For years, the powers that be and fans alike have searched for a better system to determine college football’s champion. With the Bowl Championship Series imminently being replaced with playoffs — likely a four- or eight-team system — it is easy to point out all the flaws that are being corrected; theBCS was a vague system decided by computer models with suspect machinations, and “experts” with even more suspect and vague criteria. It required too many “eye tests” and placing faith in the strengths of conferences that did not have an accurate non-conference sample size to corroborate their relative standing. In a division with 120 teams, it was deemed futile to accurately pick out the two best teams because the good teams were spread too thinly to establish a consistent body of work.
However, in spite of the BCS’s flaws, there was always one factor that I always appreciated — something that will be somewhat neutered in the new playoff formula: Every week was a playoff. With so many teams vying for just two bids toward a title game, there is no margin for error, and great teams are punished for not bringing their A-game every week.
This is not an endorsement of the BCS system, which is undoubtedly too imperfect and inconsistent to last; it’s simply recognition of the competitive mentality that the BCS creates. While playoffs are undoubtedly exciting and superior when it comes to entertainment — and absolutely necessary for college football given the number of teams — I think it is important to consider whether they are always the best solution for crowning the best team.
The necessity of playoffs in their current form is much more dubious in the NFL than it is in college football; with only 32 teams, there is a small enough statistical population to reasonably differentiate the good teams from the best teams. I am a die-hard Giants fan, but if the 2007 Giants played the 2007 Patriots 10 times, I would bet everything I own that the Patriots would win the majority. As exciting as the Super Bowl was that year due to the Giants’ ruining the Patriots’ 18-0 win streak, basic logic tells me that a system that would reward a 10-6 team with a chance to overwrite the success of a team with a perfect regular season record didn’t make sense.
There is certainly something to be said about momentum in sports; the argument that the best teams use the season to develop and be their best by playoff time certainly holds a lot of credence. This is particularly true in football, where injuries are the norm and it takes time to establish rhythm. A team that improves steadily and plays their best at the end of the season could stay at the level for a lot longer than the playoffs would show, but even then, this simply points to a new flaw: The cutoff between the regular season and the playoffs is somewhat arbitrary. Regardless, when the relative performance over a season between two teams is so vastly different, does the body of work truly hold less weight than the unstable fortunes of a single postseason game?
This is difficult to answer with regards to the NFL, but not in baseball. Whereas the NFL playoffs, despite the aforementioned flaws, are for the most part an acceptable mix of entertainment and a fair format, MLB has clearly sold out for ratings with its addition of a second wild card. Likely inspired by the excitement of the 2007 play-in game between the Padres and Rockies, the MLB brass has artificially enforced the drama of a one game playoff where it was not necessary. The Padres vs. Rockies play-in game was an imperfect solution to a unique problem (two teams who finished with identical records after 162 games). The new system is enforcing this imperfect solution without the problem, and in doing so has created new problems — namely, a team that has won five or six more games than an opponent over the course of 162 games can now be usurped in a single baseball game, with all of its chance occurrences.
There are differences in each sport that make universal formatting impossible and economic and entertainment interests that make others unrealistic, but there is one system that I believe all sporting executives should look at for ideas for innovation: European soccer. All of the European soccer leagues operate on a pure regular season point basis with no playoffs; the team that is crowned champion is the team that objectively performed the best over the course of the season. Late hot streaks are not given more weight than early streaks, and everyone walks away feeling that the right team won. Even when crowning a champion of Europe, which features far too many teams for a non-playoff system to work, the system does its best to reward consistency; there is group play before a knockout stage, and every stage features home and away games leading up to the final.
The regular season system may not be applicable in this exact form in American sports, which primarily feature between 30 and 32 teams rather than 20, but the sentiment holds: Consistency over the long run should matter more than one chance encounter. One step toward changing the way champions are crowned would be to shrink the number of playoff teams rather than expanding the field, and using the extra time to make each playoff series longer.
The BCS conference commissioners are the latest to recognize the need for a more complete post-season system, but if they heed the desire of fans to see the best teams get the titles they deserve, they likely won’t be the last.
Darius Majd is a junior in the College. THE SPORTING LIFE appears every Tuesday.