The tournament almost always spawns several hundred columns and blogposts on a college football playoff, especially this year, now that a playoff seems imminent. Richard said something in the comments this week along these lines -- the whole thank goodness football doesn't have a tournament like basketball which ruins the regular season.
Now, I have great respect for Richard and he's one of my oldest and dearest friends. And I do see his point here, as he's hardly treading ground that hasn't been trod over by lots and lots of people. I just happen to think he's wrong on this one.
However, it did spur a thought -- what if football instituted a postseason as similar as possible to basketball? Given what we have seen in basketball, and other sports, how would it affect the sport? I'm not advocating this system, I don't think anyone would, be I thought the exercise could shine a light on issues with an actual football playoffs.
First off, some simple math. There's roughly 330 schools which play basketball and about 110 which play football. The numbers change a little each year in both sports through promotions and demotions, but they are roughly correct. The point is, football's about a third of the size. So, take that 68 team field, divide by 3, and you get about 23 teams. Let's make it 24 so we have a nice round number. A 24-team field in football is about the same as the field we have now in basketball.
Change #1: Good-bye, BCS formula
Of all of the problems with the current football postseason, one of the biggest is the BCS formula itself. It is the illusion of objective mathematics to return a pre-determined result: the top two teams in the human polls playing each other. In fact, whenever the formula returns anything other than one and two in the polls, the public has screamed foul and the powers that be have changed the formula to prevent that from happening again. Consigning the BCS formula to the dustbin of history would be the greatest thing about the football tournament.
The RPI is used not only in basketball, but in many NCAA team sports. The committee is not bound by the RPI, as it has its flaws, but it does make a good guideline for the quality of teams in basketball or baseball or lacrosse. As you can see, I slipped in the next sea change while you weren't looking...
Change #2: Hello, committee
The selection committee is not perfect. I think they routinely underseed mid-majors and overrate conference tournament champions, but all in all, they do a good job. The committee, at the very least, has the best interests of basketball at heart and try to put together the best field they can. Also, they can send messages to teams by their actions. Does anyone not know that the committee rates road wins and tough out of conference scheduling? Teams react accordingly, if they want to make the tourney.
The BCS title game has no selection committee. They have no discretion whatsoever -- whoever the formula pumps out, the game takes. Which is a lot like taking the top two teams in the RPI, another flawed formula which is at least better than the BCS. However, the other BCS bowls do have some discretion, and they do things like take Michigan and Virginia Tech. They do this because they only care about their own ticket sales, not the best interest of the game. And the only message sent each year is to reinforce the Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.
Change #3: Conference tournaments and money
The NCAA doesn't require that conference tournament champions get an automatic bid. It does require that each conference champion gets a bid, but the conferences willingly chose to move to conference tournaments for one obvious reason: television. This is the only time all year most of these teams will ever be on television, and conferences jump through hoops to get there. We already have the football equivalent. We call them conference championship games. That's how the MAC and C-USA get on television now, the implementation of a tournament with automatic bids would only raise the visibility of these games.
Now, I'm not naive. One of the big hang-ups about a playoff is who gets to cash the checks. The big schools, like those we root for, want to maintain their dominance of the politics of football. They have little interest in giving the little guy access to the big stage, and they certainly don't want schools in the Sun Belt to get access to the money pipe. If there's one roadblock to a playoff, particularly a playoff like the basketball tournament, it is this one. The BCS conferences have been slowly pulling away from those smaller conferences, this playoff brings them closer together. A football "tourney" is a huge win for the small conferences. It's a victory for the little guy.
Change #4: Scheduling
Take a look at how many top four seeds the top two seeds in the basketball tournament have played out of conference:
Kentucky - 1 UNC, 2 Kansas, 4 Louisville, 4 Indiana
Duke - 1 Michigan St, 2 Kansas, 2 Ohio St
Michigan St - 2 Duke
Ohio St - 2 Duke
UNC - 1 Michigan St, 1 Kentucky, 4 Wisconsin
Kansas - 1 Kentucky, 2 Duke, 2 Ohio St, 3 Georgetown
Syracuse and Mizzou are the only top two seeds to have not played a top four seed out of conference, and half of the top two seeds have played over three of them. Top teams play each other routinely in college basketball. College football teams play increasingly weak out of conference schedules. OK, LSU played two conference champions, but that kind of schedule is rare. Hell, we're following it up next season by playing Towson.
For all of the talk that the tournament renders the regular season meaningless, look at the games. It's our fault we don't pay attention to it, but basketball gives us far better out of conference regular season matchups precisely because the regular season isn't as meaningful. Football's regular season is a four month exercise in trying not to lose, and teams schedule accordingly. Frankly, it pisses me off. Play a real schedule.
But would a 24-team tournament decrease interest in the regular season? Does the fact 12 out of the 32 teams make the NFL playoffs decrease interest in its regular season? The reason basketball has problems holding our attention is that it lacks the single day event status of football (well, there's a lot of other factors, including the tournament, but this is the big one). Basketball requires you to pay attention every single day -- football just asks for your Saturday.
Sure, the season wouldn't be as "meaningful." 8-4 teams would routinely make the football tournament unlike now, in which one loss virtually eliminates a team from the national hunt. But this less meaningful season would likely have better games, as the committee would select teams which scheduled tough matchups out of conference. Would you rather have a game against Towson which means more or a game against Oregon every year which means less?
Change #5: The Accidental Champion
The biggest worry for anti-playoff advocates is the fear of the Accidental Champion. Villanova's perfect game is a neat story, but no one honestly believes that they were the best team in 1985. Same with Manning and the Miracles in 1988. The tournament's mythos thrives on these Accidental Champions.
The thing is, while these kind of teams were common in the first five years of the 64-team field, the Accidental Champion is virtually extinct in college basketball. Since 1990, favorites have dominated the tourney. In 22 years, 15 #1 seeds have won the title. Additionally, three #2 seeds and three #3 seeds have also won the whole shebang. 21 of 22 years, a team seeded as one of the top 12 teams in the nation has won the tile.
The one exception? 1997, when beloved underdog 4th seeded Arizona took home the title. That's the closest thing to an accidental champ since Manning and the Miracles in 1988. Sure, there are upsets, but by the time the field shakes out, the winner is usually a credible champ. It's hard to win six games in a row.
A 24-team tourney would require teams seeded 9th and below to win five games to win a title, while a top 8 team would still have to string together four weeks. That's like half a season of undefeated ball to win a title against primarily top 25 caliber opponents. Backing into a title would be next to impossible. Five top 25 wins? That's more than Alabama had last year, and they actually won the title.
A 24-team field including every conference champion is the nightmare scenario for anti-playoff advocates. But looking at how it would actually work, compared to the existing comparable tournament in basketball, that nightmare is actually preferable to the system we have now. Almost every change would be a positive one, and the risk of the Accidental Champ is not nearly as large as we would like to think.
And the biggest change? More football. That's always a good thing.