The League of Ordinary Gentlemen were kind enough to give me a platform to explain my opposition to a college football playoff system. A follow-up discussion occurred at the Fourth Estate.

The LoOG title suggests that it’s a defense of the BCS, which I am frankly not in the mood to defend. I’ll take the BCS as an alternative to a cumbersome and season-marginalizing playoff, but there’s a lot to dislike about it. I’m in the “mend it, don’t end it” camp.

This year in particular, the BCS shoved Boise State and TCU into a bowl game together. Making a BCS game is a big and extraordinarily difficult task for a school from a conference that does not automatically qualify its champion. There are three reasons why making a BCS game is a big deal: there is a lot of money involved, there is prestige involved, and it’s an opportunity to get to play a high-profile opponent in a high-profile game. By putting these two teams together, the BCS kneecapped the participants on the latter two points. TCU didn’t do all it took to make the BCS game so that they could play Boise State in a bowl game. They wanted the opportunity to prove themselves against one of those BCS teams that assume their superiority over teams from lesser conferences. When Utah beat Alabama and Boise State beat Oklahoma, they didn’t just win a game. They made a statement. Beating Boise State makes no such statement this year. Ditto for Boise State if they win.

My initial instinct was to scream “CONSPIRACY!” and it may well have been. However, in the LoOG a commenter pointed out the methodology and the matchups make some sense through that lens. The selection process and the Fiesta Bowl’s sub-optimal location make TCU and Boise State logical picks in any event. Part of the problem with the BCS is that the Fiesta Bowl is a participant. The Fiesta Bowl is geographically located near only one BCS conference, the Pac 10. The Pac 10’s champion automatically goes to the Rose Bowl (an even closer game) and the conference is generally not good enough to have two participants. The two other conferences closest to the Fiesta Bowl are the Mountain West Conference and the Western Athletic Conference, which TCU and Boise State are the champions of respectively. Traditionally, the Fiesta Bowl hosts the champion of the Big 12 Conference, which is itself a stretch since the closest university is way outside of driving distance. The fourth BCS Bowl should have been the Cotton Bowl, located in Dallas, but at the time this was all decided, the Cotton Bowl’s facilities had significantly depreciated and the conference it was historically aligned with (the Southwest Conference) disbanded. So the Fiesta Bowl was in, the Cotton Bowl was out, and Boise State and TCU makes sense.

I’m still not convinced that the Fiesta Bowl didn’t take a bullet for the cause of the BCS. The prestige of the games is not muddied by those interlopers coming in and beating the supposedly invincible BCS teams. The whole thing can be discounted as “not a real BCS game” now. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid. The BCS knows as well as anyone that the games that are most talked about years after the fact (other than the championship games) are the ones where BCS teams and non-BCS teams collide. The game between Cincinnati and Florida will be forgotten soon enough, but a game between undefeateds TCU and Cincinnati would have been a part of the MWC-vs-BE debate for years to come. A Boise State victory over Georgia Tech or vice-versa would have been about more than a game but a piece of evidence in the longstanding BCS-nonBCS debate for years to come. So it may have been the number-crunchers that decided that TCU and Boise were a safer bet and Georgia Tech and Iowa were as well. I disagree, but it may have been in good faith.

But here is one thing I have been thinking a lot about lately: Having Boise State in the WAC is a very inconvenient thing for the BCS. Right now, the BCS gets most of its hard-core political opposition from states that do not have a BCS team in them. Senators from Utah correctly point out that their entire state is shut out from the system. They could solve this tomorrow by including the Mountain West Conference in the system. The problem is that the MWC conference is not, top-to-bottom, good enough. The MWC has three great teams, four hit-and-miss teams, and two awful teams. They have five bowl eligible teams out of nine. Even the weakest of the BCS conferences do better. A second problem is that even if they are included, you still have a great Boise State program out in the cold and two irate senators from Idaho.

However, if you get Boise State included in the Mountain West Conference and include the MWC in the BCS, most of the political opposition to the BCS evaporates tomorrow since every since state with a Division I-A team will be represented by at least one school in a BCS conference. But if Boise State and the big three MWC teams have an easier path to BCS inclusion without having to play one another in the regular season and if keeping them separate means more BCS appearances, they have little reason to act. If Boise State were in the MWC this year, they likely would have lost a game or two to some combination of Utah, BYU, and TCU, and would have been left out of the BCS bowl games. So letting Boise State play Georgia Tech and letting TCU play Cincinnati would have essentially rewarded them for not being in the same conference or, at the least, would not have incentivized BSU’s inclusion into the MWC. BSU is rumored to have wanted inclusion into the MWC for quite some time, but for a variety of reasons, the MWC is very cautious about expanding. This may make them reconsider. And if there was any doubt on the part of BSU, this year (deprived of the chance of a “real” BCS game) and last year (being left out of the BCS mix despite an undefeated season because Utah took the slot reserved for non-BCS schools) makes it a lock for them. They can’t win for winning, at this point. Not in the WAC.

Another frequently-discussed possibility is that the MWC could expand to twelve by adding three strongerish teams to the mix. None of the other candidates are as good as Boise State, but adding two from the collection of Fresno State, Nevada, Houston, or Tulsa could help the BCS overlook the persistent failures of San Diego State and UNLV and the inconsistency of the middle group. Or it could simply be adding more mediocrity to make the BCS overlook the outstanding programs in Salt Lake City, Provo, and Fort Worth.

If that happens, the WAC is in deep, deep trouble. You need 8 teams to be in a conference. Right now they have nine. If they lose two schools (Boise State and Nevada/Fresno), they’ll be at 7. The league has done a good job of being able to replace departures in the past (when schools departed to form the MWC* and others joined Conference USA), but there are no obvious candidates this time around. The western states are depleted and there are not (as far as I know) any lower-division schools looking to make their way to the next level. The only real candidates that comes to mind are North Texas, Arkansas State or Louisiana-Lafayette (the WAC’s eastern-most school is Louisiana Tech). But those schools are a better geographical fit for their current Sunbelt conference. Right now the SBC is the weakest of all Division I-A schools, but a WAC without Boise and Nevada will not be all that much better. The other possibility is a couple of Texas schools that are moving up to the I-A division, Texas State and UTSA, but those are dicey and they, too, may prefer the Sun Belt Conference. Perhaps they can convince North Texas to jump over if they can convince Texas State and UTSA to join the WAC. They’d better hope so, because the conference that has managed to survive exodus after exodus could finally go under otherwise.

Given how reluctant the MWC is to over-expand, my guess is that they will stop at Boise, see where that gets them, then expand from there if it doesn’t get them far enough.

* – For those of you that don’t know (and yet found this all interesting enough to read through anyway), the Mountain West Conference was founded by schools that were dissatisfied with the 16-team WAC conference in the 90’s. Five schools in particular were frustrated that their traditional rivalries were being thwarted by the cumbersome conferences. They decided to break off and invited other long-time WAC schools (and new WAC member UNLV) to form their own conference where they would get to play everyone every year.


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20 Responses to Western Athletic Dilemma

  1. DaveinHackensack says:

    I kind of skimmed this post after the first few paragraphs, but what would be your issue with pairing the two undefeated winners of the big two BCS games against each other in a college Superbowl of sorts? I bet Boise State would be up for it. If memory serves, a post-bowl season super game like this was staged in Vegas years ago between the two best college teams.

    Also, and more generally, far from “season-marginalizing” a college football playoff would have a salutary effect on the regular season: there would be less incentive for BCS aspirants to pad their non-conference schedules with sacrificial lambs. The NFL playoffs don’t marginalize the NFL’s regular season, and the NFL regular season about a third longer than the typical college team’s regular season schedule.

  2. trumwill says:

    The only problem I would have with such a matchup is that there are no rules to account for it. Post-season rules have to be dictated before the season starts. Not sure of the Vegas game you’re talking about.

    I addressed it in the ensuing discussions (which I do not blame you for not reading), but basically I believe the creampuff problem can be mitigated by alternative means. Heck, it could be eliminated tomorrow if the pollsters would stop rewarding it.

    By my account, the NFL season is marginalized to near uselessness when a playoff puts 9-7 teams up against 16-0 teams. The NFL has a lot of good games between good teams, but the games among the really good teams are utterly irrelevant. They get a do-over.

  3. trumwill says:

    Willard,

    I address most of those arguments in my Ordinary Gentlemen post, so I won’t rehash them here. Needless to say, I believe Wayne Winston is wrong on numerous fronts.

    It’s honestly the sort of only-the-national-championship-matters mentality that college football, unlike other sports, has managed to avoid. The current system is great for the top three teams but understandably leaves teams 3-8 dissatisfied. His model leaves 1-8 happy but 9-16 dissatisfied (Georgia Tech and Ohio State in particular). It would actually leave 9-16 in a far worse place than they are now because right now things other than making the playoff is considered relevant, which would cease to be the case in the event of a playoff.

    As it stands, teams with little hope for the national championship still have something to play for. Once you institute a playoff, it becomes all that matters.

    -{This comment was modified when Trumwill realized that Georgia Tech made the “simulated playoffs”}-

  4. DaveinHackensack says:

    Trummy,

    I can’t see how you can argue with a straight face that the NFL’s regular season is marginalized by the playoffs. 16-0 teams are exceedingly rare (we’ve had two so far in the last 30 years or so) and for most teams it will be tough to get in the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

    Re the ‘college Superbowl’ rules, I think they were agreed upon by the respective teams ahead of time (but after the bowl season).

    BTW, another benefit of a mini college football playoff, i.e., 8 teams, 3 games, would be that it would keep the final two teams fresh and playing through December.

  5. trumwill says:

    Yes, and one of those 16 victory teams isn’t even a champion. The 10-6 team that beat them (which lost to them in the regular season), on the other hand, get to be champions. How is it again that the regular season is relevant?

    The NFL could have an important regular season and a playoff if it wanted to. The parity makes it so that you could have four divisions of eight and go the route that MLB used to go. But they chose not to go that route. Why? So that they could get more teams into the playoffs. Why? Because once you have a playoff system, everything else becomes marginalized.

    I could actually live with a 4-team or 8-team CFB playoff, but it would not last. A 4-team playoff would have left out Boise State this year. Eight teams is not enough to include both conference winners and the best non-conference winners most years. The result would be a 16-team playoff, which would give 9-3 teams the same shot at the title that 13-0 teams have. If you want that sort of thing, then you already have a league for that.

    You should read my LoOG post. I actually have a playoff system that I would support with between 5-8 teams in it* but that assures that doesn’t allow 9-3 teams a chance at the title. But a substantial portion of college fans would reject it. To satisfy both the camp that want non-BCS teams to have a fair shot at it and the camp that believe that a playoff should consist of the best teams, you need 16 teams. Then you have non-best participants that get in only because there are slots to fill.

    I think there’s something from the Vegas game that you’re missing. If it happened in the way you describe, I am pretty sure I would have heard about it or it would be a part of the discussion right now. Maybe they scheduled each other at a neutral site for the next season?

  6. DaveinHackensack says:

    “Yes, and one of those 16 victory teams isn’t even a champion. The 10-6 team that beat them (which lost to them in the regular season)”

    The Giants lost to them by three points in a shootout, but I would argue that hanging with the Pats in that loss gave the Giants the confidence for their great post-season run.

    “How is it again that the regular season is relevant?”

    It’s relevant in that it determines who gets into the playoffs, for starters. For many teams that goes down to the wire. For those that lock up a post-season bid early, subsequent regular season wins can determine their seed, which in turn determines whether they’ll get home field advantage, a bye week, etc. In the event a team has all that locked up and remains undefeated going into its last game, as was the case with the Pats, that regular season game was relevant in that it gave them a chance at a historic 16-win season. That’s why they played their starters. Do you think the Giants should have rolled over for them in the Superbowl because the Pats had gone 16-0 in the regular season?

    For the rare team that goes into the final game 14-1, I guess that last game wouldn’t be terribly relevant, but overall, nearly every regular season game is meaningful and relevant in the NFL.

    “A 4-team playoff would have left out Boise State this year.”

    Why?

    “Eight teams is not enough to include both conference winners and the best non-conference winners most years.”

    But it would be enough to include the undefeated teams most years, and it would be hard for any team not included to argue that it had a claim on being the #1 team in college football.

  7. trumwill says:

    I would argue that hanging with the Pats in that loss gave the Giants the confidence for their great post-season run.

    Well then, good for them that they get a do-over wherein they decide to suddenly be a really good team :).

    Do you think the Giants should have rolled over for them in the Superbowl because the Pats had gone 16-0 in the regular season?

    No, but I don’t think that they should have been allowed in the playoffs to begin with. I don’t blame the Giants so much as I blame the system. That’s not to say that the NFL should adopt college football’s system. They’re different entities with different kinds (and volume) of teams. And maybe, given what the NFL is the system they have actually is better than something I might prefer. But it’s not something I want to happen with college football. Different leagues require different systems.

    For those that lock up a post-season bid early, subsequent regular season wins can determine their seed, which in turn determines whether they’ll get home field advantage, a bye week, etc.

    And yet first-seed teams (in the last decade) win the Superbowl at a rate barely exceeding random probability In the last four seasons, 6th-seed teams are just as likely to make a conference championship game and more likely to win a Superbowl. That’s not to say that 1st seed teams don’t generally outperform lower-seed teams (nearly 50/50 on making the Superbowl, though 10/90 of winning it), but that’s pretty much what you would expect since theoretically they are the best teams.

    But I’m not convinced that the things you talk about are ultimately all that important. Lose a game here, lose a game there, no big deal provided that you make the playoffs. Alabama loses to Auburn? Championship dreams are over.

    Why?

    Because there are five undefeated teams.

    But it would be enough to include the undefeated teams most years, and it would be hard for any team not included to argue that it had a claim on being the #1 team in college football.

    It would be enough for the undefeated teams every year, but that doesn’t mean that they would be included. Undefeated Hawaii was ranked #10 last year going into the bowls. Boise State was ranked #9 last year. If Ball State had won the MAC championship game against Buffalo, they probably would have been #10.

    But even if we had a rule saying that undefeateds have to be included, you will still get arguments from 9-12 at the very least. They won’t even have to argue that they’re as good as #1. They just have to make the case that they are better than #7 or #8. How do you pick between Ohio State and Georgia Tech? Texas Tech and Penn State last year? It’s nearly impossible. Instead, you expand to 16 so they can “settle it on the field.” Some people are already saying 32.

    Playoffs expand. It’s what they do.

  8. DaveinHackensack says:

    Considering that the NFL is the most successful and popular league in the country, I’d say its system works.

    “And yet first-seed teams (in the last decade) win the Superbowl at a rate barely exceeding random probability”

    That’s because promoting parity (via equal sharing of TV revenues, salary cap, worst teams getting highest draft picks) is a league policy.

    “Playoffs expand. It’s what they do.”

    If that’s the biggest fear regarding an 8-team playoff, I say bring it on. But I still think an 8-team playoff would satisfy a critical mass of people and be enough, particularly if undefeated teams are all included.

  9. trumwill says:

    The parity in the NFL is one of the reasons why I support a more comprehensive playoff with it that I would reject with CFB. For one thing, it’s easier to determine who does and does not make the playoffs. Second, you have fewer awesome breakout seasons.

    That being said, (a) there are still way too many teams that make the playoffs as far as I am concerned and (b) they still render the regular season relatively meaningless.

    That second may not be as big a deal in the NFL, but it’s the one thing that makes college football so unique, fascinating, and intense on such a monumentally wide scale. It is the only league where the best teams are not allowed any margin of error without the potential for significant consequences. And the lack of a centralized post season make it the only league where things other than making and winning the post-season tournament constitute success and failure (unless you count the NIT or CBI, which people actually pay less attention to than they do bowls).

    Even if I were inclined to be optimistic and believe that 8 would be satisfactory, I would be disabused of that notion by looking at the other college football tournaments. Given the stakes involved, do you think it is more likely or less likely that more teams would insist on being allowed to play in the tournament? Division I-AA has 16 teams. There’s no way that Division I-A fans and schools will be satisfied with 8. It’s more likely that they will want 32 than that they will be satisfied with 8.

  10. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    A nice argument, and congratulations on getting a guest post at the LoOG! That’s quite a plum for a blogger, in my estimation. Of course, you earned it.

  11. DaveinHackensack says:

    Trumwill,

    Is there another professional sports league that has, in your estimation, a more meaningful regular season than the NFL?

  12. trumwill says:

    Dave,

    The regular season as a collective entity? Major League Baseball. It’s the most stingy with its playoffs and so the regular season is more important. Back before they added the third divisions you used to have these things called “pennant races”, which were extremely important. Now they have wild cards, so the pennant races are not so important. Even so, each league gives only one wild card slot away.

    Of course, the individual games in MLB are not so important because there are so many of them. The same goes for basketball. The relative scarcity of football games makes football leagues the only leagues where the individual games take on great importance. Of the three (recent) major professional football leagues, the NFL is the stingiest. The Arena League has to put a lot of thrust into the playoffs because that’s what the networks will televise. Don’t know if the same is true of the Canadian Football League, which allows 6 of its 8 teams to participate.

  13. trumwill says:

    TL, thanks! I was quite happy that they accepted it.

  14. DaveinHackensack says:

    “The relative scarcity of football games makes football leagues the only leagues where the individual games take on great importance.”

    That’s my point. If the individual games take on great importance (which they do, in most cases) then so does the regular season.

  15. trumwill says:

    Compared to 162 baseball games, sure, the 16 football games take on great importance. But compared to the three or four games after the regular season, barely more than half the games have any relevance.

    Unless they dramatically reduce the length of the season, baseball and basketball are incapable of making individual games relevant. Football, however, has a choice. I really don’t support turning the NFL into an every-game-is-crucial league, but letting 8-8 teams win the Superbowl is a few steps too far.

    Different sports and different leagues and different levels of play have different dynamics. Given those dynamics, different post-season formats make different amounts of sense. I don’t strongly oppose there being a wild card in the NFL, but I hate that MLB did it because it had something special and unique (the all-important pennant race) that it threw away in the process whereas the NFL’s schedule doesn’t allow for it in the same way and its history lacks that dynamic. The NCAA basketball tournament renders the regular season useless, but given the number of teams and number of games I’m not sure all that much is lost. College football truly has a combination of dynamics (nearly every game a winning team plays matters towards something, post-season bowl games, vicious conference rivalries) that no other sport could replicate even if it wanted to.

    It’s not impossible that they could institute a playoff and hold on to a lot of that. But considering how frequently playoff systems get screwed up with over-inclusion, and considering what the lower divisions did, I’m about as sure as I can be that it’s not the playoff system we would end up with outside of the short-run.

  16. DaveinHackensack says:

    How many wild cards are there now in the NFL? Back when there were 2 per conference, I think that was reasonable. Particularly now, with more, smaller divisions, I wouldn’t have a problem with the NFL scaling back its wild cards, maybe even to one per conference. If we Venn diagrammed our positions on the NFL, there might be some overlap there.

    Re meaningfulness, that goes both ways. Wild cards mean that a team that has lost its division still has a shot at the playoffs. IMO, that makes a lot of late-season games more meaningful than they would be otherwise. The wild cards aside, I still think the NFL has a better set-up, and a more meaningful regular season, than any pro sports league I’m familiar with.

    Re basketball and hockey, their seasons are way too long, and so are their interminable playoff series. This, I believe, is driven by a desire to maximize gate receipts because TV revenues for these sports are much lower than those for the NFL, and comprise a smaller percentage of total revenues. The NCAA and the Olympics have much more exciting formats for basketball and hockey. Both pro leagues should cut the number of games in their regular seasons in half, and have single-elimination playoffs.

    Baseball’s a different animal, I guess, because of the pitcher rotations. I really don’t care about it though. Actually, I don’t care that much about basketball or hockey either.

  17. trumwill says:

    There are still two per conference. I think that three division winners plus a wild card is a good combination.

    I hear what you’re saying about wild cards giving more games more meanings. I think there’s something to that in the NFL, which is one of the reasons why I don’t get as excited about the inclusion of wild cards in the NFL the same way I do with other arrangements.

    But adding more and more wild card slots is like moving the first base to 91 feet to avoid the ties that occur at 90 feet. You’re just shifting the parameters. If you let 9-6 teams compete for wild card spots, the games for the 10-5 teams cease being important. Letting 8-7 teams compete for a wild card makes 9-6 team games less meaningful. It reaches a point of diminishing returns (and allows mediocre teams a chance at the Superbowl, which I know doesn’t bother you but still bothers me).

    When I was a kid, I used to think it was stupid that the Superbowl was one game instead of 7 like the other leagues had. Then, when it was explained to me how impractical 7 was, I said 3 was still better than one. My views couldn’t be more different now. I like the NCAA tournament model over the NBA’s.

    The one thing that the NBA really has going for it is that, unlike the NFL and MLB, they put teams in close geographic proximity in the same division. Even if they don’t have an effect on the playoff, the division rivalries mean more when you’re battling teams in cities that you’re already rivals with in other ways. Or better yet, teams from the same city. I don’t advocate NFL and MLB betraying their history and emulating it, but it’s good for the NBA to be different in that regard. Not quite enough to compensate for their being the exemplar (and pioneers) of the overextended playoffs.

  18. DaveinHackensack says:

    “and allows mediocre teams a chance at the Superbowl, which I know doesn’t bother you but still bothers me”

    If that’s supposed to be a reference to the Giants in the year they won the Superbowl, I would vigorously disagree with your characterization of them as “mediocre”. Mediocre teams don’t win on the road in Dallas and Green Bay in January. The Giants were a great team that played its best ball in the playoffs.

    Having Dallas in the NFC East never made much sense from a geographic perspective, but the distance never hurt the rivalry with the Giants. That’s probably the biggest rivalry in the division.

  19. trumwill says:

    Well, I do hate the New York Giants and think that Eli Manning is a little punk, but I wasn’t referring to them specifically when I made that comment. Further, “mediocre teams” was probably not the best phrasing since it does take a special team to have that all-important four game winning streak after the season. “Teams with mediocre seasons” or “teams with unimpressive seasons” would have been better.

    The NFL divisions are a bit ageographical, but I don’t have a problem with it. The historical rivalries are more important in that case. And baseball would lose the rich history of the individual leagues if they went geographical to put Oakland and San Fransisco in the same division. The NBA doesn’t lose that by going completely geographical, which is why I think their system works great for them and gives them the opportunity for something different.

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