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The Politicians Are Wrong

This is the golden age of college football.

Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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The president needs to get out and meet some serious college football fans. Matt Hayes of the Sporting News wrote, “I don’t want to sniff a playoff. The bowl system is the best thing that college football has going for it.” Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated called college football “the only sport where every single game truly matters.” Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times said the BCS has “transformed the sport from a Saturday afternoon cookout to a national obsession.” Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star wrote that “college football has the greatest regular season in all of team sports, and a playoff would ruin that distinction.” Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago -Tribune said, 

Amid all the fun, we have people yelling that the sport has to change. It needs a playoff system. Why? So the casual fans who are confused by the BCS and the angry columnists who write about college football three times a year can get finality. So the next time someone complains about a “BCS mess” .  .  . roll your eyes, shake your head and smile. You know better.

If only Hatch and Obama knew better. Instead, Obama said, “I’m going to throw my weight around a little bit. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Yet his proposed eight-team playoff would have left another undefeated team, Boise State, on the outside looking in for two years running. The Broncos have gone 12-0 and 13-0 the last two regular seasons and won a BCS bowl game—the Fiesta Bowl—this year. But with an eight-team playoff, the invitees would have been the six major conference champions and two higher-ranked at-large teams: Texas and Utah two seasons ago; TCU and Florida this past season. So, Obama’s playoff would have diminished the regular season, compromised the bowls, and would not have solved anything. 

In any event, it seems like a strange time to be talking about unfairness. There has been remarkably little controversy over the national title game selections since the BCS standings were streamlined after the 2003-04 season. Prior to the advent of the BCS, a small-conference team had not played in a major bowl since Air Force played Tennessee in the 1971 Sugar Bowl—a 27-year drought. Under the BCS, small-conference teams have played in six major bowls in the past six years. Last year, two small conference teams played in BCS bowls. 

Furthermore, TCU, a small-conference team from the same conference as Utah (the Mountain West) was one second and about one foot away from playing in the title game this past season—as Texas’s field-goal attempt in the Big 12 championship game slipped just inside the upright as time expired, sending the Longhorns to Pasadena. (TCU would almost surely have jumped from fourth to second because of shuffling in the computer rankings as Texas fell.) A small-conference team came within a sliver of making it onto the sport’s biggest stage. Sports Illustrated’s preseason rankings for next season, moreover, have Boise State at number two, which already has fans talking about the possibility of the Broncos making the title game. 

But Obama and Hatch want to move us to a playoff, which the Broncos, with their comparatively easy schedule, would probably have to go undefeated to make. Then they would have to win two more games versus the nation’s most elite competition just to make it to the big game. This would improve their chances? 

Maybe it’s the sameness of a playoff, and its one-size-fits-all quality, that attracts Obama and Hatch. Alexis de Tocqueville lamented Americans’ tendency to embrace uniformity. He loved our vibrancy and civic engagement, and he implored us not to give in to the temptation (which he thought would be fatal) to centralize power in Washington. In contrast, college football’s bowl games are community-based organizations—in Tocqueville’s parlance, civil associations. Go to the Rose Parade on Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, then walk down into Arroyo Seco Canyon for the game, and it’s hard not to be struck by how well the Tournament of Roses exemplifies Tocqueville’s civil associations at their best. 

Under the BCS, as teams jostle for higher rankings in the standings, fans in every region hang on the results from around the country as they never did before. And the BCS is more—not less—likely than a playoff to crown the most deserving team in the sport. (Nobody gets into the title game merely by getting hot for two or three weeks.) College football is close to perfect right now. And it didn’t get there through central planning, but through a slow, largely organic process of development and refinement. Now the president and a few members of Congress want to get involved and change it. 

Lou Holtz, a former coach and a colorful commentator on College Football Final, summed things up quite well:

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