I think there’s plenty for supporters of colleges and college football teams to praise in this evolution of the BCS process. Hopefully we’ll have more competitive games, higher stakes, and fairer and more-interesting match-ups. On the whole, I think the new playoff era is a good thing.
I called it an evolution earlier because for all the good factors, a few holdovers sour the new format:
The Kiddie Pool
It’s doubtful that a reasonable national title contender has even been excluded from the NCAA tournament. When there is angst, it’s because a bubble team missed out on a chance to enter the tournament. Literally, fans want the experience of being “happy just to be there.”
Conversely, the BCS years brimmed with rage over excluded teams who conceivably would have contended for titles. I think that, in the end, it makes sense to favor an undefeated LSU over an undefeated Boise State if it comes down to a single championship spot (to give a hypothetical example) just because of the difference in schedule strength. I don’t think this guarantees, though, that LSU would be the better team. Most would accept that the Tigers would have a marked advantage in raw talent in almost any recent year. On the other hand, would you give LSU the same edge in coaching or player discipline in an all-the-marbles game?
A four-team model is certainly a step in the right direction, but far from a correction to this problem: the pool of entrants is still too small. It’s easy to imagine a year where there’s a mix of undefeated and one-loss conference champs across the entirety of the former AQ conferences, and even a convincing undefeated team or two from a smaller conference. Someone with a good argument will be left out. When this happens it’ll hopefully be because of solid points like strength-of-schedule or head-to-head match-ups. Of course, strength-of-schedule is a subjective art, and games between non-conference powers are likely to become rarer over time due to expanding conference slates. Without something approximating clear delineations, we’ll be subject to…
The Human Condition
We don’t know who the selection committee will be, but if it involves people who are packing unconquerable biases and agendas, then playoff selection could become a muddled mess. The folly of a ranking system that uses pre-season guestimates is well-documented, and these same rankings will no doubt play some role in deciding the four squads invited to the playoff. Do you want conference associations, buddy networks, TV ratings, or outdated suppositions determining who plays for the national title? Barry Switzer being the deciding vote on a Big XII school? A pre-season Top-5 coasting in on residual rankings despite being thoroughly and convincingly humbled during the regular season? A Pac XII president weighing the merits of a conference partner with whom he’s negotiating the details of a joint multi-million dollar health-care venture? An ESPN mouthpiece advocating for a two-loss Notre Dame team?
I don’t, but I doubt there’ll be much to prevent things like these from happening.
The governing bodies of bowl games are, for the most part, well-financed lobbying organizations that hide behind 501(c)(3) laws intended to help real public-service organizations. At their worst, they’re self-perpetuating felony factories, as demonstrated by the Fiesta Bowl’s misbehavior.
Even if playoff games take away some of the exhibition-like aspects of the bowl games they’ll supplant, I don’t think the raised stakes will compensate for the increased burdens on fan travel. The complete lack of home-site games makes a tough travel schedule for a sport that’s still highly localized, especially given that many conferences have struggled to simultaneously maintain fan attendance for squads traveling from a conference championship game to a bowl game. The still-struggling economy isn’t exactly a comfort in this regard.
Imagine students or average season ticket-holders–the pillars of a school’s fanbase–in Happy Valley. A post-season travel schedule for a PSU playoff team might include a conference championship in Detroit, a first-round game in Pasadena, and a national championship game in Dallas. Seeing all three games would be out of the question for most fans, and the combination of costs and a risk of missing out on a game would encourage most to attend the closer, certain conference championship game. The same reasoning would likely lead many to likewise opt for attending the first playoff game, rather than take their chances with the national championship game.
The likely result would be a Super Bowl-like atmosphere for the championship game where most of the attendees have no real affinity for either team. Issues of fairness to the fanbase aside, this distancing of the fanbase is bad for schools, as it separates the sport from the university proper, and reduces the chance for students and alums to engage in memorable game experiences.
I’m in the minority for considering this important, but the degree with which post-season football puts the screws to academics is a little troubling. The sport already requires year-round physical demands. When this is coupled with the mental strain of bowl/playoff prep that extends through first semester finals, the result is a far tougher balancing act for student athletes. And I use the term “student athletes” without cynicism. Most football players–even those on playoff squads–won’t go pro, and most that do won’t make a living off it. The onerous post-season stretch is a direct impediment to the players who will rely on their education and their transcripts to land decent jobs when they graduate.