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?