Archive for Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Fly Route

January 11, 2007

I'm not sure there's a more consistent and poorly thought out argument floating around these days than the "there needs to be a college football playoff" one.

And why not? Everything that happened this college football season is evidence of our dire need for such a system -- or that's how the argument goes, anyway.

Here's the problem: adding a playoff in Division 1A college football would drastically alter the sport's landscape. In some ways that would be for the best, but in a lot of ways that are commonly ignored it would be a disaster.

First, don't think for a second that a playoff would do away with the belly aching, crying and moaning that is so common when talking about the two teams that get into the current BCS championship game. If it's a four-team playoff, everyone will cry that the fifth team got screwed. If it's eight teams, everyone will cry about the ninth.

Don't believe me? Just wait until March when the 66th team in the nation throws a hissy fit about being left out of the NCAA tournament. Sure that'll be a team that has no realistic shot at winning the title, the overall goal of any such system, but analysts will groan, fans will whine and people will protest all the same.

Next, people need to realize what exactly they'd be giving up in swapping bowls out and a tournament in. The most common solution to this aspect is to keep the bowl system intact by naming individual games after certain bowls, i.e. the semi-final games of a 16-team playoff would be called the Rose and the Orange, or whichever of the current BCS games would be up in a rotation.

That's flawed, however, because anyone that's ever been to a bowl game knows it's an experience that amounts to a heck of a lot more than a few words printed on the ticket.

The bowl game experience can last a week. Teams travel down a week before the game and they participate in all sorts of activities. They attend banquets and shows and parties. There are parades and charity events. The whole city transforms for the bigger bowls.

It's a celebration of the season's end and it's a reward for a hard-fought campaign and that's evident everywhere. Families make it a vacation -- sometimes their only one of the year -- as the best bowl games are in destination cities.

A school's far-flung fans come together -- everyone hundreds of miles from home -- to overwhelm a city's landmarks, tourist attractions and nighttime hotspots.

It's a cool, cool experience -- and it's one not possible anywhere outside the championship game in a playoff. Families won't be as willing to travel or make any one game as much of a vacation because all but the most pessimistic will assume it won't be the last game.

Teams won't partake in the week's buildup to the game because winning said game suddenly goes from being a cherry-on-top to being vital.

Bowl games would go from being a giant party to being all business.

A playoff, no matter what you name the individual games, would take the pageantry out of the bowl season.

And it would take the pageantry and excitement out of the regular season -- especially any playoff larger than eight teams.

Making the Final Four has become the only goal for the nation's top college basketball programs, and making any sort of NCAA tournament run is the primary goal for most of the nation's lesser programs.

A conference title is only important to the schools trying to tack a few wins on to a tournament resume, or the ones whose only shot at the Big Dance comes from winning their little dance.

That's not the case in college football, however. Though it got plenty silly, the buildup to this season's Ohio State-Michigan game was fun. The Texas-Oklahoma game is huge every year.

Neither would matter nearly as much with a playoff.

If every good team can get a shot at redemption in a tournament, there's not nearly as much reason to get excited for the regular season games.

I've heard plenty of people say this bowl season is the reason a playoff should exist. They say Florida almost didn't even get the chance to win a national title.

That's not true, however, because Florida started 0-0 just like everyone else. The Gators got lucky and got a second shot, and congratulations to them for taking advantage of it, but there was one way to ensure they'd be in that game, and they blew it.

Others have said the Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl would have been even better had it been just one game in a playoff and that there would be lots of other equally thrilling games if such a system were in place.

That's not true either. First, there's nothing in heaven or on earth that would have made that game more exciting. Second, there are about five games a decade that exciting -- I don't care what's at stake, a playoff doesn't spontaneously generate classic football games.

Sure there'd be some great playoff games, but there are great bowl games as is. Just as there are some boring and terrible bowl games, there'd be boring and terrible playoff games.

There's plenty to be said for a playoff, and I'd even support a small, four-team version. But the people who continually spout off their "unique" opinion that there should be a massive Division 1 tournament need to first consider what exactly that would mean and whether or not it would actually satisfy all their complaints.

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