Saturday, December 6, 2014

The end of the season is nigh

Today the college football regular season comes to a close.

The end of the season will also bring us a brand new playoff format to determine football's national champion. But is there any need for a playoff?

For most of the 20th century, college football was regional sport. The rare intersectional game between college football powers was a special treat. Since there was no centralized authority in charge of the game, schools made up their own schedules and no one worried about winning a mythical national title. The goal was always to beat your rival, win your conference and hope you get invited to a bowl game.

Sportswriters were the only folks who followed more than just a local team and they banded together to vote for a national champion. This system (later amended with a coach's poll) worked until 1984 when Brigham Young University (BYU) ran the table and beat a mediocre Michigan team in a pre-New Year's Day bowl game. BYU was named national champion, much to the chagrin of the football powers. Something had to be done to prevent that from ever happening again.

The result was something called the Bowl Alliance in which four major bowls worked out a plan to match the best teams against each other in bowl games regardless of which conference they were from. That system was later replaced by the Bowl Championship Series which set about to match the top two ranked teams first in a bowl game and then in a stand alone championship game.

After years of questionable decisions regarding who got to play for the title (and threats of an anti-trust lawsuit from the non-football factory schools), the BCS was scrapped and replaced by a four-team playoff which debuts this season.

The "clamor" for a playoff came mostly from the networks who broadcast college football games. Since the playoff would involve but four out of 120 teams, most fans had nothing at stake and went about their lives as if nothing happened.

But the system was flawed from the beginning. The five conferences containing the biggest schools formed an alliance and decided to pick four teams to challenge for the championship. Hmm. Five conferences. Four slots. The math didn't add up. If the problem with the polls and the BCS was that the championship wasn't being decided on the field. But, by devising a system that leaves out one conference champion, the decision who plays for the title is being made in a boardroom, not on the field.

From the opening kickoff this season commentators kept saying the Big 12 would be at a disadvantage because the conference didn't have a "true" championship game. It's true there is no conference championship game, but that's because unlike the other four major conferences, every Big 12 team plays every other team during the course of the season. Therefore there was no need for a championship game - in the event two teams ended the season with the same record, the team who won the game between them would be the champion.

Earlier this season, in Waco, Texas, Baylor came back from three touchdowns down in the last ten minutes of the game to beat TCU on a last second field goal. In the event that both Baylor and TCU win today, Baylor would win the conference because they beat the Frogs earlier this season. In fact the conference ran commercials all season long bragging about ten teams, nine games, one "true champion."

That was until the possibility of both Baylor and TCU advancing to the playoff arose. Now the conference has rolled over on cue when the money was waved under its nose. Should both the Bears and Frogs win today, they will be declared co-champions. So much for deciding it on the field.

For the last few weeks a playoff selection committee has been releasing a poll ranking their top 25 teams. Sports talk radio and sports talking heads have been arguing the merits of the top four teams ever since.

But the poll is an idiotic idea. If the job of the committee is to pick the top four teams at the end of the season, the in-season poll serves no purpose other than fueling debate on radio and television.

If we really want to determine a champion (and there is no good reason we have to do so), the only role of the selection committee should be to select the best team from outside the so-called Power Five conferences and then seed the six teams. The committee doesn't need to pick the teams that are participating from the major conferences - just take the champions. If you aren't the best team in your conference, you can't be the best team in the country. Period.

For those bloviators like Colin Cowherd who says that head-to-head doesn't matter (he ranks TCU above Baylor), what would he do if the top-seeded team lost on a fluke last second play to an inferior team in the first round? Would he still vote for the top seed for champion because they passed the "eye ball" test? If you want a single elimination playoff then the conference championship games are the de facto first round. So there.

On a related note, today we will find out whether the safety of a player is more important that winning a football game. Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty suffered a "mild" concussion (sorry, a concussion is a concussion is a concussion). He was taken out of the game - though he said he would be back on the field today against Kansas State.

The medical evidence is overwhelming that once a person suffers a concussion they are more susceptible for future concussions. While Mr. Petty may want to play today, the coaching and medical staff at Baylor should have enough regard for his safety to keep him off the field. I would love to see Baylor win, but if that win comes at the expense of Mr. Petty's health, it is a hollow victory. The coaches and doctors are adults and should be looking out for the health of their charges.

There was a day when Art Briles sat down at the table with Mr. Petty's parents and promised he would take care of their son. It's time to see if that promise was sincere.

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