Bowls or Playoffs? The NCAA Football Debate

"College basketball has the greatest postseason. But college football has the greatest season. That's because of the bowls." (John Branch, "Debate is the Beauty of the Bowl Systems," The Fresno Bee, Nov. 25, 2003)

Opponents of the existing NCAA college football bowl system are generally unshakeable. The stalwart and unflinching nature of these convictions, the intensity of the belief that nothing could possibly be better for a sport than a traditional, decisive postseason winner-takes-all tournament system, is noteworthy. No one argues with tournament results, right, so what could go wrong? The intensity and simplicity of their beliefs sometimes rivals that sometimes found in those believing they have proof of a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination. The annoying thing is not so much the belief that is proposed, but the unwillingness of the public to dig deeper and seriously analyze the assumptions on which their beliefs in the superiority of a bowl or playoff system are founded. The question is, after all, one of grave importance to our sports-watching society. Most of the naivete, though, is on the sides of those calling for a playoff system. Many demonstrably wrong arguments are made in favor of a playoff system, and playoff proponents do themselves no good to misunderstand the nature of their arguments. Here my hope is not to totally debunk the notion that a postseason tournament in NCAA football would have merits, but I do hope to do apply the brakes to several of the fallacies that suggest that a playoff system would be a cure-all to all NCAA football problems.

Myths About the Bowl System

  1. Myth: The result of a winner-takes-all tournament is the best measure of the merit of a team.
        This point is driven by the notion that holding a winner-takes-all tournament gives us a better way of ranking teams than any other measure. However, win a team wins a tournament, it means two things: (1) the team qualified for the tourney, and (2) the team did not lose a game during the tournament.
        But often overlooked is that this might tell us relatively little. Tournaments sometimes have peculiar results. For instance, suppose IU plays Purdue twice during the regular season, and wins each contest, has a better overall season, and gets a better tournament seed than Purdue. Then suppose that the two teams meet in the tournament and Purdue wins the match. Is it truly a matter of "better merit" that Purdue would advance and IU  would not, in spite of IU winning two out of three against Purdue, and having the better overall season? Not at all. Winner-takes-all tourney proponents are often quick to presume the regular season is irrelevant beyond serving as a qualifier to such a tournament. However, there's no a priori reason to do this -- why not put more weight on the regular season results? Wouldn't that make the regular season games more interesting? (Note: If some reflex forced you to mentally answer "No," there is probably a denial instinct at work.)
        Further counter-examples:
        (a) The winner of every top tennis tournament is not necessarily the #1 tennis player in the world.
        (b) Flukes such as temporary injuries or personal tragedies might affect a team's performance in only one game of a tournament.
        (c) Suppose, for example, that a team went undefeated during the regular season, and defeated the team that eliminated them as well as every team that reached the final four. If you didn't know which games were tournament games and which are not, it would appear that that eliminated team was the most meritorious team. In fact, one alternative to a winner-takes-all tournament would be to simply calculate or poll the final rankings post-tournament; the tournament victor would not necessarily be ranked #1, if other teams had superior seasons.
  2. Myth: College football needs a clear champion every year.
    This notion itself is so fundamental to objections to the bowl system, and yet it is not so strongly founded. Several get along well without annual championships. To list a few examples of this off the top of my head:
        Some perfectly good sports that do not even have a clear annual championship:
        (1) Pro boxing
        (2) Pro golf.
        (3) Pro tennis.
        Some sports also have champions, but not necessarily determined by tournament. Pro boxing is an example.
        In reality, "winner-takes-all" is not even necessarily the most accurate  reflection of merit. For instance, if two teams are evenly dominant and equally accomplished for one season, a split title might be more reflective of the merits of the programs. A single-elimination tourney system forces one of the other to be regarded as the best. But the team that loses first, might not lose two out of three; two teams that face each other might have an even win percentage against each other as more games are played. Tournament systems cannot reflect that, as they always forcibly break down contests to win or lose; tying or sharing of credit is regarded as a strangely taboo occurrence among many fans, but that is a subjectively imposed taste, not an attempt to do justice to meritorious teams, and it should not be confused as such.
  3. Myth: There are no clear champions under the bowl system, but a tournament tells us clearly who the champion is.
    Firstly, there are distinct and clear champions under the bowl system: the poll and BCS winners. They play under those rules, which are reasonable enough, and they live and die by those rules; the rules lead to clearly determined (albeit controversial) results. The thing is that there is no single, unanimous measure of championship. Instead, under the system as we have it now, there are basically two distinct kinds of championships.
        (i) National championships, as determined by rankings. These are crowned to those whom the press regards as having the most impressive season, and also the team that the computer formulas and the coaches regard as having the most impressive season. No one can doubt that winning either of these (much less both) is a grand  feat for a program. Winning unanimously, all else equal, is a better feat than winning both, but winning either is a grand feat. There can be no mistaking this interpretation of these events, although some will complain about the fact that one team or another played a great season and "didn't get the chance" at the championship. To this, we can only say this: had the team played well enough to be clearly at the top by all measures, they would have made it to at least the split title. Also, if your season wasn't that impressive, sorry, you might have to settle for the Fiesta, Rose, or some other major bowl championship; it's not exactly tragic, for crying out loud.
       (ii) Bowl championships / invitations. A team can be, say, the "Rose Bowl champion." Anyone who follows college football will have an understanding that this implies the team had a meritorious season, although not necessarily the kind of season that would make it the undisputed national champion.
        The winner-takes-all tourney proponents suggest that the winner of the tournament is far more clear than the champion in national rankings. That is distinctly not true. The only thing that is different is that people basically agree to consciously quit debating about which team is the champion once the tournament begins. From there on, the tourney proceeds, and all but one team is eliminated, and by the end of the tourney, everyone else in the tournament has lost to either that team, or to a team that lost to a team ... that lost to a team that lost to that team. That sports fans under a tournament system decide to quit debating on which team is most merit-worthy of the title "national champion" is evidence that people have shut up, but is not necessarily evidence that their judgment is a more sensible, rational measure of merit than a rankings-based system. This probably often occurs because the tourney proponents either (1) consciously will themselves to ignore everything but the tournament outcome, thusly defining the rules of the game, or (2) do not understand well enough how a team can win a tournament and still not be the most meritorious team overall for that season. See above.
  4. Myth: The current system is motivated by money, and money is not a valid measure of whether bowls or playoffs would be better.
    Money is generated only when people watch the game on TV or are willing to pay for tickets. Thus the system that generates the most money is the system that will tend to be the most watched, and therefore the most interesting.
  5. Myth: Adding a tournament to a sport brings in a lot of revenue to the sport.
    If that is so, why, for instance, doesn't a sport like pro boxing implement a tournament system? Probably because the business model that leads some sports to hold tournaments, is not a one-size-fits-all model. The tournament system might work fine in college basketball, but in that sport, we're talking about filling 20,000 seats per game, not up to 65,000 or 100,000. With so many seats to fill, the home school's student body is not enough to fill the seats; thus, to fill the seats, it helps to have the game lineups scheduled well in advance so that alumni and other fans can make their plans. This cannot be accommodated by a tournament system in which lineups are uncertain. This is not a hard proof that tournaments can't bring in more revenue, but it should give us great pause in trying to apply the techniques successful in other sports to college football.
        What works in one sport doesn't necessarily work in another. In pro boxing, a big title fight can bring in more revenue per individual fight, and the personalities and relationships of the fighters can make some fights more interesting than others, which are probably among the reasons why there are not regular pro boxing tournaments, but the fights are determined with more individual discretion. The systems from the MLB or NBA (best-of-seven playoffs) probably wouldn't carry over so well to a sport like boxing, or college football for that matter.
        One finally has to consider the fact that, if a tournament system would bring in so much more money, this would have brought great pressure on the NCAA to implement it long ago. The fact that they haven't done so in spite of all controversy, suggests that the current system is a very profitable one.
  6. Myth: Watching regular seasons games is interesting under tourneys, because they affect your tournament seeding.
    In reply to this, I usually think, "So when I see my team win, I'm supposed to think, 'Wow, my team's odds of winning the tourney moved from 1% to 1.3%'?" In college football, bowl invitations are based on the regular season, and cannot be erased. Each regular season win has greater meaning.
  7. Myth: A winner-takes-all tournament is the only viable alternative to the bowl system.
    Even if we held a tournament, we could still base the national title on post-season rankings, and this would be way more fair to teams that have a superior regular season. This would take into account all the information that the tournament games provide us, but would also take the regular season results into equal consideration. E.g., if Oklahoma beats LSU in the regular season, that would be every bit as relevant as Oklahoma beating LSU in the tournament under such a system.
  8. Myth: Bowls fill teams in mediocre bowls with an overblown sense of accomplishment.
        Victory in a mediocre bowl is never confused by any sane sports follower with, say, winning the Sugar Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. However, I think it is one of the great advantages of the bowl system that many great teams get to cap their regular-season performances with a win. Often, these bowl contests are among the most memorable games in a school's history, and people who don't like that great fact, often have little to object to this with other than mean-spiritedness.
        That said, we could argue equally well that tournament victories or strong tournament showings fill a team with a false sense of accomplishment. See the above: "Myth: The result of a winner-takes-all tournament is the best measure of the merit of a team."
  9. Myth: If I would find tournaments more exciting than bowls, this means I would find college football as a whole more fun if there were a playoff system.
        A winner-takes-all tournament steals attention away from the regular season and places it in the postseason. Even if the tournaments were more exciting, the regular season would be much less exciting, especially for those not in contention for a playoff spot, or who have no serious chance of reaching a title game. So even if tournaments actually were more fun than bowls, it doesn't make the sport more interesting as a whole.

Less Flimsy Objections

  1. Objection: The bowls give too much weight to what conference a football team is in.
    This one I consider to have some weight. It should be considered, though, that these conference-specific traditions are part of what makes the game fun for so many viewers. That said, there are many who stand outside these conferences which have a stronger tradition. For their sake it may be better to rewrite the rules for entering many bowl games to allow members of weaker conferences a chance to take part in the more prestigious bowls. For instance, we might have a set of rules under which the winner of the Big Ten is normally preferred to go to the Rose Bowl, but if an at-large team had a strongly superior record, that might trump the tradition in such a rare circumstance. But this does not constitute an argument against the bowl system, but rather, only an argument in favor of making bowl invitations rules more conference-neutral.
  2. Can't we fix the bowl system?
    Fixing it sounds fine, but that said, usually the changes most people suggest are very short-sighted patches to a problem that really isn't even that big a deal in the first place. Cogent suggestions are welcome, but in my experience, most suggestions are mindlessly naive. For instance, one commentator suggested that a fix to our current system, following the previously unanimous #1 Oklahoma's loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 conference championship, is to add a rule whereby a team must be a conference champion to win the national championship. Sounds good, but so now USC's loss to unranked California is excused, but Oklahoma's loss to top Kansas State (ranked #7 in computer rankings) is somehow preclusive to title contention? Give me a break. Such is the nature of most proposed "fixes" to the bowl system; they are usually resemble a clumsy game of whack-a-mole. The current system has problems but I would generally prefer to leave them as is, and point out that the alternative systems have bigger problems rather than make a mountain out of a molehill with the problems of the current system.
  3. The other levels of NCAA football use a tournament system, so so should Division IA.
        This is kind of an apples-and-oranges comparison. No offense to smaller schools, but far fewer people follow those divisions. The better business model for those schools is probably to concentrate the attention from their seasons into one intense playoff, which brings in a couple games nationally televised (usually on cable) to the system. But in general, these divisions don't struggle with the challenges of filling sixty to a hundred thousand seats per week. Also, playoff systems are easy to administer than the more intricate bowl system. Altogether, it is an apples-and-oranges comparison. That is not to say that a bowl system for the other divisions wouldn't be more interesting, because maybe they would.

Other Things About the Bowl System

  1. The bowl system is what keeps us madly focused on the teams' regular seasons.
    The only reason that people give a damn in 2003-04 about USC's strong season is because of the bowl system. Had they entered a tournament, win or lose, their regular season would be pretty well a moot point by now. I thank God that it is not, and that people talk passionately about the merits of their teams' seasons well after the season is over. In college basketball, the regular season is usually more of an afterthought to the tournament results.
  2. Individual bowls are usually more memorable.
    That's not to say that bowl games are always great to watch. But there's a certain ring in, "Remember the 2004 Rose Bowl?" that is lacking in "Remember round 2 of the 2005 playoffs, the game between Kansas State and OSU?" Not just for the fact that bowl games have catchier names, but for the fact that bowl games are the exclamation marks at the end of many fine and memorable seasons; the name of the bowl itself is a strong indicator of how meritorious that season as a whole was.

This concludes my thoughts for now. Finally, to set the record straight, I will have to admit my potential for "bias": I'm a Purdue alumnus and a big fan of Purdue football. I'm a fan of Purdue basketball, but not nearly as much as of Purdue football. Watching college football under the bowl system has been about the most fun thing I've ever done in my life as a sports spectator.
    This concludes my thoughts for the time being. Right now, as of the time of the first draft, I'm about to tune in to the 2004 Sugar Bowl between Oklahoma and LSU, and no matter what the result, the aftermath should be dramatic. If you have any additional considerations for me to address in this page, please e-mail me. - Ryan Renn