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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Vote No on a Tournament in College Football

Global warming and a tournament in college football--in both cases, a person can expect to get roasted if they oppose the popular consensus. Our understanding of global warming (both its effects and the potential solutions) is built largely on myths. This is, unfortunately, also the case with a tournament in college football. A tournament would not magically identify the best team in college football and it would bring with it serious baggage. I'll here try to explain how I see the issue and convince you that the topic deserves real debate.

I think I can summarize the arguments for a tournament in college football in two categories: 1) the current system does not necessarily identify the best team in the country and 2) the current system is anti-climatic. I'll take these on one at a time.

Does the current system identify the best team in the country? No. It's not supposed to, its supposed to identify the national champion--an ill-defined concept that breeds disagreement and debate. The reason we cannot agree on a national champion in college football is not that the BCS is flawed but that no one knows what it means to be a national champion in college football. In college basketball or college baseball or any other significant sport, the champion is the winner of a tournament. Its a definition, not a theological truth that was spawned during the creation of sport.

Before the BCS, the national champion in college football could be defined literally as the highest ranked team and substantively as the team that was able to accumulate the most quality wins while losing as rarely as possible. Now, the substantive definition is similar but the literal definition under the BCS is a bit more convoluted--it is the team that receives the most points after a summation of various polls. Because the substantive definition uses two variables (quality wins and losses) and because the quality of a win falls on a fuzzy continuum, the application of this definition is subjective--how good are particular wins and how damning are particular losses?

If you remember nothing else, though, remember that never in college football nor at any time in any sport that I can think of is the champion the "best team". One reason is that we don't really care about the best team, but the team that has performed at the highest level. Those are different things.

But then try to define which team performed at the highest level. As the trend-o-matic demonstrates, a team's performance varies across a season. Do we find the team that has had the highest average performance, the team that has had the highest minimum, or the team that achieved the highest level at any particular time in a season? If you want a tournament, you're taking option three since the tournament can only identify the best team at the very end of the season without giving us any perspective on the team's relative performance through the season.

How often were the Giants better than the Patriots during the 2007-2008 season? Only during the Super Bowl; from September until kickoff, the Patriots were significantly better. But because the Giants had three hours during which they outperformed the Patriots, the Giants were crowned as the champions of the NFL. That, to me, is a weak definition of a champion and one that college football can avoid.

Which leads to the next issue--even if we are to place too much weight on a team's performance at the very end of the season for naming a champion, a tournament will often fail to identify which team is performing at the highest level. I discuss this more fully here, but the crux of the matter is that a team's performance, because of natural fluctuations in the players', coaches', and referees' biologies, luck, and other random events, will vary from game to game and moment to moment. Consequently, the more teams we send to the tournament, the more games teams have to win, and the less likely it is that the best team will get spit out at the end.

And any tournament in college football, in time, will expand.

2) The BCS bowl system is anti-climatic. I agree completely with that concern, but the solution is not a tournament. Ohio State had to wait almost 50 days from beating Michigan to playing LSU. I assume OSU fans stayed interested, but I had moved on to other interests (NFL, NBA, NHL, etc., there were plenty of options). Even the two weeks for the Super Bowl is too long in my opinion, but the wait for bowls in college football is ridiculous. And playing at neutral locations far from either team is a second problem (though USC and LSU have had quasi-home national championship games and that shouldn't happen either).

College football should have post-season games that run up against the most exciting regular season in sports--and why is it the most exciting regular season in sports? Because it doesn't end in a massive tournament that invites Oral Roberts and American University (or even Fresno State).

But moving up bowl games is the only change I can propose. I don't want a tournament-defined national champion in college football because that will strip some of the importance of week 1 and will make college football like everyone else. I stand behind a "highest average performance" definition, but without a complete round robin so every team gets a chance to play the rest, such a definition is inherently subjective. I could write my own algorithm to identify the team with the highest average performance, but it will only be my opinion--there is no law in heaven that defines what it means to be a national champion in college football.

Addendum: If we did have a tournament, it can admit only conference champions. One very nice consequence would be that non-conference games would not affect a teams chances at winning a national championship. Consequently, teams would bulk up their non-conference schedule for the experience and cash--but remember, college basketball also started with a tournament that allowed only conference champions and now people are pushing to extend it from a field of 65 to 96. Don't play with fire.


  1. AnonymousJuly 29, 2008

    I have got to have my plus one system. At least give me that. :-)

  2. Its a definition, not a theological truth that was spawned during the creation of sport.

    Great quote. So true.

    If you remember nothing else, though, remember that never in college football nor at any time in any sport that I can think of is the champion the "best team".

    Gosh, I have been saying the same thing for a few years now. I seriously think people do not understand the difference between "champion" and "best team."

    I have sworn to myself not to argue this year with people who want a playoff. :-)

  3. you are one of the biggest idiots i have ever heard of. the ONLY way to get a champion is to play the best. i could think of at least 3 scenarios to determine a true national champ. its always one of the best teams in any sport that ends up winning. of COURSE they have to string together 3 or 4 wins and have everything fall into place. all good teams have a certain amount of luck go their way. all part of it.

  4. I completely agree with the last comment. College football needs a tournament, it's the only way to determine the "best" team in the end. The regular season is when you develop your team. Therefore, your seed in the tournament is based off of your regular season performance. No one cares how good the team "used to be" back in week one, I care how good they are now.

  5. Scott - I like your site. In another spot, I would like to propose some analysis for you to consider. I disagree with your position on a playoff. The principle concern I have, and I think you'll appreciate this given your inclination to statistical analysis, is that there is very little correlation between conferences. In fact, I would argue the correlation is so small that there is no real way to compare how good team A from conf. 1 is relative to team B from conf. 2. There just isn't enough data. I'm interested to hear your argument opposing this. If you accept this, then the only way to have a sense of who the "best" is, is to play it on the field. Is a one game scenario ideal, no. But we make this same analysis during the regular season and award conference championships based on this very principle.

    Cheers- Steve Bayer

  6. Scott,
    Your argument is well stated.

    Another point of the randomness of the playoff is the seeding. In the NFL or NBA there are enough shared games that the seeding is relatively fair. However, we would still end up arguing about who was seeded number 1 and who was seeded number 8. This just emphasizes your basic premise which is that their is no attempt in any sport to find the best team. As fans we want something to chear for and some agreement about the rules which will be applied. You get that with a playoff and you get that with a BCS. Both are correct from a certain perspective and both are flawed from other perspectives. A playoff makes the champion the team who had a good streak at the end of the year and an adequate regular season (to get into the playoff) the champion. The BCS says the team who had a great regular season and a win at the end of the year is the champion. I do not believe either of these definitions is superior. However, without the BCS as a Longhorn fan I would not care too much about the regular season because I would assume we would make the playoff most years (if 8 teams got in). So the BCS means I have more games to chear for. I can't tell you how many games i watch hoping a team ranked ahead of us will lose - all this goes away without the BCS. Anyone who thinks this is a moral debate in my mind should spend a little more time analyzing the situation and realize we are really talking about fun and enjoyment.