The Abysmal Nature of College Football’s Postseason System

Joe Jock


Enough is enough.  I know I am beating a horse more pulseless than Charlemagne’s, but can we finally swallow this futile pride?… if that’s what it is, I’m just guessing here.  Blind traditionalism we could also call it. Whatever we attribute to the reasoning behind the current postseason system of college football, it needs a complete restructuring.  Or more like a flush down the proverbial toilet.

College baseball, professional baseball, college basketball, professional basketball, college hockey, professional hockey and professional Football all employ a playoff system of some sort (either single elimination or via 5 or 7-game series) in determining a single champion.  How do we crown a champion in the richly historic institution of college football?  Through the opinions – no doubt knowledgeable and rehearsed opinions, but opinions nonetheless – of journalists and coaches.  And, as sixteen teams from the past four decades know, we don’t always end up with a single champion.  In those cases, two teams simply shared the championship, without fighting each other for it.  How tee-ball is that?

In setting down my argument, and no I am not the first to argue against this tired system, there are a few points that I’d like to highlight in making it an easy one to consider.

Point One:  Of the four major aforementioned sports, both professional and collegiate, College Football has the fewest number of games, i.e.  chances during a season in proving championship worthiness.  Just imagine the New York Yankees playing 11 or 12 games in a year, assuming they lose no more than one game that year, and going to a single postseason game against one other seemingly equal team with zero or no losses.  That postseason game (or two if there’s a conference championship and then a bowl game) is the final game of the year, regardless of how many other teams end with the same record.  College football allows a maximum of 14 games/ i.e. chances for a team to prove its worthiness to voters.

Point Two:  History.  The current problem is not a new one.  In fact, it predates the BCS, or Bowl Championship Series: the group of annual bowl games since 1998, refreshingly and constantly preceded by our favorite corporate sponsors (e.g. Tostitos Fiesta Bowl).  In the wildly exciting season NCAA football gave us in 1993, Notre Dame beat Florida State in an epic #2 versus #1 thriller near the end of the regular season.    Of course, the two teams were not allowed an easily justifiable rematch in the postseason, and though they ended the year with the same record as Florida State, Notre Dame was dogged by voters.  To the dismay and bafflement of Lispin’ Lou Holtz, Florida State was deemed National Champion.  Notre Dame’s only loss that year?  A narrow one, on a last-second field goal to perennial spoiler Boston College.

The following year’s neglect towards Penn State might have been an even greater injustice.  They were arguably the greatest offensive machine of all time, they finished the season undefeated, but the title eluded them.  Stupefying.

More recent history?  Sip on this:  2006:  The National Champion, Florida, finished the season with one loss.  So did three other teams in the top 10, all from major conferences, two from the Big 10, one from the Big East.  Plus, Boise State ended the season without a loss or a chance to prove themselves against the big boys.  This would soon be a case of history repeating itself for the bluegrassers of the west.  See Point Three Argument for the potential for “cinderellas.”  2007:  The top six teams all had two losses.  Yet there was one National Champion.  This year: Before the bowls, eight teams finished in the Top 25 with one loss.  Two teams, Boise State (again) and Utah are given no shot at a title despite going undefeated.  How, in our right minds, can we decide a champion with one round of games following the regular season, with this number of top teams virtually sharing the same record?  At the time this article is being written, I have just witnessed Utah roundly defeating mighty, historic rock Alabama – remember Bear Bryant, with that black and white houndstooth fedora? – in the Sugar Bowl.  Let’s make something clear here:  the whole argument against the national legitimacy of “small-conference” teams like Utah and Boise State was shattered by the Utes’ performance Friday.  We now can no longer glibly point out the inferior regular season schedules of these small-conference teams with excellent records.  The team that Utah crushed was not only historically powerful, but Alabama was ranked number one in the nation this season by all major polls in weeks ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen.  They were #2 in the AP in weeks five through nine.  The 2008 season for Utah football ended perfectly, yet it will be remembered with bittersweetness, as they were dogged like Notre Dame in ’93 and Penn State in ’94 and other teams in other years could be added to the list.

Point Three:  March Madness.  I think the greatest thing in sports might be the NCAA College Basketball Tournament.  It is exciting as hell and, due to the single-elimination style, you must win to survive.  We see a lot of Valparaiso’s and Butler’s making it far, but the national champion is generally a traditional powerhouse, or at least a team all would agree was “worthy” of cutting the nets down.  However, the potential for the “cinderella” team moves entire communities for two hours on those spring weekends.  Even with defeat, the fans or alums can always look back on the near glory with good memories.  And, in the extreme rarity of a Villanova ’85, we have magic.

Point Four:  The Proposal: A Sixteen-Team, 4-Week Bracket1. This is the easiest of the points.  I’ve heard mumbled arguments in the wind along the lines of money being an issue.  Of course it is.  Even though we are talking about amateur competition here, reality is what it is and money drives anything as popular as college football is in this country.  So what.  So let there be more bowl games for Nokia, Tostitos, Shell, Mobile, whoever the fuck else needs to make more money.  I’m no economist here, but would there not be more income generated via more games?  Sponsor the shit out of them if you have to.  Oh, someone responds with the question of, “will they really be able to fill the seats of multiple rounds of bowls.”  Have you seen Taladega?  I believe they fill that venue with close to 300,000 happy southerners (or even more fanatical northerners, if they made that trip), and this is to watch cars being driven in a circle.  Ohhhhh snap.  I think filling football stadiums with around a third as many die-hard Bulldog, Seminole, Gator, Tide, Trojan, Sooner, Nitany Lion, Leprechaun, Buckeye, Longhorn, Ute, Tiger, or Wolverine fans for a max of four March Madness-resembling battles would be more than doable.  The rich’ll get richer, your average fan will have some peace of mind, we’ll all be as happy as a Bowden family Christmas.  Sixteen great teams in a 4-round bracket system, the four games played with a week of rest (just like the regular season) between each is my proposal.  But the beauty of my proposal lies in its simplicity and the fact that it is not etched in any stone.  I think some rational heads of the NCAA and our favorite corporate sponsors can come up with something similar and just as simplistic.  The key is that they come up with something.  We cannot have another Utah 2008-’09 problem.  There is simply no excuse anymore for traditionalists to grasp onto this logically decaying system.

So, you be the judge.  Will this year prove to be another one of questioned results?  Will we be content with what the elite voters decide, as they are continually granted their exclusive Hamiltonian voice?  Or do we want a new playoff system like we have in the other levels and sports that have time and again brought us to the edge of our seat in multiple rounds of increasing intensity?  The bowl game is a marvelous American tradition, there is no doubt.  And this is reason enough to enhance the current structure, so that we don’t have to do away with the Sugar, Orange, Fiesta or – the oldest – Rose Bowl.  We need only to transplant them to a new structure.  As the BCS Championship approaches in a few days, more and more traditionalists will begin to question their stance as the shift to a playoff style of postseason is inevitable.  In this fan’s eyes, hopefully sooner rather than later, or as in the words of the late, great Rodney Dangerfield, “while we’re young!”  I look forward to the upcoming game between the Gators and the Sooners, promising to be another classic #2 versus #1 clash in the BCS Championship.  But I saw the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl and as a Notre Dame fan this is nauseating to admit: they have one of the best teams I have ever seen assembled and at the same time they are helpless as victims of a tired, ineffective and unsuccessful system.

1editor’s note: of course this would make the season that much longer.  The regular season could be lessened to ten games, but then people would argue there wasn’t enough time for teams to showcase themselves against conference and non-conference rivals.  The season could go longer, but would cut into some players’ basketball playing time (not to mention academics).  It could begin earlier, but how many chances really do we want potentially pro atheletes to get their bells rung before they are fodder for the draft?  In any case….think about it. Something needs to change.