The possibility of Division I-A college football deciding its champion by using a playoff is one of the biggest issues in the sport today, and there are many differing opinions on the propriety and feasibility of such a course of action. To the casual sports fan, everything starts with the fact that most people aren’t satisfied with how college football names its champion. In fact, most fans are rather furious about it. Part of what they’re furious about is that on the surface, it seems like such an easy problem to fix. Have a playoff – problems solved!
Oh, if it were that simple.
It’s not, which is the main thing I hope you’ll realize from reading through this whole section. People are always going to be split on the playoff argument, no matter how it gets resolved (if it ever is), and not many of us are under the delusion that reaching a consensus is possible. There are a lot of complex issues and parties involved, and they all must be looked at together as a whole – it’s impossible to untangle and separate them out, as you’ll see from the following. My aim in developing this section is to present both sides of the arguments equally, showing supporting evidence and ideas both for and against a playoff. But I’m not only writing about the issues – I’m also trying to show how people fight and argue about and manipulate the issues as well. Both sides employ dubious logical tricks to confuse the situation and muddy the waters, which is part of the overall problem. Whether you’re in favor of some type of playoff, against one, or on the fence, mull the issues over, post replies and rebuttals, and in general, step back and look at the problem as a whole.
For easy reference, arguments that support a playoff are in green and those against a playoff are in red. And a word of caution: at points in the discussing of these issues, you’ll think that I’ve skipped over something, or have omitted a counterpoint, or don’t take the argument to the next logical level. The reason for that is because my writing and your reading is linear – the issues are not. They’re a big, tangled web, and each issue is informed by and informs other arguments and issues related to it. Each one has multiple counterpoints and multiple next levels. I’ve tried to point this out as much as I can, but it’s not gonna be pretty. We’re going to be jumping around a lot – just hang on. (This isn't rocket surgery people, but it's not tiddlywinks either...)
“Championships are clear-cut and objective”
“Championships are for the best, even if that’s subjective”
How mythical do you want your champion to be? This is where it begins. From a pure, competition standpoint, most of the overall playoff argument boils down to how to name a champion and two competing definitions. In sports that hold a playoff at the end of the regular season, the champion is the team which is good enough to make it into the playoff and then wins the playoff. It’s a solution that cannot be argued with and is very objective. Either your team wins the playoff and they’re clear-cut champions or they don’t and they’re not. But there’s another, equally valid definition of champion – the team which performed the best over the course of the whole season. This definition is subjective, since there’s rarely a definitive way to answer which team performed the best. A ranking system is used, and a majority of votes determines the champion. The vast majority of sports use the first definition, including a playoff after their regular season, while college football is the only major sport that uses rankings to determine their champion(s). Right now, most people would prefer that college football have a clear-cut champion instead of one that is the best. But the problem with reconciling these two types of champions is that the systems that produce them don’t overlap – they’re designed to do two different things. A playoff is designed to produce an objective champion that is clear-cut, not one that is the best: the rankings are designed to produce a subjective champion that is the best, not one that is clear-cut. So in order to get the clear-cut champion that they want, a lot of people are pro-playoff.
Before we move on, we have to flesh out this objective vs subjective landscape a bit, since it’s important to most, if not all, of the competition-based arguments and issues we’ll run into. Even though I think this objective vs subjective approach is the most rational way to look at the playoff issue, don't think that I’m presenting it and basing everything on it simply because it’s my pet and I prefer it. Let's examine the situation in more detail to and I hope you'll see that it is a good, solid point of view.
the Objective-Subjective Landscape
What is the overall goal or purpose of any competition or sport? To find out who’s better. That’s what everything boils down to on most levels – who is better. At one end of the landscape, the most simple unit of team sports is purely objective – the game. Either you win or you lose. It’s not up for debate, and you can’t argue with the scoreboard. (Thankfully for our purposes here, college football doesn’t have ties anymore, so we don’t have to deal with them.) The game decides who’s better on that day between two teams. Period. But once you get past the level of the game, when you expand to look at multiple teams playing multiple games and trying to find out who’s better over the course of a long season, you slide into subjective territory. There’s no realistic way to avoid it – it’s part of sports when you’re dealing with a whole season. Why is this so?
We can see it in the simplest example. On the first day of the season, Team A beats Team C. We know for certain that Team A is better. There’s no question, and no discussion (or arguing) needed. But let’s add in another game: Team B beats Team D. We know that Team B is better than Team D, no question, but who is better, 1-0 Team A or 1-0 Team B? Any answer is going to be subjective. Add in another week: Team A beats Team D, and Team B beats Team C. Now who’s better, 2-0 Team A or 2-0 Team B? Whatever your answer is, it’s subjective. You might want more information, like the scores, or locations, or stats, to help you decide who’s better, but that’s a judgment call – not everyone uses the same information or places the same value on aspects of the game. And that’s just four games over two weeks. Now try doing that with seven hundred games over fifteen weeks. Subjectivity is there, whether we like it or not. (Of course it’s not always that ambiguous or definite, as we’ll see.)
Technically, there’s only one way for a whole season to be completely objective – make the whole season a single-elimination playoff. Play the first round of games, the winners move on, the losers are done. Keep playing until there’s only one team left standing, the champion. Team A beats Team C, and Team B beats Team D, then Team A beats Team B = Team A is the best. Another way that comes close to pure objectivity is if every team plays every other team in the league the same number of times home and away. In theory, that would get rid of strength of schedule, home-field advantage, and a host of other subjective considerations. But that setup would only work if the season ended with just one team having the best record – more than one and you have to get subjective to determine the champion. (For instance, if we add one more week to our first example – Team A beats Team B, therefore at 3-0, Team A is seasonally better than any of the other teams.) But the whole point is rather moot because no major sport sets their season up in either of these fashions, mainly because they’d end up with too few or too many games. Teams play each other different amounts of games or even not at all, and the playoff isn’t instituted until the regular season is done. So there is some subjectivity involved no matter what.
Achieving Fairness in Competition
Most fans understand that no sport can make their system and championship competition 100% fair for everybody – it just doesn’t happen. Somebody or some team is always going to have some problem with the way things are done. Most team sports try to make their championship competition fair by avoiding as much subjectivity as they can, basing important things past the game level (such as standings, playoff spots, seeds, etc.) on objective win-loss records. The more you win, the better you are, the further you go. Simple as that. But even this setup isn’t completely fair – the fact that teams are divided up into conferences and divisions makes things partially unfair. Don’t believe me? What about when teams are included in a playoff at the expense of teams who have better win-loss records? It happens all the time, most notably this past NFL season when the New England Patriots went 11-5 and were left out of the playoff while the San Diego Chargers went 8-8 and were included. Sure it was going by division champions, which is a type of objectivity, but was it fair? No. But most fans generally accept the minute amount of unfairness in most playoff systems because they feel it’s better to err on the side of objectivity rather than subjectivity.
College football on the other hand uses rankings to decide most things past the game level. I know that there’s a lot of people out there who think that the rankings are hugely subjective (they are) and that they’re unfair (they can be). But few will argue that we don’t need the rankings at all – they’re necessary to college football, as annoying as that can be. Most fans understand that even though some sports (usually professional) can create mostly fair competition by going by win-loss records, thereby eliminating subjectivity, other sports (usually collegiate) must create fair competition by using rankings and making their inherent subjectivity work for the sport. The big question is how much do we need or should we use the rankings to maximize fair competition? There are advantages and disadvantages to being on either side of the landscape, and each sport has it’s own fair balance. So when it comes to naming a champion, the trick for all sports is how to find a fair, competitive balance between the objectivity of the game and the subjectivity of the season.
Regarding the competitive aspects of the playoff issue, the vast majority of the time pro-playoff fans think the balance is on the objective side while anti-playoff fans think the balance is on the subjective side. These are their territories, so to speak, complete with different sets of rules for naming a champion and different ideas of what’s fair and what’s not. That isn’t to say that the pro-playoff side doesn’t use subjective arguments, or that the anti-playoff side doesn’t use objective arguments – both sides are willing to use whatever weapons they can if it helps them support their ultimate goal of finding the clear-cut or best champion. More often than not, each side ends up proving the other’s point and shooting themselves in the foot, throwing many an argument onto a merry-go-round of logic that can be impossible to escape from. It’s quite fascinating/laughable, as I hope you’ll see.
One of the main problems in discussing these objective-subjective issues, which I brought up at the end of last season, is the use of the term ‘better’. Corresponding quite nicely with our divided landscape, there are two main definitions of better: what we’ll call on that day better and seasonally better. On that day better is completely objective and cannot be argued with – either your team won on that day and they were better than their opponent, or they lost and their opponent was better. Because of the way seasons are structured, seasonally better is subjective and is argued about all the time. They’re VERY different and mean completely different things, yet people fail to distinguish between them constantly. You’ve seen these types of arguments:
Oklahoma is better than Texas.
No way – Texas beat them 45-35!
So what? Going by that, then you have to say
that Texas Tech is better than Texas,
since the Red Raiders beat the Longhorns.
Texas obviously had a better season than Texas Tech.
The Longhorns didn’t get blown out 65-21 by Oklahoma –
their one loss was by 6 points on the last play of the game.
And on and on, around in circles we go. Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech all were on that day better than one of the others, and since seasonally better is subjective, we’re stuck. This is what happens when you don’t keep your betters separate, people – you get caught up in a big, circular tug of war that doesn’t accomplish anything. So for the sake of alleviating misunderstandings, please keep your betters separate. If you purposefully use the betters interchangeably in order to win arguments and feel smart, stop it – that’s a dick thing to do and you’re not helping the situation.
So that’s the basic lay of the land that we’re going to be covering here. Let’s look at some other variations of this objective clear-cut champion vs subjective best champion feud. The space between the two sides is illuminated a little better by switching the definitions, attempting to equate a playoff with a subjective champion and a ranking system with an objective champion. We know that a playoff produces a clear-cut champion 100% of the time, and that rankings produce the best champion 100% of the time – but can each system produce the other?