Thursday, February 14, 2008

What the Patriots Loss Means for College Football

The uniqueness of both the 2007 college football and NFL seasons provided us with fertile new ground for looking at the word “Champion” from different perspectives and re-examining the college football playoff debate. I’ve technically listed different ways of naming National Champions before, but this post is going to get a bit more in depth about what the term itself means. Broken down, we can see that in the football world there are basically two competing meanings of the word “Champion”, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s start this at the logical beginning. Competition-wise, what does a single game determine? Which team performed better on that particular day. That might seem somewhat obvious and/or rhetorical, but stick with me. Along those same lines, what should multiple games determine? Which team performed better over the course of all those multiple games (in other words over the whole season). Thus, equating “Champion” with our first definition of “team which performed best over the whole season” is a natural connection. Up until the BCS, college football relied solely on polls and rankings to determine which team should be champion, and even within the BCS the rankings are still of major importance. This is the meaning generally favored by fans who do not want college football to institute a playoff.

At the same time, the second definition of “team which won the playoff” can also be seen as a very natural connection for “Champion”, but in a different way. A playoff, in the simplest sense, is a survival of the fittest competition: two teams battle, the loser dies, the victor moves on to face another opponent, and the last team standing is the champion. This is the system the NFL uses, and the definition that, according to polls, a majority of fans would like to see college football adopt. So with those divisions in mind, let’s recap the two most recent seasons to see what they can add to the discussion about these competing meanings.

The 2007 NFL season will be remembered as the one in which the New England Patriots lost their perfect season in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.

Did they have the best record in the league this season? Yes.
Did they have one of the best seasons in NFL history? Yes.
Did they perform better than any other team in the league over the whole season? Yes.
Are they champions? No.

The champions are the New York Giants, a wild-card team who went 10-6, including a loss to the Patriots, but went 4-0 in the playoffs, winning the Super Bowl.

The 2007 college football season will be remembered as the one of upsets, with top teams getting beaten by ranked & unranked foes and the top 5 in the polls changing on a weekly basis. The LSU Tigers were named National Champions at the end of the season because they finished #2 in the final BCS poll and then laid a whuppin’ on the #1 Ohio State Buckeyes. Did the Tigers perform the best over the whole season? Most objective people would say that they did. The two games they lost were both in triple-overtime, they played one of the harder schedules in the country, and they defeated some good, highly-ranked teams.

So why is the Tigers' championship seen by many as less noteworthy than the one won by the Giants? Why is there an outcry every December about the college ranking system that produces a champion which, in many past years, can be said to have performed the best over the whole season? And why is there not even a grumble about the NFL team which was clearly the best over the whole season not being named Champion?

The main reason is because more than anything else, most fans don’t want a championship to be debatable. They want their champion to be definite and uncontestable and absolute, even if it means not giving the title to the best overall team.

And thus we arrive at the main difference between the definitions we introduced earlier: “team which won the playoff” is concrete and indisputable, while “team which performed best over the whole season” is subjective. This is due mostly to the different types of competitive system they naturally connect with.

The “team which performed best over the whole season” naturally works with what we’ll call an open system. An example of this would be the college football or NFL regular seasons. When a team loses, its season is not over. They’re not dead – they’ll play again the following week. Two animals compete over a piece of meat, one wins, the other gets to try again later. Simple. There might be a definite outcome that particular day, but over many days and competitions, overall victory becomes subjective.

On the other hand, the “team which won the playoff” naturally works with a closed system, typified by a single-elimination playoff setup. A team loses, its season is over. Two animals compete, one kills the other. Concrete outcome, one entity is dead and doesn’t get to compete any more. Game over. Both the open and closed systems are competitive, but they work very differently.

The desire for a definite champion creates significant problems in an open system because it isn’t set up for such concreteness. An open system isn’t designed to produce a champion that 100% of the population agrees upon. And without a clear-cut winner, taken to its extreme competition-wise, the game can be seen as pointless and/or a failure. Sure the battle is important, but the outcome is what matters most to people. They want a definitive champion every season, which is something that college football doesn’t do. The fact that an open system can produce co-champions is also something most people aren’t comfortable with, as I’ve mentioned before.

A closed system can produce a team which fits both bills, winning the playoff and performing the best over the whole season. But here’s the thing – the NFL doesn’t have a pure closed system. What’s makes a closed system “pure”? It’s single-elimination for its whole duration. 32 NFL teams start in week one, half are eliminated, 16 teams play in week two, half are eliminated… and on and on until week five when there’s only 2 teams left. The winner of that game went 5-0, performed the best over the whole (though shortened) season, and won the playoff. But that’s not what the NFL does. They have a four-week closed season tacked on to the end of a sixteen-week open season, thereby skewing everything and throwing the balance of competition out of whack.

That isn’t to say that an open system has never produced an undisputed champion, or that a impure closed system can’t produce a champion that performed the best over the whole season. They have, and they can. The point is that they’re not designed to, and the times that it does happen are few and far between.

I know what you’re saying: Both open and closed competition systems occur at the same time in nature, so why can’t they occur in the same football season too? Because they don’t actually occur at the same time in football seasons. Let’s look at two of the most widely-used arguments in this debate.

“College football doesn’t need a playoff because the whole regular season is a playoff.” Sorta, but not really. If it were truly a playoff, Duke would be dead and finished in September, USC would have bitten the dust after that horrible loss to Stanford, and if there’s no undefeated team left standing after November there’s no champion. A better analogy is that the college football regular season is more like a race without a finish line. Sometimes there’s a guy who just blows by everyone with room to spare (Texas 2005), sometimes there’s two or three guys who beat the pants off everyone but no one can tell who won between them (USC/LSU 2003), and sometimes everyone is slow as hell and it seems like no one wants to win so they just give the prize to the kid who tried the hardest (LSU 2007). And you never know what the rules are or how the race is going to go until you start running. That’s just the way an open system works.

“Playoffs make the regular season completely irrelevant.” Sorta, but not completely. Teams still have to perform well enough to make it into the playoff, that’s true. But after this last NFL season there’s absolutely no doubt that a playoff greatly diminishes the importance of the regular season. The Patriots went undefeated, 16-0, during the regular season this year. What did that achievement mean after the last week of the regular season? It meant they made it into the playoff. Nothing else. (It wasn’t even the reason they got a first round bye or home-field advantage – simply being in the top two of the AFC earned them that.) Now, if they had started the playoff with a proportional advantage over all the other teams, then their colossal regular season achievement would have meant something. But they didn’t. It’s like a free buffet for all the other carnivores who have been starving because that one big tiger has been eating all the food. Why should all the weaker ones get a free meal when the tiger has worked his tail off to gain a competitive advantage? It just doesn’t happen in natural, real competition. Even if the eventual playoff champion happens to be the team who has performed the best over the whole season, tacking a playoff on to an open regular season just isn’t natural to competition.

So where does this leave college football and the argument over how the post-season should work? Well, playoff advocates must come to terms with the fact that a playoff champion, while indisputable, will be less likely to be the team which performed the best over the whole season than the champions that are named by the rankings now. Anti-playoff proponents must come to grips with the fact that the current system’s champion is less concrete and more debatable than a playoff champion would be.

So the question now becomes, is it possible to set up a system that will definitively identify which one team performed the best over the whole season?


James said...

I stumbled across this blog today and read this post some 5 months after it went up. But I have to say that this is one of the best discussions of football championships (college and NFL) that I've ever read. It rings true and doesn't carry a slant toward either championship method. I really enjoyed reading it, so thanks for writing.

Scarlet Macaw said...

Yeah, I agree with the above and also happened to stumble across it. I guess what struck me was how the NFL's way of determining a champion versus the NCAA's way breeds certain characteristics of the league over which they govern.

The NFL is all about parity, and the salary caps and revenue sharing promote that and maybe even create too much of it. So, it's natural that its playoff system, which follows an open-style regular season, is meant to cater to a group of fairly even teams.

The NCAA, on the other hand, has very unbalanced competition. The top 40 or so teams have tremendous advantages in just about every facet imaginable over the bottom 40, and that may be conservative. Thus, it is convenient that the BCS functions only when there a few great teams at the top of the sport on which it can shower precious bowl invites.

A playoff wouldn't work in CFB because it would be trying to simulate or manufacture parity where it cannot exist, or at least does not today. And, in the same vein, an open BCS system wouldn't work in the NFL because you'd be making the outcome more crude in denying the best teams, of which there are many, the chance to win against each other.

I dunno, that's just my take on it.