Saturday, January 3, 2009

"There is what is, and there is what we would like it to be"

The BCS, as much as people may hate it, has done some great things for college football: it's increased the sport's popularity exponentially, it's given us some exciting bowl matchups we otherwise wouldn't have seen (as well as some clunkers, but that's to be expected), it's made a lot more money for a lot more people, and on the rare occastion it's settled the national championship question. But, as many will point out, there's a lot of negatives that come with it. Double-edged sword and all that - you know the argument.

In my regular season wrap-up a couple weeks ago, I said that the college football landscape is changing from a sport that's played regionally on Saturdays to a sport that's played nationally for four straight months. And that's fine - I'm glad college football is enjoying immense popularity with a wider audience than ever before. But the big downside to this shift is that the games themselves, the base of the sport, have taken a backseat to the twin unanswerable questions that weren't born with the BCS but grew into overbearing monsters because of it: Who is the "best" team, and how do we determine who is the "best" team?

Go look at all the articles about the Rose and Sugar Bowls right now on sports websites. They all at least mention the fact that neither the USC Trojans nor the Utah Utes will be national champions this year and that the system sucks because of it. Some of them even use this point as the whole reason for their writing, deciding (once again) to focus on the negative aspects of the situation instead of the positive.

I don't write this to try to get people to act all hunky-dory about the situation, and I'm not trying to defend the BCS. I'm guilty of wondering about who's best and how do we determine it as much as anybody. But you gotta admit, it takes some of the enjoyment out of watching the games and seeing what happens when you focus on that elephant in the room. Especially when that elephant is like smoke that you can see but can't ever grasp.

No, the BCS does not determine who is the "best" team in college football any given year. But at the same time, there isn't a system that could determine that 1) with 100% accuracy, and 2) without completely changing the nature of the sport. People argued about the first point and the legitimacy of a playoff a lot, so we're not going to do that here (especially since this post is about how doing so endlessly takes away from the game). But let's step back and take an widespread view of college football and what makes it what it is.

Two of the biggest components of the sport are polls and bowls - without them, college football wouldn't be the sport it is now. The polls are a way of ranking teams, albeit a flawed one, that creates conversation and arguments amongst fans - hell, creating discussion was the reason the polls were dreamed up in the first place. They're as much a part of the sport as wins and losses. Controversy is in the fibers and DNA of college football.

(But doesn't this negate my argument from above that thinking about who's "best" is a bad thing? It would seem that way, but my point is that a healthy dose of discussion and controversy is fine - it's when it becomes a cancerous growth that overshadows the rest of the sport, as it has recently, that it becomes a problem. The controversy used to be a side dish or dessert - the cranberry sauce on the Thanksgiving table that added a little kick. Now it's become the turkey, and eating that much of it only makes you tired and cranky. When people are pissed off and focused more on "not winning a national championship" rather than being thrilled about their 12-1 or 13-0 season, there is a problem.)

As far as the bowls go, they're one of the most unique events in all of sports and allow dozens of teams to end their season on a really, really high note. Even the teams that lose get a great week of experiences. They're so powerful that people talk about a bowl win sustaining a team for the eight month off-season and even helping them out the next season. Getting rid of the bowls or modifying them to implement a playoff would chop the legs out from one of the things that makes college football special and unique in the sporting world.

Is it a tragedy that so many fans honestly feel that their team was the "best" this season? Is it wrong to fully embrace a sport that's not perfect, especially when there's no way to make it perfect? Are we so in need of an undisputable national champion that we're willing to change the things that give the sport its essence? We're so focused on what could be that we're missing a lot of what is great right in front of us.


Jams said...

This is exactly how I feel about the situation. I'm sure you can relate to how tiring and depressing it is to have to read, over and over, articles bashing what is clearly the nation's greatest sport. It's frustrating and demoralizing to be one of a very small contingent of people who feel this way, so it's a welcome breath of fresh air every time I read a great post like this on your blog.

Ed Gunther said...

I'm glad you agree Jams - thanks for the note.

Anonymous said...

You run a great site, but I could not disagree with you more. College football is the only sport that I can think of without some sort of playoff structure. Yes, that makes college football unique, but does it make college football unique in a good way?

The reason there is a lot of controversy surrounding the BCS is because people believe a change would improve college football. A playoff system would generate far more interest in the sport. College football though longer needs bowls to drum up interest, the interest will be there regardless of whether the bowls exist or not.

The reason people focus on the negative is quite simple. The negatives staring you right in the face while the positives are just there. The problems with the BCS are not just simply a passive elephant in the corner. It is more analogous to a charging bull that forces you to pay attention to it. It's not something that's going to be in the background at any degree. Maybe I'm a negative person, but I don't see a problem in pushing the negatives to the forefront. The problems with the current BCS system are not minor and they are not a side story. They are at the core of the system itself and thus deserve all the attention they get. Trying to push more focus on the positives is simply attempting to ignore the problem.

I can't stand the BCS system, yet that doesn't mean I'm going to become less of a college football fan. I don't think the focus on the negatives in any way weakens college football or diminishes it in any fashion.

Ed Gunther said...

I'm glad for the comment, nms, and I really appreciate you putting your viewpoint out there in a thoughtful way. I'm all for discussion of the issue in a civilized manner, but it seems like a lot of believers on both sides tend to take the "let's kill the monster!" method.

I believe that college football's lack of a playoff does make it unique in a good way, if only because it's the only sport that forces people to examine one of the foundations of sport in general, the championship. Why do we need champions? What do we want them to be? How should we determine what constitutes a championship? College football forces us to examine these things while other sports don't. It makes us think, reflect, and deal with different viewpoints that we don't agree with. But at the end of the day, it's still just a sport.

A playoff might generate more casual fan interest during December, but the sport would most likely lose casual fan interest during the regular season. So there's a trade off there. I agree that the sport doesn't need the bowls to drum up interest any more, but that doesn't mean that the bowls don't serve any purpose - that purpose has become financial, which is just as big of a roadblock to getting rid of the bowls as the tradition of them is.

I agree too that the BCS has created a lot of negatives within the system and that they can't be ignored. What I dislike is that the focus has shifted from the on-field games to the off-field figuring out who's best, which is a futile endeavor. The BCS has been the major force behind this shift, you're right, but getting rid of the BCS or instituting a playoff would not put the focus back on the field. If anything, it would put more focus on trying to figure out who's best, since the playoff would dominate the sport.

I think the BCS has turned a lot of college football fans negative, including myself to a degree, because it invites controversy and arguing. But it also invites discussion & reflection, which will (hopefully) help overall in making the sport better in the long run. If conflict and chaos lead to advances and improvements, then college football is well on it's way to becoming even better.

Griffin Caprio said...

Another good post Ed. I tend to take a smug attitude towards people who simply fall back on the 'other sports do it' reasoning. Baseball became the nations pastime with no multi-team playoff. You simply played the season, best team from each conference played a series. Done.

We've bs'ed ourselves to believe that a long, drawn out postseason in which outcomes are based on a tiny sample size ( and thus probably random ) should be the 'best season' simply because it makes for better TV, ignoring the bigger sample, the regular season. I heard mel kiper say the other day that the post season should be the best part of a sport. For who? if that's the case, why not just skip right to it? Money, that's why.

The March Madness argument fumes me even more. I don't need a sport aiming to make my mother a fan. Her filling out a bracket, weighing the 'huskies' vs. 'the devils' once a year is not the mark of a target demo for me. But it is for TV.

No one gives a crap about most other sports for the first few months of a season. The only reason people started to give a crap recently is because of fantasy sports.

College Football has one thing that no other sport, except for maybe baseball, can claim: longevity & history. We remember seasons 10 years ago like they were yesterday. Ask a playoff advocate to name the last 10 college basketball champs and who they played. How about the NFL? NBA? College Baseball? I could go on.

Now ask any serious cfb fan the last 10 BCSCG matchups. You'll get that PLUS the "drama" behind the picks.

To me, 5+ solid months of entertainment is worth more to me than some team getting hot, winning 4 games and being proclaimed the 'best team', only to be forgotten 3 months later. Because that's what it is: ENTERTAINMENT. That's all, despite whatever the latest sports illustrated signed jockstrap / dvd combo says.

Maybe that's just me though :)

Michele Miller said...

I think you make a terrific point here. It would be impossible to determine which team is the "best" -- especially with the little data that a 12-game regular season provides us. Certainly a playoff would not prove which team is the "best," since tournaments always involve upsets. Theoretically, the team that is in fact "the best" could be upset in an early round, and eliminated from contention and consideration.

However, it is possible to fairly determine a "champion." All you need is a set of rules defining the challenge that gives everyone notice and a fair chance to compete. This is what a tournament does: brackets, seedings, rankings, etc. are all part of the rules. Every team knows exactly what they have to do to get to the finish line.

I agree with you that the bowls and polls are an indispensable element of college football. Sure, the BCS Champion may not actually be the "best" team, but they did what it took to earn the crown, according to the BCS rules. My only gripe is that these rules don't apply to everyone. Some teams are excluded from the get-go; perhaps even the team that turns out to actually be the "best" in fact.

Ed Gunther said...

Well I think YOU make a terrific point, Michele. A lot of people automatically equate "champion" with "the best", and that's not always the case, especially with a playoff. Part of that comes from my definition of "the best" - while some might see it as the most powerful team who could beat anyone, or the team with the highest winning percentage, I see "the best" as the team that achieved the most over the course of the whole season. And since a playoff puts so much focus on just a few weeks as opposed to the season as a whole, in my judgment a playoff champion is rarely "the best" as I define it. But part of that too is that I'm really okay with not knowing who's "best" any given year. I'm fine with a split national championship, partly because, as you say, there's not enough data to make an objective determination.

And yeah, you're right, some teams are excluded from the get-go, and yeah, that sucks. But that's not the BCS's fault - that the fault of the voters who aren't (but can't really be expected to be) completely unbiased. Even though there isn't much good data that we can use to determine who's "best", there still a ton of data out there, including junk data (*cough-gamesagainstI-AAcupcakes-cough*) that voters use to make their decisions. Since not everybody is going to value the same things, voters are going to come up with wildly different rankings. The best voters are those who know exactly what they value in deciding who's "best", communicate that to the public, and stick with it throughout the season. The voters who screw up the whole system are the ones who constantly shift their methodology because of either their regional, conference, or team bias or because they are trying to influence the final outcome of the poll.

Anonymous said...

The way to do it, esp. after this last year, would be to have a 4-team playoff after the bowls.

Heck, we already have the BCS title game aweek after the rest and still have that other dopey bowl that no one cares about in between.

Could you imagine a Utah-USC matchup with Florida and Texas in the other? Then have the winners play.

Would anyone doubt that the best team in the nation was one of those four? Heck, if Texas navigated that Final Four, then so be it.

Same as with Utah! A 15-0 season.

USC goes 14-1 with redemption.

The problem I see is that no one wants to give in on this issue.

It is all or nothing.

I like my proposal, not just because it is mine, but that it includes everything.

We keep the bowls. Use them for pre-playoffs.

Only 4 teams go, AFTER THE BOWLS, so the regular season and bowls still count for A LOT! still have a very mini-playoff with a true champ.

The problem is it won't happen for a long time because to many people have too much vested interest and like us who see the elephant in the room, are too busy looking at the status quo.

I for one welcome a true final four. Upsets in a playoff fo not bother me.

Heck, upsets occur in the regular season and one of them cost USC, but seemingly didn't hurt Florida.