The much-hated BCS era is coming to an end. But some want even more changes to the sport.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about college gridiron's new championship structure.
Ding dong, the witch is dead! College football's Bowl Championship Series, the most maligned playoff system in American sports, will be replaced by a four-team playoff beginning in 2014. Instead of an arbitrary system of human and computer polls deciding which two teams play in the title game, a March Madness-style selection committee will determine the top four teams in the country, who will play semifinal games around New Year's Eve, with the winner squaring off in the championship game in early January.
Drinks all around, right? Everyone's happy with college football's new sacred document and a playoff system that allows two more teams a shot at the national title?
Spare me. As critics of George W. Bush used to say of his personnel changes, this is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
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This decision does absolutely nothing to deal with the host of intrinsic problems plaguing college sports, particularly college football. A four-team playoff does nothing to combat, among other things: staggeringly low graduation rates, the apparent perpetual dominance of 12 to 14 schools in a 346-school system (that would be the SEC), rampant recruiting violations, synthetic marijuana, and of course the inherent myth of the "student-athlete".
Of course, the new system is only meant to fix college football's postseason problem—but it doesn't even do that! Does anyone believe that a 12-0 Boise State team will be picked by the selection committee over, say, an 11-1 SEC team that had one in-conference loss? Expanding from two to four teams in the relevant college football postseason won't lead to new blood holding the national championship trophy. Expect a steady diet of Alabamas, LSUs, USCs, and Oklahomas to take up three or four spots in the playoffs every season. By 2025, when the new program initial contract expires, people will be just as rabid to install a new system (eight teams! 16 teams! Legends of the Hidden Temple replacing football in the finals!). College football is rotten from the inside out, and the new playoff does nothing to change that.
Please tell me you're not sipping champagne over this, Patrick.
Sipping champagne? Do I look like a $592,000-per-year-for-wearing-an-ugly-blazer college football power broker? Did The Atlantic suddenly become a Phoenix strip club? College football is a non-champagne sport beloved by decidedly non-champagne fans—beer, yes; bourbon, yes; Dom Perignon, no, a thousand times no—and those same fans are likely overjoyed, because they're finally a concrete step toward what they've always wanted: a honest-to-goodness, fill-out-your-brackets postseason tournament.
This is a good thing.
Look, I agree that instituting a four-team playoff does nothing to solve the issues you listed. Powerhouse schools and conferences will continue to rule as college football's answer to Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, the sport's too-big-to-fail one percent. Academics will remain a non-priority. Corruption will bloom, the inevitable outgrowth of an equally inevitable underground economy created by amateurism. And speaking of the latter, the whole system will remain indefensibly unfair and un-American, cartel-powered restraint of trade masquerading as a tax-exempt educational endeavor, clad in the bishop's robes of pious (and often sub-textually racist) paternalism.
Only here's the thing: Fans don't care about those problems. Do. Not. Care. If they did care, Taylor Branch would be the new Southeastern Conference commissioner and National Signing Day wouldn't be Christmas 1A for everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. Sportswriter Dan Wetzel recently argued that "you have to employ a situational sliding moral scale" to embrace and enjoy college football. I disagree. There is no scale. Fact is, college football fans are basically the same as sports fans everywhere, not to mention people who love reality television or line up outside Apple stores for the latest iPhone. How the sausage gets made is irrelevant. The sweet, sweet eating is all that matters.
From a fan's standpoint, the playoff system figures to be a feast.
Flayoffs are more exciting than the traditional bowl system. See Madness, March. More teams, more games, more drama. Oh, and more gambling. Granted, the four-team format seems rather parsimonious (though it does encourage more BCS-style arguing over which teams should make the postseason, which traditionally has given fans one more way to be entertained). Still, not to worry: Money, ratings, money, enthusiasm, and money will lead the NCAA to expand to eight, 12 or even 16 teams, and sooner rather than later. (No chance the new "10-year" contract is written in anything but the faintest disappearing ink, not when far-less-popular men's basketball brings in billions). From a competitive standpoint, playoffs are more equitable—yes, the big-boy programs figure to dominate, but a bracketed postseason at least gives teams like Boise State a chance to crash the party (and who's to say they won't get hot and win, like the 9-7 New York Giants just did in the NFL?).
Jake, between the ongoing Ed O'Bannon lawsuit that threatens to blow up the entire NCAA plantation economy and the looming white elephant of pigskin-induced brain trauma—schools are first and foremost supposed to be acting in loco parentis and protecting both their juvenile and adult students from harm, right?—college football may indeed be the Titanic. But the new playoff format is one hell of a deck band.
Hampton, I know you love college football's action and unmatched atmosphere, even though you're a Kansas Jayhawk backer. Come 2015, you'll be too busy dancing to care about the iceberg dead ahead, right?
Wow! Greed, corruption, exploitation, and death. And, if all that weren't bad enough, the guys who run college football wear ugly blazers, too!
Oh, the humanity.
Will you two calm down? Yeesh. I thought people were overreacting to the Supreme Court's decision on healthcare. Yes, the new college football playoff system does not address low graduation rates or drug use among student-athletes. The new playoff also does nothing about the high price of gasoline, or how it's just too darn hot outside. The playoff isn't supposed to solve all of college football's problems, any more than the Affordable Care Act is supposed to cure all disease.
The new format was created for one reason: to change, at long last, the way college football selects a champion. Finally, instead of the perennial absurdity of naming a champ with post bowl season polls and ranking, fans actually get to see the nation's best two teams—plus a pair not from the SEC—decide who's best on the field. The hated BCS is dead. The clunky, kitschy appeal of bowl season—polyester blazers and all—remains in tact. Hallelujah.