Amazing. Unbelievable. Insane. Crazy. These are the words of college football.
Unfortunately, the college football media has decided to intersperse anti-BCS rhetoric in between these amazing Saturdays of football. It’s somewhat of an ironic combination, and worse, most of the rhetoric is nonsensical. Take for instance the annual columns that are cued up for launch following the release of the initial BCS standings each season in late October. This year the one that I noticed was by Yahoo’s Pat Forde (a great sports writer) titled “College Football Playoff is coming one year too late”.
In this article, Forde bemoans the fact that obviously the 2013 season will be a mess because there are too many undefeated teams and how in the world will we discern the top two teams to play in the BCS Championship Game? Of course, Forde failed to remind us that there are always more undefeated teams during week 8 of the season than during week 14 of the season. Again, Forde is great, but this is a completely useless column.
While useless with regards to the intent in which it was written (bashing the BCS in favor of a playoff), it might actually still serve a purpose. Forde reminds us of the possibility that we might have a huge mess at the end of season. This possibility adds to the uncertainty of college football. The uncertainty fuels and accelerates the excitement of college football.
In the NFL, there’s a low degree of uncertainty. Several NFL divisions get locked up well before the season ends leading to superstar QBs getting benched to rest for the playoffs. Moreover, it’s much easier to predict the NFL postseason halfway through the year in the NFL compared to predicting the top of the BCS standings halfway through the college football season.
But it’s not just the uncertainty of wins and losses, which of course are a major contributor. It’s an uneasiness and uncertainty over whether we’re going to have a controversial finish. This of course is fueled by Pat Forde columns and endless “BCS debate” on ESPN. While pointless in terms of debating in order to find resolution, this is all part of the fun. This is all part of the magic.
And this is my point. The BCS system itself is a major contributor to the wildly entertaining nature of college football. It helps push the descriptive language of a big game on Saturday from “Surprising” and “Great Game” into the language of “Amazing”, “Unbelievable”, “Insane”.
A Revolving Door, Single Elimination Tournament
We love March Madness because we love filling out the brackets and we love the single elimination structure because it’s all or nothing. You lose, you’re done. Well, in college football we essentially have a single elimination tournament that lasts all season. Except the bracket isn’t yet filed out.
Every team from the major conferences that can realistically expect to play for a national championship should they take care of business basically starts off with a schedule and an assumption that if they lose, they’re done. It’s single elimination, at least in terms of perception, and the perception is key. We know teams sometimes play for a national championship with one-loss. Auburn this season is an example. However, the key is that when the loss occurs, fans assume they’re done. They don’t re-assure one another by saying “No big deal. It’s just one loss. We’ll still be fine.” No, it’s the opposite. You lose. You’re done.
As other teams lose, teams get back into the picture over the course of the season. It’s a revolving door. It’s this messy and magical system where there’s a regular single elimination tournament going on where the participants come in and out of participation based on what is happening during any given week. In a word, it’s uncertainty.
Uncertainty over what’s possible. Uncertainty over who will stay alive in the tournament. Uncertainty over who might get back into the game should someone slip up.
This uncertainty makes every moment bigger. This uncertainty turns the Iron Bowl finish from a wild moment in a local rivalry into college football legend.
Auburn’s Run That Nobody Saw Coming
Auburn’s 2013 run of course is the culmination of everything amazing about college football. A team that began the season unranked, and rightfully so considering their performance last year. After losing to LSU in September, Auburn knocked off a couple ranked teams in Ole Miss and Texas A&M and it became apparent that Auburn could still be alive to win the west. The stakes began to increase.
Let’s pause to consider the difference in college football and the NFL. With each win in college football, the stakes and pressure increase. In the NFL, with each win, the stakes decrease because you’re simply securing a playoff spot and you can secure that spot earlier in the season with more wins. This of course makes more games at the end of the season irrelevant and increases the chances of sitting a starting quarterback. In college, quite the opposite. You win 9 in a row, your QB is battling through injury to stay in the game because the stakes are getting bigger and bigger – the BCS Championship berth is on the line.
This is key. This system means the best teams in the country are playing under the most pressure. Or, in other words, we get to watch the best athletes and the best teams play in the biggest moments. Cue the wild entertainment. Cue the shock. Cue the insanity. The revolving door which puts the top teams in the biggest moments week after week means we get repeated insanity throughout the season.
Back to Auburn.
As Auburn’s wins piled up, as they climbed in the rankings both due to their performances and other teams losing (the revolving door), the pressure increased and the moments got bigger. Then, with games against Georgia and Alabama, Auburn escaped these Saturday pressure cookers with wild plays – a hail mary and a returned field goal. The combination of huge moments, the highest stakes, elite athletes and wild, freak plays mean these moments are burned in our memories for decades. These moments are passed down to future generations by the Auburn faithful.
A national semifinal game can’t beat this. We didn’t know going into that Saturday that it would be a legendary moment. We don’t have to plan big games by scheduling a national semifinal game. We allow the uncertainty of the system and the bigness of the moment to essentially go nuclear and we’re blown away.
This isn’t unique to 2013. It happens every year. In November of last year, I wrote a column titled “Don’t look now, but the BCS is delivering a remarkable season.” The jump-out-of-your-seat moments that Auburn brought us in 2013 were brought to us by other teams in 2012. Alabama’s win against LSU which led AJ McCarron to bawl like a baby afterwards (this year’s Alabama win over LSU led to Nick Saban jumping into AJ McCarron’s arms). Johnny Manziel’s win against Alabama in Bryant-Denny in 2012 brought pandemonium and led to the Johnny Football phenomenon that overtook sports headlines for the better part of the entire next year. And of course the Alabama-Georgia SEC Championship Game had millions screaming at their televisions all over the southeast. It’s magical.
It’s magical because it’s unscripted. Television shows can never compete with this because the best moments are unscripted (sorry, Vince Gilligan, I love you). With the BCS, you wake up every Saturday morning not knowing what might happen, but knowing you might get a legendary Saturday.
Last year’s article should have been titled “Don’t look now, but the BCS is delivering a remarkable season again”. That’s just it. The BCS is designed to give us an incredible college football season filled with ups and downs, drama, moments of insanity, and lots of unpredictability.
College football isn’t by nature going to deliver an incredible season from beginning to end. It’s the system that does it. It’s the BCS. If you structured college football exactly like the NFL, you’d have a regular season exactly like the NFL has. When is the last time you and your friends remarked to one another about the wildly unpredictable and crazy weekend of NFL football?
Uncertainty vs Guaranteed Match Ups
During a recent Twitter debate with Ty Duffy from The Big Lead, Ty said the following regarding the playoff vs BCS debate:
— Tyler Duffy (@tyduffy) December 8, 2013
Ty believes the uncertainty of the system is bad. He believes that it would be better to guarantee meaningful games at the end of the season. He’s right in one regard. We are at the mercy of randomness with the BCS system. But, I think his comment is still incorrect. The main trade off isn’t between randomness and guaranteed meaningful match ups. It’s between regular, season long meaningful match ups and planned meaningful match ups around the New Years holiday.
Yes, you’re adding stakes to two games in the postseason that wouldn’t have them otherwise. These two games will be great. The loss felt in the regular season is hard to measure, and it will vary from year to year depending on how the season plays out, but the loss isn’t zero. To say the regular season won’t be impacted at all is naive.
It’s possible that a four-team playoff combined with the messiness and assymetric nature of college football is the sweet spot where we’ll have just the right amount of drama in the postseason while minimizing the impact to the regular season we all love. It’s possible, not guaranteed. But more concerning is the reality that once college football takes a step towards a playoff, it won’t be the last. Many assume an eight-team playoff is inevitable.
An eight-team college football playoff will seriously diminish the regular season and the magic we see each year. That’s a guarantee. Would there be anything worse than Alabama benching a quarterback in an Iron Bowl because they already locked up a spot in the playoff? Don’t say it wouldn’t ever happen, because things change. Things change as a result of macro events and macro changes (consider the traditions that were blown up in the name of conference realignment recently). Rivalries can be affected and changed. An eight-team playoff would diminish rivalries. When’s the last time you got fired up for an NFL rivalry? 1970?
Regional Games, National Impact
Saturday night, despite being exhausted from an early morning and a long day of football, I stayed up until midnight to watch the Big Ten Championship. Trust me, Big Ten football doesn’t exactly do it for me these days, so there must have been another reason to watch, right? There was. An Auburn BCS Championship Game berth was at stake.
Tens of thousands of Auburn fans celebrating in Atlanta, Georgia after beating Mizzou in the Georgia Dome were likely glued to television screens for this exact reason. Remove the BCS and those Auburn fans are oblivious to the Big Ten game. Why? Because the game has no impact on their team. Their spot would already be secured in the playoff. They know Michigan State or Ohio State (or even someone else) would get in. The common argument here is that of course they would watch, it’s a huge game! That’s stupid. Yes, some would watch. But to suggest that just as many Auburn fans would watch a Big Ten Championship that directly impacts whether or not they get into the BCS Championship as would watch a Big Ten Championship that has no bearing on Auburn’s postseason is completely wrong and stupid to suggest. Of course the viewership would be impacted! Not every Auburn fan is a football purist who watch for the love of the game. Fans are fans. Be realistic.
It’s no different than when Florida fans tuned in by the droves to USC-Notre Dame on Thanksgiving Saturday night in 2012 since a Notre Dame loss would have meant Florida got in. There are countless examples. The revolving door nature of the regular season tournament means a regional game has national impact. It means the next guy up is tuning in, on the edge of their seat, hoping for an upset.
Now to be fair, you can argue that this will still be the case with regards to the 4 spots in the playoff, and it will be to an extent. But, it will also be different. It’s no longer a revolving door, but kind of a revolving door with more stipulations. In the BCS, it’s you lose, and you’re out. In the playoff, it’s you lose and maybe you’re out. Or, if you go on to win your conference, you’re likely still in.
It’s a simple formula. With an expanded field, you can have more losses and still be alive. When more losses are permitted, fewer games matter. If you take it to the level that professional football or basketball has, you can have 8-8 teams win the Super Bowl or sub .500 teams playing in the NBA playoffs. And of course you have a glut of games during the season with minimal urgency.
When more losses are permitted, the consequences are also kept local. They don’t impact as many nationally. Another example… Ohio State fan gets a text from his jersey wearing buddy and says “Alabama on verge of losing to Auburn” – The message spreads amongst the OSU fans and they start tuning into the Iron Bowl by the thousands and thousands. Alabama loss means Ohio State gets into the big dance. It’s on baby. The Iron Bowl was the most watched game of the season. The BCS makes local rivalries go national. Take away the BCS and the rivalry stays local. Take away the BCS and every rivalry is this year’s Oregon-Oregon State game. Important locally, tuned out nationally.
When sports go hyper local, the interest levels decline for the sport as a whole. Major League Baseball is an incredibly localized sport. Teams have local fans, and very few tune in nationally to the big games. They just don’t matter and people don’t care. The NFL fights this to a degree, but is helped by super stars and even more by fantasy football and gambling. College football doesn’t have fantasy football to propel broad interest. If you ruin the regular season of college football, the regular season is at risk of becoming very localized. Yes, there are fans that will watch all good teams, but we’re talking about the masses and broad interest. Long-term mass interest is not guaranteed. Ask boxing or baseball.
The Goal and The Future
The goal of a league structure should be to setup elite athletes and the best teams to where they face off under the brightest lights and the highest stakes as much as possible. This opens the door for frequent magical moments. I argue that the BCS best enables college football to have these moments from September 1 through mid January.
Other sports have these moments, but they’re increasingly infrequent in the regular season. I’d argue that the NBA playoffs is quite amazing, but the regular season has been trashed. It leads to teams like San Antonio and the Miami Heat resting their stars throughout the season to prepare for the playoffs.
The BCS does two things very effectively. First, it narrows down the massive field of teams to two teams very accurately. This is a point I haven’t discussed much in this article, but it’s been demonstrated again and again. It’s not perfect, but it’s darn good. FSU-Auburn yet again is the consensus top two. Secondly, the BCS is very effective at creating a magical regular season.
I’ll return to one of my initial points which is that too many fans fail to connect the BCS with the magic of college football. They think they’re either separate topics or if anything, they associate the BCS as a negative. The reality is that the BCS fuels the excitement. The BCS turns big moments into sheer insanity whether it is September, October, November or December. The BCS keeps us on the edge of our seat by merging massive uncertainty with special on-field moments.
You might question why it’s worth discussing this considering the fact that the BCS is being scrapped. Two reasons. First, this my thank you to the BCS which has helped make college football what it is today. We have an incredible sport right now and I’m enjoying every single Saturday. We’re not guaranteed this level of entertainment forever. And, that brings me to my second reason. It’s my hope that we can help prevent the expansion of the playoff field in the future by making this case today.
We know what we have. What we have is amazing. We all know it. Some just refuse to enjoy it and would rather pontificate about the merits of an NFL style playoff and computer rankings. How a playoff fully impacts the wonderful aspects of college football won’t be entirely clear until further down the road, but my guess is that even a four-team playoff will have some impact. Here’s to hoping we don’t ruin the greatest sport we have. Here’s to hoping our Septembers, Octobers, and Novembers are just as magical in 2023 as they are in 2013.