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The Beauty of the BCS

It's not perfect, but it has something for everybody.

11:00 PM, Dec 28, 2006 • By JOSEPH LINDSLEY
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THE BOWL CHAMPIONSHIP Series formula often seems as absurd as medieval alchemy: A combination of two human polls and six computer algorithms spit out the college football rankings, from which are determined the teams that will play in the top bowl games and which two teams face off in the mini-playoff that is the BCS national title game. Why not avoid this mess and have the players duke it out on the field in a full-fledged playoff, as they do in the NFL and even Division I-AA college football? But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in a rare fit of practical wisdom, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," and while the BCS is not perfect, a college football playoff, far from a panacea, would pose problems of its own while destroying the distinctive character of Division I college football.

First, a playoff would not necessarily guarantee a "true national champion." Sure, a playoff is a decent enough system, in our fallible world, of determining which team seems to be the best, but it is not foolproof: A scientist tasked with determining which college football team is the best would not be content with a mere single-elimination playoff--he would have to run the experiment multiple times. At the very least, to find the "true national champion," you would need to have two teams play each other in best of three series--an absurd, time-prohibitive idea for football. If a playoff is imposed upon college football, the end result will not necessarily be the "absolute national champion," who dominated the competition all season. On the contrary, it will be whoever survived the playoff--playoff survivor, rather than national champion.

As a friend of mine recently noted, the NCAA's basketball tournament is aptly called "March Madness": it involves a good dose of insanity, because it is so severed from the regular season, which hardly predicts what will happen in the tournament. If college football had a playoff, some of the madness would be eliminated by reducing the size of the field to the top 16 or 8 teams. But how do you pick those teams? Well, with the polls--human, computer, or a combination thereof, so we still have not eliminated the problems of the BCS itself.

A playoff could also interfere with the academic mission of football-playing universities--at least a smattering of which still try to educate their student-athletes. However absurd this may sound, the players (and the student fans) are still, ostensibly at least, students who will be taking exams in December, and thus college game day would unduly intrude into exam time. Ironically, a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce committee held a hearing in December of 2005, during which chairman Joe Barton and others used their position to nag the conference and bowl presidents for a college football playoff. Barton felt that this concern fell under his jurisdiction because "college football is not just an exhilarating sport, but a billion-dollar business that Congress cannot ignore." Little mention was made of education, because all would have to acknowledge that, due to the great hubbub of college football games, and the subsequent strain they place upon a university, a playoff would entirely sever the connection between the intellectual mission of universities and their athletic pursuits.

A playoff would do violence to the unique character of the regular season. Presently, to be national champion, a team truly has to be dominant all season long--quite a feat and something to be praised. The fact that even an early season loss can prevent a team from wining the national title imbues a great importance to each game, a situation that makes each fall Saturday (and now, alas, some Thursdays) into great moments for colleges, during which alumni return and students and parents gather to cheer on their team in games that matter. The regular season is college football's playoff--every game is critical to the ultimate result of the season, and there are rarely second chances. This "no-mulligan" approach makes for exciting sport, while imparting valuable lessons, such as the notion of the importance of the consequences of our actions in every moment--something that many pro athletes would do well to remember.