There has been a lot of uproar in the last decade or so saying that college football needs a playoff system. After all, the conventional wisdom is that every other sport has playoffs, college football is unfair, the sport should have something similar to March Madness, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. This is the conventional wisdom among the Enlightened Folks, such as pro football fans who admit they aren't fans of the college game. However, Enlightened Opinion in this case is, of course, dead wrong.
In a recent column, John Walters has showed the stones to go against the louder voices and, instead, say that college football is awesome just the way it is. In fact, it rules because it is the way that it is. That is to say sans playoffs. Despite all the griping, all the whining and all the empty talk about "proving it on the field", the current system is way too good to throw away. This guy is great just for that reason.
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No, I'm not just saying that because he bears a disturbing resemblance to me. Seriously, it freaks me out every time I glance at his picture and I think, "Why are they posting a picture of me with a slightly wider jaw?"
Yes, I know what you are thinking. "Idiot! Don't you understand that college football needs a playoff system?" To the contrary, I don't realize that at all. In fact, I will go quite firmly on the record (as I have numerous times before) and say that a playoff is just about the last thing college football needs.
Recently, there was a very big game between the #9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the #1 USC Trojans. In this game, Notre Dame went up late and seemed to be threatening USC's 28-game winning streak. However, USC managed to score a touchdown with almost no time left in the game, allowing them to stretch their winning streak to 29 straight.
Following this game, several sportswriters asked the question, "Was that the greatest game ever played?" Of course, I would disagree with this, simply because I am biased toward the Ohio State-Miami Fiesta Bowl -- I can't help it, I'm an Ohio State fan. However, that is beside the point. The important part about this question is not the answer. The important part is the question itself.
College football is the one sport that allows people to ask whether the greatest game every played is in the regular season. In fact, college football is the last sport in which the regular season is pre-eminent. While baseball is considered America's Pastime, how many regular season games are listed among the greatest ever played? Would the Immaculate Reception have been anything other than an interesting footnote and possibly a part of a blooper reel if it had happened in week 3 of the NFL season? Is any game -- other than the Notre Dame-UCLA game in which ND broke UCLA's 88-game winning streak -- even listed among the memorable college basketball games in this supposedly very popular sport?
Compare this with college football. As John Walters points out, there are such games as Colorado-Michigan and BC-Miami, which do not need explanation. As well, there are dozens of Greatest Games Ever Played in the regular season, such as Notre Dame-Ohio State in 1935, Notre Dame-Army in 1946, and any one of the 6 or 8 Oklahoma-Nebraska games in which the teams came in ranked 1-2. Or look at such events as The Play, the Fifth Down Game, Punt Bama Punt, "Lindsay Scott!!", The Earthquake Game, or Wide Right I and II. They stand as legends that have lasted for years or even decades, despite the fact that they occurred in the regular season.
Or look at the importance of rivalry games. Would Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, USC-Notre Dame, Florida-Florida State or Texas-Texas A&M be as interesting if there was not something hinging on their outcomes? Compare these with the disposable games at the end of NFL seasons. For instance, last year (2004), Pittsburgh, New England and Philadelphia sat several starters in their respective, last regular season games because it didn't matter if they won or lost. Their position in the playoffs was already secure, who cares what happens on the last game of the year? Now would you want to see Alabama lose their game to Auburn because they already won the SEC West, so their starters are sitting and they want to get healthy for their playoff game? The fact is, every game matters and every team better be ready to bring it every single Saturday. Because it's all over if it's not broughten.
College football has an 11-game playoff system before the bowls and it will soon rise to a 12-game playoff system. And if you want to be on top, you'd better win every single one of them. Otherwise, you take your chances along with everyone else who is hoping and praying that this year's tournament is double-elimination.
Any team that wants to be considered the best in the land has to prove it week-in and week-out. If that were not the case, college football wouldn't be as interesting as it is. If USC lost to Notre Dame this year and there was a playoff system, why would it matter? It wasn't even a conference game, so it wouldn't affect their ability to get into the playoffs at all. Was the race for the Super Bowl turned upside-down when the Patriots lost in Week 2? Or weeks 4 or 6? No, they are still very eligible for the Super Bowl and can just turn it on later in the season when they need to get make sure they make it to the dance. In college, 3-3 has good teams scrambling to find answers. In a sport with playoffs, 3-3 is merely a rough start.
In fact, college football is a sport where the games always matter. It is not designed for the casual fan, it is designed for the avid fan who wants to see how everything is shaping up. The season is played out on a vast panorama that culminates in final matchups, whereas playoffs would ignore the collected knowledge built from an entire season in order to create short periods of excitement that have no context as part of the larger scheme of the season.
To return to Notre Dame-USC, I understand that a few commentators claimed that the Notre Dame-USC game was a disappointment because the two teams did not have the chance to meet again in the playoffs. First, if we accept playoff proponents' argument that teams need to "prove it on the field" it was already proven on the field that USC is better than Notre Dame by their own argument, so the playoffs would be moot. Second, the USC-Notre Dame game was made exciting largely by the fact that they did not have the chance to play each other again, this was their only chance to play each other, and the outcome would go a long way toward determining this year's national title winner; thus, it had national rather than just regional appeal. Third, and this is very important, these commentators obviously are not familiar with the Law of Diminishing Returns.