It’s too bad that this article resides behind ESPN’s paywall and is full of untrustworthy notions like “computer rankings,” because Brian Fremeau makes a very good, basic point about college football’s structure: it is more likely to crown the most deserving team. Fremeau notes that according to the Massey Rating composite, the BCS has consistently crowned the team that the computer consensus has placed as the best team in the country (or at least the team with the best resume, if those two concepts are distinct). In fact, the Massey composite goes back to 1996 and reflects that the BCS (and the Bowl Alliance before it) is a perfect 15 for 15 in awarding the national title to the most deserving team. The BCS is not as good at matching the best team against the second-best, but as Fremeau notes, playoff systems don’t really achieve that aim, either:
According to the Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings, the Green Bay Packers were only the third-best team in the NFL last year and didn't face the best team, the New England Patriots, in the playoffs. (Note: They did lose head-to-head to the Patriots in the regular season). In college basketball, the Connecticut Huskies played the best in the month of March and claimed the championship, but they finished only 10th in Ken Pomeroy's opponent-adjusted ratings. The Huskies didn't face any of the tournament's No. 1 seeds and faced only two teams in March Madness ranked in Pomeroy's end-of-year top 10.
Fremeau then notes the drawback of a playoff system: as the playoff increases in size, the odds that the best team will win goes down:
What is accommodated in a playoff system is the opportunity for weaker teams to have a shot at winning the championship. Opening up the field certainly has its rewards, potentially assuring every possible championship-caliber team a chance. But it changes the nature of what the championship means, as well. The Packers and Huskies were terrific teams down the stretch in those seasons, but advanced metrics and many fans would agree that the tournament title didn't suddenly mean they were the best team over the course of the whole year. A smaller playoff field, even as small as two teams, allows the best overall season to be rewarded with a championship.
Our college football FEI ratings project the Tigers with a 68 percent chance of beating the Crimson Tide in the BCS title game rematch. Certainly not a guarantee, but it presents a better than 50 percent likelihood that the clear No. 1 team in the nation will claim the crown. If we had a four-team playoff and LSU was required to beat both Stanford and Alabama on a neutral field, that likelihood drops below 50 percent. With an eight-team playoff built from the final BCS standings, LSU's likelihood of defeating Kansas State, Stanford and Alabama drops to 41 percent.
This is a great way of framing the playoff discussion and it helps me tighten my own beliefs. There is a happy medium between the playoff structures of American professional sports,* which strike me as too big and not slanted enough in favor of the most deserving teams, and college football’s current structure, which is too small to accommodate teams like 2004 Auburn. Brian Cook does a nice job of finding that medium with his annual description of a six-team playoff system that incorporates byes and homefield advantage to reward the best teams and is also small enough that any team that wins the tournament will end up with the best resume. That said, Fremeau’s point about the advantage of the current two-team playoff cuts against Cook’s (and my) complaints about the BCS. We all love to complain about the impossible task of picking the right #2, but the advantage of the BCS is that it is more likely to pick the right #1.
* – The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is just a complete abomination to me. If you need additional evidence that the Big Dance has killed college basketball, look at Saturday’s sports coverage. Were you aware that North Carolina and Kentucky played? Two top five teams, loaded with NBA prospects wearing the jerseys of the two winningest programs in college basketball history, played a one-point game that was decided in the final seconds and the game was a total afterthought on the day of the college football conference championship games. That’s what happens when a sport becomes a four-month lead-in for a three-week tournament.