Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Piling onto Wetzel

I am undecided as to whether I want to read Dan Wetzel’s book on the BCS.  I’ll give Wetzel credit for apparently going beyond the usual “decide it on the field!” cliches that one hears on sports talk radio.  (Steak Shapiro had his zillionth “a coach should be measured by how his team is doing at the end of the season” rant this morning, as if the first half of a season ought to be a glorified preseason.)  Wetzel’s examination of the bowl system sounds like a worthy read.  That said, his justification for a 16-team playoff sounds weak:

The way to reward the best teams is two-fold. First is providing home-field advantage to the higher-seeded team until the title game (more on this later).

The second is by giving an easier first-round opponent – in this case No. 1 seed Auburn would play No. 16 Florida International. Earning a top two or three seed most years would present a school a de facto bye into the second round.  FIU isn’t in the tournament to win the title – they won’t – but to make the regular season matter more.

Right now, the regular season matters because one loss is often fatal (ask the three Big Ten co-champions about that) and two losses are almost invariably fatal.  If you replace the existing system with a 16-team playoff, then teams are no longer playing for survival every week.  Instead, they are playing for homefield advantage, which anyone with skin in the game will tell you is worth about a field goal, and the right to play marginally easier opponents as the playoffs progress.  The Auburn-South Carolina game this weekend was all-or-nothing.  If Auburn won, they would almost certainly play for a national title.  If they lost, they almost certainly would not.  It would not have had nearly the same import if Auburn were playing for the right to play the LSU/Oklahoma winner in the second round instead of Wisconsin.

The other issue that I’d like to see Wetzel address is that a system that gives a 6-6 Sunbelt champion the same chance to win a national title as a 13-0 SEC Champion (or, for that matter, a 10-2 team that finished third in a six-team division over the 13-0 team that won that division and beat the 10-2 team) is flawed.  To use my favorite NFL example, a system that gave a 13-6 New York Giants team a shot on a neutral field to beat an 18-0 New England Patriots team that had already beaten the Giants in New Jersey is inferior in terms of determining a true champion, a.k.a. the team that deserves a title the most by virtue of having the best season.  How much did homefield and the right to play easier opponents matter in 2007?  Or the following year when the Arizona Cardinals almost won the Super Bowl after going 9-7 in the easiest division in football?  From all accounts, Wetzel presents a compelling case that the bowl system is fundamentally corrupt, but his solution is flawed in its own way.  Maybe his book is just a good case for reforming the bowl system?  Or implementing a limited playoff within the bowl system?  


Anonymous said...

Your examples actually disprove your point. First of all, there's so little difference between the top teams in the NFL that there's no good reason not to give the 07 Giants and the 08 Cardinals a shot at winning the title on a neutral field. To extend this to college football, if a 6-6 Sunbelt champion could win on the road at, say, Auburn and Ohio State, then defeat Oregon in a neutral site game, it clearly would deserve to be the champion.

Second, given that an ordinary regular season NFL game draws roughly double the audience of a huge college game (e.g. Steelers-Ravens drew a 14.6, Alabama-Auburn drew a 7.3), its hard to believe that this non-meritorious playoff structure has tangibly devalued the regular season at all.

Third, and you obviously know this, playoffs would increase the meaning of late regular season games for dozens of teams that currently play in basically meaningless games (e.g. LSU-Arkansas) now, and for all of the non-ACQ conference teams. Plenty of teams would be playing for survival who currently play for nothing.

Fourth, there's a reasonable chance that Auburn would have made it into the title game even with a loss to South Carolina.

Anonymous said...

First, I don't want a 9-6 champ. that means, by it's very existence, that the playoffs are all that really matters. Second, I don't watch the NFL much, except during the playoffs. But I watch the regular season of CFB and the bowls all day. Maybe that's just me. Third, LSU Ark was for who would play in the Sugar Bowl. It was not meaningless at all, and I watched it. Fourth, there was a slim chance AU would still have played if they lost the SEC Champ game. I disagree with it being called a reasonable chance. That game was really important for AU.

Your arguments make it seem like you would prefer the NFL model. It's there for you.

Anonymous said...

You say that the SEC championship game was all or nothing because if Auburn won, they would be in the MNC game. Well what if South Carolina won? What would they earn? That game was all or nothing for one team only.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 4:15, the SEC champ. game was in no way shape or form an all or nothing game for Auburn only. It was for an SEC Champ, the first ever for USC, and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. As far as the SEC goes, the Sugar Bowl is a very, very big deal.