Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Free the Bowl System!

I’d like to take exception to Thom Brennaman, the FOX broadcaster who claimed that Boise State’s 13-0 season indicates the need for a BCS playoff. (If college football doesn’t interest you, dear Reader, you may be excused. I tend to get this way late in the football season.)

There’s all sorts of talk about how the “best team in college football” can’t be decided by polls, how only a 4-team or even 8-team playoff will allow the best programs to rise to the top.

Here’s the problem: Once again, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS FATE IN SPORTS. The better team can, and does, lose in the most unexpected situations. Was UCLA a better team than USC this year? Was Ohio State really better than Miami in the 2002 national championship- if they had played 10 times, how many would Miami have won? And what if LSU, despite its two early losses, were actually superior to all the teams that would enter a 4-team playoff?

The only way to reach any statistical confidence in a college football verdict would be for each pair of teams to play 10 times. We’re quite aware that’s impossible.

My point is that there’s simply no way to determine beyond all doubt who is the best team in college football. There might not be the same team playing best from week to week; or there might be a Rock-Paper-Scissors order to the top few teams (see this year’s Big East contenders).

So what do we do instead? We pick the games we most want to see. And we make every one of them final. No saving the back of the playbook for next week’s second-round game. No holding back. Every team in a January bowl has nothing to lose, and the excellent slate of games showed it this year. I refuse to look a gift horse in the mouth after receiving incredible incarnations of Wisconsin v. Arkansas, West Virginia v. Georgia Tech, and Boise State v. Oklahoma. Screw playoffs; I just want to watch excellent football games, and these fit the bill. (Especially the last one; did you see that?!?)

Finally, I want to note that all three games above fit the same mold, one which the bowl system encourages: a more-talented but underachieving team meets a hungry opponent; the underdogs come out motivated (football is half psychology) and grab a shocking lead (10, 18 and 18 points, respectively); the favorites get angry- and there’s nothing more dangerous than a talented team playing with gusto- and roar back in the second half. Can the plucky underdogs survive? There’s hardly a more nail-biting script in sports; watching Cinderella with a lead is ten times more tense than Cinderella trailing and hoping.

An overachieving Wisconsin team just barely did hold on, 17-14. The unique powerhouse West Virginia (whom I was rooting for out of admiration, to heck with the underdog) came back from 35-17 to win 38-35, with the help of one of those back-of-the-playbook specials (the offensive line just stayed frozen in their stance; the defense hesitated, confused and worried they’d jumped offsides; the quarterback threw just before the unblocked linemen arrived, right into the arms of the receiver streaking past the bewildered secondary; touchdown WVU!). And Boise State-OU? That game had a shocking finish, against all laws of probability and all my expectations, to rival last year’s Rose Bowl.

So I suppose that, in the end, what I want to say about college football is:

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