. 13 games with a bowl game. Then, for a select few, the season is 14 games long because of a conference championship game. That's a lot of contact for a 19-21 year old kid.

And I want you to say that again, "kid".

The players out there aren't grown men, as much as we like think they are. They're kids. Kids that are playing a game, ostensibly for free. You can whine about how they're getting paid under the table, or about all the benefits they get in the comments below. But they're not getting a paycheck. In fact, they're playing the game in the hope that some day they will receive a paycheck to play this game. And playing four extra games in a season might do more harm to that goal than good.

"But what about all the extra practice time and media attention they'll get!?"

What all that extra practice and game time really translates into is a greater chance these kids will suffer a serious injury. Football is like radioactive waste, prolonged exposure  to it will destroy your body. This isn't hyperbole, it's documented fact. The higher the exposure, the higher the chance of career threatening injury. Honestly, you don't need to look any further than the horrible effect football had on Chris Henry's life to realize that.

 

If we were to make these kids to play in these proposed extra games after an already grueling 12 game season we're putting them at an exponentially increased risk for injury. Think about it. When are you more prone to injury? When you're already tired and beaten down. Think about how worn down these kids are at the end of a 12 game season. Michigan's 2007 team is a perfect example, it was a MASH unit that never really played a full game together  until the Citrus Bowl. After they'd had a month and change to heal! Tack on an extra four games and watch the injury rates on the teams involved skyrocket. Like I said before, this isn't hyperbole, it's statistical, documented fact.

Further, an extension of the season doesn't just put their physical health that is at risk. We're also putting their post football lives in some jeopardy. The football season already lasts five and a half months. Not only would a playoff expand the football season into the spring semester, it would interfere even further with the student athlete's ability to succeed academically in their course load. It's tough enough for most kids to get through the fall semester with football and classes, but by extending the season even more putting them further behind the eight-ball in their spring semesters. Spring semesters in which they'll already be committed to 20 hours of football related work, before Spring practice and the spring games kick in.

There's also an aspect of family we're interfering with. We'd taking these kids away from their families not just over Thanksgiving, but throughout the Christmas/Holiday season and past the new year. I don't care how much kids like football, at a certain point people need to be with their families and not preparing to play a game for our amusement.

Montana's AD said this about the current FCS playoff:

--- AND OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE: We are NOT considering the health and welfare of the student-athletes, who are having to spend at least one month of playing 4-5 more games --- which is permanently damaging their bodies – and hurting their academics. This is not fair to them – nor their coaches. This is where all of us are selfish, and want the playoff system vs. a bowl. At the FBS level, there is a month off to recover bodies, take care of academics and finals, and at the end, a reward of a bowl and some fun --- and the schools don’t lose money like we do at the FCS level.

* emphasis MnB

When you consider the costs to the student athlete physically, academically, and personally I just don't think you can justify a playoff. The costs to the participants are just too high.

It's at about this point someone will tell me that:

The players overwhelmingly want a championship game!

My response to this is fairly straightforward. So what?

18-22 year old, over testosteroned males often want things that are stupid and bad for them. Walk around any college campus and watch a 20 something shotgun a case of Red Bull, dress like Kayne West, and tell you he's going to law school to make crazy money and live in a penthouse in New York. 18-22 year olds aren't necessarily the most self-aware people on earth, and whether they "want" a playoff is largely irrelevant. The players' health, safety and academic requirements trump this. And that's the way it should be. If they were all compensated, professional voting for this, it'd be one thing. But they're kids in school preparing for their lives out of school, and that's an obligation that should be taken seriously.

Player safety and health has to be the paramount issue at stake, not who the "true" champion is. There are other reasons not to move to a playoff, but I think this is the most important one. Still, for the sake of argument, lets delve into the next reason why there's no point in switching to a playoff: A playoff isn't going to be any fairer than the current system.

How Do You Realistically Make it Work?

For the sake of argument, let's say we're looking at an 8 team playoff.* 16 teams is simply too many, extends the season even longer. But an 8 team playoff seems to be everyone's favorite option in terms of length of the extended season and fair competition. With an 8 game playoff you're talking additional three games for the winner and runner up.

Throwing out my argument above regarding player health, and focusing just on logistics, we've got to fill 8 playoff slots to make it work. Let's also assume that people can widely agree the top four, saying that some variation of the top four teams would make the eight team playoff. This makes sense, yes?

Fine, how in the hell do you select the next four teams? To me, this is where the playoff argument falls apart.

When you're dealing with 122 FBS schools in eleven different conferences, how can you reasonably select four additional schools to play in the playoff? Let's say we take the winners of the BCS conference as the top seeds: (Big Ten, Big XII, SEC, ACC,  PAC12, Big East or Mountain West). That's six teams. How do you fairly pick two teams to fill the last two slots? You end up using the exact same methodology everyone hates already and are using to tear the BCS down: Computers and Polls.

Let's look at just from a rankings perspective. Again, assume 1-4 are easy, if not easy that there are at least 4 deserving teams. Picking 5-8 fairly is damn near impossible. In the SEC there were five teams with nine or more wins. In the Big Ten there were three 11 win teams. In the Big XII there were five teams with 9 or more wins (one 9 win, three 10 win, and one11 win teams). Then there's a pair of 12 win and 11 win teams in the PAC-10. And if we're being kind, there's Boise and TCU. You're telling me that you can fairly pick eight teams out of 17 deserving teams? Yeah. Good luck with that.

I find it amazing that people think a playoff is going to "fix" the "problems" with the BCS. If we're already bitching about how we're picking the teams that go to the BCS games, what's going to happen when we start picking teams to play in a playoff under either of the above scenarios? How in god's name are you going to do that properly without resorting to the exact same calculus we currently employ to select the BCS? You can't do it. You simply can't do it fairly or logically. If the top four are selected already, pick 4 out of the 13 remaining quality schools (just based on 2010). Or if you go to the BCS conference seeding model, pick 2 out of the 14 remaining quality schools (note: I didn't include any Big East teams in the rankings only system). 

Another fallacy that's thrown out is the proposition that you can have a selection committee pick the teams that play in the playoff. The idea is that you have a select group of people weigh everything an make the wise choice as to who plays in the games. These people won't be swayed by outside influences, they'll pick only with their minds and not their hearts or biases, and we'll get a just system. What I've just described is the very antithesis of human nature. Of course the system will be flawed and corrupt, it's run by college football. Everyone involved in the sport has it's own biases, watches ESPN, and unless they're a eunuch living alone with no living relatives, there's no way in hell they can watch every game and fairly evaluate each team and team's schedule and the schedules of the other teams and their schedules. It's impossible. Phil Steele's the closest thing we have to that (not the eunuch part, tho), and even he gets stuff wrong. A lot.

No matter the system, it's going to be flawed. So I don't get the urgency to swap a cup of Drano for a cup of Liquid plumber.

The counter argument to this was made by MGoBlog a while ago, so I'll save Brian the trouble and cut-and-paste his reaction to my above argument:

Anyway, arguments like this are akin to turning down surgery on a gangrenous limb because you don't want to have a peg-leg (hhhhyyyyarrrr!). Just because a playoff is still a little broken does not mean that it is not a preferable option to something that is almost always broken.

He is correct only if you are dead set in favor of a playoff. Brian is. I am not. I simply don't see the advantage to a playoff that everyone else does. The participants are arbitrarily chosen in both scenarios, teams play one another, and someone is named national champion after it's all over. The only differences are the number of games and the number of teams screwed out of competing for said MNC. To me this is not an issue of cutting off a "gangrenous limb." This is an issue of replacing your current hooked nose with a different, yet equally grotesque set of nostrils.

Maybe you can do this in a 32 team NFL, but trying to do it in a 122 team FBS when everyone plays different schedules and real money is on the line is impossible. Further, and I'm a little upset I'm burying this point so far down the article, this isn't the NFL. It's college football. The Bowl system is one of the things that helps to differentiate the two games. These kids aren't professionals and to an extent it's kind of nice to celebrate that aspect of the game. The Bowl games matter to the kids. Say what you want, they matter to the fans. We don't have to make everything the same. We should be able to celebrate one of the things that differentiates the college and pro game.

* Personally, I don't think a 6 team system works either. Someone's still getting screwed. The set up is fine and dandy, but don't we do this already?
Pick the best teams based on accomplishments on the field. Heavily prioritize schedule difficulty, especially in the nonconference. Treat close losses to quality competition as evidence of suitability. Look past the number in the loss column.
You still extend the season too long and you're basically just doing what we do now, but adding three more games.

But Dave, they do it in the FCS and there are 125 teams in the FCS. Q.E.D. M-fer.

Bullshit. The reason it "works" in the FCS is because no one cares. That's right. I said it. The only people that care about the FCS champion are the schools involved. The games are played in half empty 20,000 seat stadiums, by kids that only on the rarest of occasions are going to get a sniff of the pros. The bottom line here is these kids aren't going to play on Sunday. You don't sign with App State instead of Florida because you're going to get a better shot at the pros in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. You play FCS football because you love the game and want to squeeze as much playing time as you can out of a limited window. We let them play that championship because once that uniform's off, that's it. And once it's off they're going into the professional world just like the rest of us. With a resume in hand, wearing a cheap suit, and an awkward smile that says "Please pay me to do something I barely understand." But that's not the reason to avoid the playoff.  

The real reason a playoff won't work in the FBS is money. The money that makes everyone's athletic department profitable and pays for all those other non-revenue sports. And don't give me the "in an ideal world it's not about money" crap either. Schools aren't lining up to jump to the FBS for any other reason. When you spend and receive the amount of money we're talking about, game in game out, that the FBS teams do the dynamic changes.

And the FCS playoff doesn't work! In 2008-2009 the NCAA lost close to $400,000 on the FCS playoff. Do a playoff in the FBS and you have to factor in the losses for the schools that have to travel in a playoff, the expenses for the host school, and the giant cut the NCAA will take off the top. Or do you go to a neutral site for each playoff game and have the neutral site hosts bitch about who's paying out what?

Earlier this September, FCS Montana's Athletic Director sent this email to a loyal fan regarding a potential move to the FBS:

--- Football at UM [Montana] breaks even. We generate $6.5 in revenues; and the expenses associated with football at $6.5. Thus, others are probably losing $3-$4.5 million annually. How long can that continue at some schools?

--- We are struggling to find opponents to play in Missoula…. Cost is high, plus we win 93% of our games here. People do not like to come here. Even Division II schools are asking "guarantees" in excess of $125,000 to come here. That cuts drastically into our revenues.

--- We are NOT guaranteed home playoff games. We have been extremely fortunate in the past. To put in perspective, we made about $100,000 for the three home playoff games last year – and sent another $1.1 million to the NCAA. A regular season home game nets between $400,000 and $1 million (Montana State, App State, etc.). Being in the WAC, we are allowed 12 games instead of 11 – and 13 when you play at Hawaii. So instead of $100,000 at max, we would be seeing additional dollars… at a minimum of $300,000.

--- The FCS playoff system is hurting financially. We produced $1.1 million of last year’s budget of $2.5 million. The other 11 games produced less than $1 million TOTAL. The NCAA lost almost $500,000 again, and it will not continue to tolerate to follow this plan. Now we’ve added another round and four more teams…. Being on the committee, and as chair, I know this is a major concern to the NCAA – and a last-gasp reason for changing to Frisco, Texas, in hopes of attracting more attention and support. It won’t help to move the championship back three weeks into January – let alone that it will be taking place 40 minutes away from the Cotton Bowl, which has also been moved to that night. So much for FCS exposure on national television. Just to keep the student-athletes on campus during Christmas will also cost the two schools in the championship an additional $100,000 – none of which is budgeted. And to put in perspective, we LOST $150,000 each of the past two year going to the championship game. Had we won, the incentives for coaches would have put the losses over $200,000 each time. We get no additional revenue for any of this.

* emphasis MnB

So, no. The FCS playoff  DOESN'T work. It's not profitable. And even the AD of one of its most competitive schools in the FCS admits the playoff is harmful to their kids.

And it's not like an FBS playoff would be more profitable or equitable. Under the current system, both participants in a bowl game get a nice fat payout, and so do their conferences. Even at an 8 team playoff you're talking about 7 total additional games that have to be played. Who hosts it? How is the money distributed? How much will the NCAA skim off the top? And where is the money coming from?

The reason the Bowl system "works" is that you have people lining up to host the bowl games. The reason they do it is because they make money. The bowl game is it for the season. There's nothing after it. So fans come to town, buy up hotel rooms, purchase Orange Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Chick-fil-A Bowl, etc... gear, and generally spend money like Imelda Marcos at a shoe store. If you throw out that model for the BCS games, where does the money come from? We're talking about $18 a bowl participant suddenly drying up. No one's going to be lining up to dole out $18 per game for a playoff system, because the only game that matters is the last one. Under the current structure all the BCS bowl games "matter" financially and the participants bring that money back to their conferences. Five BCS games of equal financial value or 7 games (in an 8 team playoff) where the first four games won't sniff that level of financial backing and the payouts to the conferences decrease because there are only going to be two teams/conferences sharing the title pot.

Looking at it logistically, let's say you allow the higher seeded playoff participants to host a playoff game. At that point your revenue is dependent upon their stadium capacity and operating costs BEFORE all the playoff expenses come in. And the host schools will not only be feeding money back to the two conferences involved and the other team, but to the NCAA as well. Okay, so let's move the games to destination locations, maybe out west or south. But then you're taxing the hell out of your fan base to pay a premium for tickets to THREE games and TRAVEL to these games.

Let's be honest. That shit is expensive. If you're a regular family, there's no way you can justify travel to three playoff games in expensive locations like California or Florida unless you already live there. Then there's also the issue of timing. Wouldn't rather sit on your couch in mid December to watch the first round rather than freeze your ass off at $250 a pop in Columbus, knowing that if they win the game there are still two more to go? It'll end up being the Atlanta Braves syndrome, people watch the first rounds at home then pay the big bucks to go the the championship game.

Playoffs are expensive, and assuming that fan bases will spend all that extra money around the holidays (perhaps three separate trips) is a significant leap of faith. This issue becomes even more pronounced at a 16 team playoff. You can say, "But I'd go!" all you want. But real families with bills to pay are going to find it hard to support a playoff, irrespective of advertising (Which, BTW, will focus on the championship game. Just like it currently does). It's much more profitable, and certainly better for the players, to keep things as they are.

But what about great teams like TCU or Boise that get left out!?

Well, TCU's solved a large part of this problem by going to the Big East in 2012. Utah also helped fix things by moving to the Pac 10. So it's just Boise State that's being "left out". And it's hard to suggest that Boise's really being left out at all. They've played in more BCS games than Michigan State has. But the meme continues, in a playoff they'd be able to win it all. Why can't the prove it on the field?

The simple answer? They can. Schedule better non-conference games and join a real conference. I'm sorry, but as admirable as Boise's current run is and how much they've invested in become a legitimate football program, their conference schedule is still a complete joke. They're best win, and this is a good one, is Virginia Tech. Their second best, a lousy Oregon State team. Their loss? A mediocre Nevada team sandwiched in between throttling lousy WAC teams.

There's always the response that no one will schedule them. That's bullshit. The issue is money, not competition. Dollars to donuts that Boise's demanding a return trip to Idaho for any game they play abroad. If Boise dropped that, I'm sure plenty of teams would line up to schedule them. This is a money, not a competition issue. Do you think the big boys want to give up a home game to travel to Boise when they can schedule whomever they want at home? If Boise took the $1 million to play at OSU or Alabama or Texas without the demand of a return trip, I'm sure their dance card would be full out of conference. The exception this year was Daniel Snyder's money to get Boise to play in DC against Virginia Tech where the Broncos got a nice big payout for joining the party. Otherwise, do you really think that Virginia Tech would've given up a home game? The other answer is fairly simple. Join the Big XII or the Big East. I understand both are looking for members.

I know, I know. It's not fair. Neither is life. Get a helmet.

It may seem like my venom on this subject is directed at anyone in favor of a playoff. Not so. I understand and respect the idea behind it. I just disagree that you can ethically, profitably, and properly execute it without endangering the health of the players and the financial underpinning of the Division One Football. My venom is really directed at the lazy hacks in the MSM who constantly decry the current BCS and suggest asinine playoff proposals because they're too lazy to come up with original content or think their own proposals through to their logical conclusion.

Since the inception of the BCS there's been a constant drone from lazy MSM writers that the system is inherently broken and must be replaced with a  playoff system. No one has a clue how to implement that or any suggestion as to how it will actually work, but dammit, the current system is the embodiment of the Anti-Christ. "What if we had a playoff?" they say. "Then we'd have a true national champion. Problem solved." No, it's not. That is the intellectual equivalent of saying "What if all poor people became doctors? Economic crisis solved!"

The complaint is that the BCS is too arbitrary. Well, every playoff system I've seen is too. They're all based on the exact type of calculus we currently use to determine the BCS. All we're doing is replacing one flawed system with another, and that, to me, is useless. Brian has a great response to this, though not one I agree with.

No system can be perfectly fair. But even generic eight-team playoffs are self-evidently more fair and satisfying than the current mess.

No. It's not. I don't care about the pageantry of the bowls, just like I don't care determining a "true" national champion through a playoff. Why? Because both are a function of our imagination. Bowls aren't about history, they're about money and rewarding your players for all their hard work with a cool trip and a nationally televised game where they feel like it's important. To me, saying that the possibility of an 8 seed winning it all makes things more exciting is also flawed. When we're talking about a team's inclusion in a playoff is based on a subjective interpretation of how they performed, who is to say the team left out couldn't have won it all? I know it's a crappy argument, but it's the same argument being used against current system.

Someone is always going to get screwed. It's just a fact of life. Auburn and Boise can bitch all they want about being left out of past MNC games, but the bottom line is that they were given the short end of the stick and there's nothing they can do about it. If they'd been on the other side of the lollipop they'd be arguing how the system worked just fine, thanks. Whether we're in a playoff or the BCS, someone's going to get screwed.

So why further endanger the kids playing college football for a zero sum game? No matter how you do it you'll never equal the money being handed out by the BCS, you'll never make the game safer for the participants, and you'll never find an equitable way to do it.

I'm not asking for a perfect system. But if we're going to start changing things I think it's critical that whatever we implement is better for everyone involved than the present system. The present system is already over-taxing on the athletes involved. The present system is already screwy enough.

Let's not make it worse by going to a playoff.

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