Sunday, May 13, 2007

Fair Competition IV: the Big Picture

“It’s not fair that most of the teams don't have any chance
at the championship before the season even starts”


“The unfairness is because of the bias of the voters,
not the system - you can't have it both ways”

We’ve been dancing around this issue for a long while now, so let’s just get to it. From both sides of the aisle, these are the arguments that have the biggest impact on the issue of fair competition. Yes, as things stand now, all non-BCS teams (and some would argue a good number of the non-powerhouse BCS teams) don’t have any shot at making it to the title game. None. Anybody who argues that they do have a chance just needs to take a look at the last three seasons. In 2008, Utah and Boise state were the only undefeated teams before the bowls – neither of them were invited to the title game. In 2007, undefeated Hawaii and one-loss Kansas were passed over for the title game by one-loss Ohio State and two-loss LSU. In 2006, undefeated Boise State was passed over by one-loss Florida. In all the mutated permutations of seasons that the BCS has produced, not once has a non-BCS team come close to the top two spots. Is it fair? No. The anti-playoff side must admit this if we’re to move forward with these arguments. The system that can produce the best champion is unfair to those who, because of voter biases and the amount of parity in college football, are on the bottom, seen as less deserving of being the best champion no matter what they do on the field. But if the anti-playoff contingency is going to admit this, they demand that the other side to admit something of their own – that the pro-playoff crowd not only needs this unfair system but wants it. Now we’re gettin’ honest people!

Why does the pro-playoff side need and want the current ranking system? We’ve mentioned this before, that getting rid of the rankings aren’t an option, even if a playoff is instituted. But this side trip is important, since it’ll help deal with some other quick issues. If we take the power away from the rankings and make the whole thing more objective, would that make things more fair? Nope. Would most people have accepted a Utah-Boise State matchup for the national title in 2008? No. Would most people have accepted Hawaii in the title game in 2007? No. Would most people have accepted Ohio State vs Boise State instead of Florida in 2006? No. Nobody thinks situations like those are realistic or even remotely fair.

(What’s that? Huh? The Mountain West Conference wants the BCS to do what? A congressman from Utah is thinking about suing who? Aw jeez. Okay, you have to realize that most factions, even though they know a situation is unfair to most everyone, work towards it because it’s beneficial for them. A tad hypocritical? Yeah, just a little. I’m sure the MtnWest would love a situation that automatically guarantees them a spot in a BCS bowl but ignores the other non-BCS conferences. Go ahead, include them in the BCS and see how quickly they drop their playoff talk. I’m sure the SunBelt would love a situation where they faced off with a I-AA team for the national championship. The vast majority of fans are not interested in those situations because they’re widely seen as unfair to everyone else.)

The anti-playoff side likes to frame the issue another way. If we created a playoff, like the pro-playoff fans want, but didn’t have the rankings, we’d need a way to choose which teams get to participate in the playoff. One of the most reliable ways would be to take the conference champions and a few wildcard teams, just like the NFL does. So here’s the NFL playoff laid overtop of college football: first off, all of the NFL’s divisions have the same access to the playoff and title game. So all eleven conferences (the college version of divisions) would all have to be equal and have the same access to the playoff. So the SunBelt is on equal footing with the SEC, the MAC with the Big10, etc. Sound good? Let’s keep going. To automatically get into the playoff, all you have to do is win your division/conference. So the champion of the SunBelt is in, while the second place team in the SEC might not be, depending on the wild card. Winning the MAC holds the same weight as winning the Big10 or Big12. Do we really need to go on? No.

If we bend a little bit and decide that only the BCS conferences get automatic berths, most everybody would be fine with it and see it as fair – and that hits right at the heart of this issue. Overall, this is about the divide between the haves (the BCS conferences) and the have nots (the non-BCS conferences). In other important areas (cough*money*cough, cough*bowlagreements*cough), the non-BCS conferences use other arguments when going up against the BCS conferences. We’ll get to those in more detail soon... But we’re talking about fair competition here. Sure it’s not fair to the little guys that the BCS teams are the only ones with a realistic shot at the title. But as we’ve seen, it’s also unfair to the big guys to make all of the conferences and teams equal in the eyes of the system. People and fans realize that we need the rankings to strike the right balance between these two, to even out the discrepancies between strong and weak conferences & strong and weak schedules. Are those designations subjective? Yes. Are they based partly on people’s personal biases? Yes. But most people see them as fair, balancing out the competitive landscape.

This is what makes the anti-playoff side’s counter-argument so powerful. Not only do they force the pro-playoff side to recognize the validity of and need for the rankings, but they

“So if the rankings are good enough to choose
the teams for the playoff, then why aren’t they
good enough to choose the champion?”

Argh. Don’t start with that right now. The answer to this one is a broken record – because the pro-playoff side wants a clear-cut champion and the rankings aren’t designed to produce one (and rarely do). Can we move on already? Thank you.

As I was saying, not only does that argument force the pro-playoff side to acknowledge the validity of the rankings, boosting up a lot of the anti-playoff side’s other arguments, it also cuts the legs out from under some of the pro-playoff side’s other arguments they might make regarding the divide between the BCS and non-BCS conferences. By forcing the pro-playoff side to recognize that NOT separating the BCS and non-BCS conferences results in unfairness, the anti-playoff side shows that subjectivity is needed for fair competition. Since their overall goal is a subjective best champion, this helps their overall position. (It also helps their position when it comes to the money issue, but we'll get there soon too...) So as usual, we’ve got two sides able to show that the other’s position results in unfairness while their own results in fairness, and it all depends on how you look at the situation.

“Not only would a playoff give everyone a shot
at the championship, but we'd still have the rankings
to make the playoff fair - it's the best of both worlds”


“You’re still going to have to draw a subjective line
somewhere, and somebody’s still gonna get hosed”

You wouldn’t think that such a powerful argument from the pro-playoff side could be a double-edged sword. But it is, mainly because it puts us in a realistic, logical frame of mind. Yes, a playoff would mean that all teams have a shot and the national championship. That is a definite, if only because the non-BCS conferences wouldn’t agree to a playoff system that didn’t include them. (I mean, what’s the point of going to a playoff if the teams that don’t currently have a chance still don’t? Would that even quelch the loudest voices one bit? No.)

But just as definite is the fact that any playoff is going to have to automatically include the BCS conference champions. (You think they’re gonna give an automatic spot to a non-BCS without securing one for themselves? Nuh-uh.) So we’re talking at least an 8-team playoff. Here’s what would've happened in the last 11 years had a playoff of that sort been used (along with the outcomes of some other possible setups). Every year, you’re leaving out at least one top-ten team. Sometimes you leave out two, most years you leave out three, and 2008 would’ve left out four top-ten teams. The pro-playoff crowd will tell you that’s a price they’re willing to pay, while the anti-playoff crowd will tell you it’s too steep and we’d have just as much arguing, crying, bitching, groaning, etc.

And that’s what it comes down to with all of the previous fair competition arguments and issues – somebody’s always gonna be unhappy with the system. Nothing will satisfy everyone, or even most everyone. Let’s move on to some of the big, non-competition based issues.

Fair Competition III: Making Meaning <> Tradition and the Season

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