Friday, December 28, 2007

The BCS -- "And the beat goes on ..."

I went and said a couple of posts down that I was done talking about the BCS. Apparently, I lied.

The reason is because I stumbled upon this on-line debate between Sunday Morning Quarterback (hereinafter SMQ) and Kyle King at Dawg Sports. Essentially, the two are taking opposite positions on the viability of the BCS system versus a playoff of some sort. The exact form a playoff would take is left somewhat open, but more on that later. What I will do is summarize their arguments briefly, with apologies and a guaranteed public correction upon notification if I get them substantially wrong. I have left out a few expansions in the interest of brevity that I consider to be relatively inconsequential.

Anti-playoff -- T. Kyle King:

  1. A playoff system will favor only top teams, while a bowl system allows teams at different levels to participate in the post-season;
  2. A bowl system favors tradition;
  3. Playoffs don't always produce a "best team" result;
  4. King raises the debate between Einstein and Heisenberg over the Uncertainty Principle as an allegory of the bowl vs. playoff debate, with the bowl system as the Heisenberg-based model of the atom (i.e. electron "cloud") and the Bohr model which shows electrons in discrete positions representing the playoff model.
  5. Argues that the accomplishments of the regular season would be diminished by a playoff; I.E. that a playoff system will not adequately differentiate between a perfect season an a season with one or more losses;
  6. "The playoff is the regular season";
  7. The controversy produced by the BCS is a good thing;
  8. The BCS is messy, like life is, and a playoff produces artificial certainty.

Pro-playoff -- SMQ

  1. Playoff determines a champion "on the field" by a series of competitive games;
  2. There is no such thing as a "best" team;
  3. There is no adequate standard to measure performance;
  4. Championships should not be awarded by committee;
  5. Bowls may be traditional, but as a means for determining a "national champion," they are ineffective;
  6. Interest in the regular season would not be affected by instituting a playoff;
  7. "Why should an opinion of performance have any official standing in sport?"
  8. Differences between the top teams are too minor to be measured by any system we currently possess.

As I said, there are more arguments, counter arguments and proofs of arguments offered in the posts of these two worthy men. Please read their posts for all of that. For me, and this post, I will deal with the main ones. Since I am a proponent of a playoff, and since SMQ and I both have a similar view of how a playoff should be arranged (i.e. an 8-team playoff using the upper tier bowls as the playoff sites, which would produce four winners. This would simply be a slight modification of the "plus one" model), I will simply address Kyle's arguments:

Argument: A playoff system will favor only top teams, while a bowl system allows teams at different levels to participate in the post-season

Response: Not if the current bowl system were used. All other bowls could proceed as they are now. In other words, only the very top teams would be affected at all.

Argument: A bowl system favors tradition.

Response: Change is the only constant in the Universe. Why should it not be so for college football? Nobody can argue that the current system satisfies the sense of fairness that Americans demand of their sports endeavors, primarily because the mechanism of choosing the two "championship" participants is utterly opaque to everyone, and the different ratings mechanisms involved produce wildly disparate results. From these ashes, a phoenix is supposed to rise that satisfies our sense of propriety, but it never happens. Besides, if we utilize the existing bowl format, impact on tradition is minimized if not totally absent.

Argument: Playoffs don't always produce a "best team" result.

Response: Neither do regular seasons or the BCS. The "best team" is at best an ephemeral concept. What a playoff does is attempt to give the best 8 teams, among which is a very high probability of the two "best teams," an opportunity to compete for a definitive result. Our forebears competed in tournaments in everything from running in the nude to jousting to every other imaginable sports endeavor, and none of those tournaments always produced the "best" whatever. However, they always had the virtue of producing a champion, something that Americans desire. If not, why did the AP start voting for a national champion out of the bowl chaos lo these many years ago? Americans want a champion -- even a champion who isn't objectively "the best."

Argument: The best teams can never be known (Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle debate).

Response: Even if true, we can still crown a champion. A champion doesn't have to be the best, but to be a champion that most Americans demand, his claim to the championship has to be tested. That is an objective result obtained by trial on the field, and even if we have located the electron by forcing it into a certain place at a certain time, that is precisely what college football fans want -- a sense of certainty backed up by at least a modicum of credibility, which the current system cannot produce. The absence of credibility (which is a direct result of the Byzantine process used to determine the final game participants) is what galls college football fans. We do nothing by oligarchy here in America, except college football and figure skating.

Argument: The regular season's accomplishments would be diminished by a playoff.

Response: This is the appeal to tradition logical fallacy. A regular season's accomplishments would be validated by a playoff, especially if we used a seeding system. By seeding the teams, your regular season is the major determinant of your seeding. If, as has been argued, the teams are in fact so close together, the seeding will not dramatically impact the likely outcome of the competition, but could be used to provide a closer venue for fans of the higher seed, at minimum.

Argument: The playoff is the regular season.

Response: Then let the NCAA set the regular season so that every team plays a comparably difficult schedule. That way, there would be some confidence that the resultant representatives are not getting there by dint of scheduling weak teams. The strength of schedule is the most difficult variable to account for, and not doing so is one of the biggest sources of frustration among college football fans when it comes to selecting the participants in the "championship" game. Addressing this variable is the true purpose of a playoff system, as it tests the result of your season on the field before allowing you to ascend to the throne.

Argument: BCS controversy is a good thing.

Response: Would it go away if we instituted a playoff? Hardly. The controversy would be removed to a slightly lower level, but by doing so it would greatly enhance the chances of giving the top two teams a chance to win the championship.

Argument: The BCS is messy, like life is, and a playoff produces artificial certainty.

Response: Artificial certainty is better than none at all. The purpose of athletic competition is to produce a champion in every contest. If we are going to do that for the entirety of college football, should some semblance of credibility not be provided for the process? The credibility of the judgments of computers and men is the thing that drives the debate, and determining the national champion largely by some kind of scoring method rather than a playoff is fundamentally contrary to the very essence of team sport. Even if the tournament produces a flawed result, the process is unaffected by the result. In the current method, the process is the problem, not necessarily the result.

Ultimately, we are faced with a choice between an opaque, Byzantine process that few people have confidence in that may produce a correct result, and a tried and true process that allows competition events to produce what may be a correct result. In other words, the same uncertainty of result remains, but in the latter case, the process is transparent, and produces it's result by a method virtually everyone can agree upon from history immemorial -- tournament competition.

As to the other arguments about travel, classes, number of games played, lucre ... Well, I'll just let SMQ speak for me in response to those: "Canards all!"


mlmintampa said...

In college basketball we have the NIT and NCAA Tournament. Why can't we do that in college football? Use six teams and five bowl sites in a playoff. The rest of the bowls keep doing what they are doing.
I know colleges like the bowl system because 'everyone can be a champion'. But the system sucks when BC can say they have won 8 bowl games in a row and have never come close to a national title. As a fan, these games are only fun if you're gambling on them.