Friday, April 27, 2012

Change A Comin' (To College Football...probably)

The big news in the sporting world this morning (other than the NFL draft, which really shouldn't be news, but that's another post) is that the BCS, the weird, quasi-independent body that for some reason determines the college national championship, has recommended the NCAA move to a four-game playoff to determine a champion.

While this technically really isn't important at all (I mean, it is college football after all), it's a pretty big sea change for a stodgy old organization. And within the admittedly not very important world of college football, this is a really big deal. And I would actually go so far as to argue it is a somewhat important development for the rest of the world, even though, again, at its heart it's about some college kids playing a child's game.

So why is it important? Well, in the previous system, only the top two ranked teams were allowed to play for the national championship. But since there's roughly 8 billion college teams, it doesn't work the same way it does in the pros where the teams with the best records get to go to the playoffs. Because with so many college football teams, there are often several teams that finish the season with a perfect record. The BCS came about as a way to resolve this seemingly impossible situation by using a computer formula that would somehow determine who the two best teams are.

But there are a lot of problems with the BCS. In addition to the fact that the computer formula has never been publicly released (so no one really knows on what basis it's ranking these teams), the formula also greatly favored the teams from bigger schools with longer traditions. The old guard of the college football world essentially justified it by saying these teams are just always better (even when they're not) and because they've been around longer, they get the benefit of the doubt.

And again, even though this is in the mostly useless world of college athletics, this system had, like so many social systems, the practical effect of rewarding entrenched powers and preventing the rise of new challengers (just ask Boise State, the school with multiple perfect seasons in the past decade that has never gotten close to the championship). As such, any change toward allowing new teams in is inherently a step toward more democratic reform. And while the football itself may not be that important, the hundreds of millions of dollars attached to these championship games certainly does make a different to the schools involved.

The other heartening sign is that even though BCS officials are currently saying it will only be a four-team playoff and will never expand beyond that, they're just fooling themselves. One need only look at the NCAA basketball tournament to see how there's inevitably a push for more teams to be included in a playoff format. And by opening the doors for more teams to participate and have a realistic chance at winning the national championship, it makes it much more likely that the national champion (and the money that goes along with such a distinction) will be decided by the teams playing the games, not some faceless bureaucrats and a mysterious, byzantine computer program. And if you can't see why that in and of itself is a positive development, well, then you obviously care about college athletics even less than I do...

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