There's been a good bit of chatter lately about the long-range possibility of college football getting a more traditional playoff system in place. It won't happen any time soon, but it could happen eventually.
It has finally occurred to me. Even though I am only a small blogger with a few dozen readers, I am probably the most prominent college football commentator who does not support going to a playoff format. I think going to a playoff format might be good for college football, but it would be a disaster for the individual conferences, especially the SEC. And honestly, I care more about the SEC than about the sport as a whole. Mike Slive should be leading the charge against a playoff system, not advocating for it.
I don't want to see the quest for the national championship beat the conference races into submission. If there had been a 4-team playoff last year, Georgia would have been in it under most scenarios, relegating the conference championship Georgia failed to win to a simple consolation prize for the winner, just like it is in basketball.
Quick, who won the Big East Conference in basketball in 2008? See, you don't know, and it just happened two months ago. In football, it was West Virginia.* Oklahoma won the Big 12; USC won the Pac-10; Ohio State won the Big 10, LSU won the SEC; and Virginia Tech won the ACC. That's right off the top of my head.** Why don't you know who won the Big East in basketball? Because it isn't important. No one cares who wins the conferences in basketball. All that matters is the tournament. I don't want to see college football become like that.
With a playoff, the SEC becomes about as important as the NFC South, the winner of which is important only in that it gets an automatic bid to the playoffs. Do we want our conferences to become just geographically convenient divisions of a much more important whole? Do we want the conferences to be mainly about ease of scheduling? Or do we want our conference to continue to maintain a strong identity? Do we want the SEC to continue to mean something.
I like the bowl system, by which I mean I like all the different bowls that criss-cross the country in a two-or-so week time-period. I like that some teams go to a bowl and are very disappointed about which one, but have to face a team that is excited to be going to any bowl at all.
I like that there is a one game winner-take-all for the national championship, with endless debate about who should be in it. I like that it is flawed as all get-out, and only marginally authoritative.
I think the reason for me liking things more or less the way they are is because, for me, the national championship is secondary to the conference championship. In the conference, you're going against your biggest rivals, and you know exactly what you have to do to win. Beat the other teams in your conference. It's precise. It's mathematical. It's satisfying.
Why does college football need to be just like every other sport? Every sport has a tournament at the end to declare a champion. College football is unique in having a post-season that is entirely unlike a tournament, and darn-it, I like it that way. Making college football like every other sport would, well, make it just like every other sport. It would take away the specialness of college football. Do we want college football to become just another tournament-based sport?
This is not to say everything is perfect in the bowl system. Clearly, the bowls are struggling. The non-BCS bowls are too weak, and "January 1" is losing its luster thanks to a ton of games starting before noon when people aren't yet in the mood for football. Recently adding two new bowls to the mix does not really help, unless the other bowls are strengthened.
The birth of the BCS has relegated the other bowls to side shows, but I think that's simply a matter of how the NCAA has chosen to market its bowls. Change that, and I think the current system is fine. Go to a playoff system, and college football as we know it has ended, and it won't just affect December and January.
* Actually, UConn tied for the conference title, but it was awarded to WVU based on tie-breakers.
** I admit, I confirmed my recollections by looking up the conference champions I wasn't lock-sure about, but my recollections were right every time. I can even remember most of the conference champions from 2006. Ohio State, Florida, USC, Oklahoma, Wake Forest, and I think Louisville. Those I did not look up. The point is, going to a playoff format devalues the conference championships, making them less meaningful. If being able to remember them equates to them being meaningful, I think I've made my point.