Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The "Mythical" National Championship

Let me preface this by saying that this post has nothing to do with whether or not the BCS system is, on the the whole, good for college football. Although I have not read Death to the BCS, I would have no difficulty believing the BCS system--like much of big-time college athletics--is simply a bunch of old men exploiting 20-year-olds for their own financial benefit. Certainly, that problem should be addressed.

That said, I have more difficulty accepting arguments that a playoff system is somehow a more legitimate method of crowning a national champion. For instance, on Spider and the Henchman a few weeks ago, Fox Sports Kevin Hench derided the BCS title as a "mythical" national championship. Like many others, he seems to presuppose that a playoff system would somehow be a much better way to pick a winner.

But a playoff system wouldn't necessarily prove that the team that won was the best team in college football; rather, it would prove that the team that won happened to win two or three games in a row in the middle of December against other teams that had equally good years but may have been unlucky in the match-ups they had those two or three weeks. Perhaps that's the way you prefer to define a national champion, but it's not the only way--and certainly not the way to prove which team is "best," if that's the end goal*.

Many compare the possibilities for a college football playoff to March Madness, one of the most exciting events in sports each year. But, really, the NCAA Basketball tournament is a horrible measure of picking a true champion--it simply picks a tournament winner. By playing only one game each round, it creates more opportunity for random outcomes. Exciting, certainly, but meritocratic, certainly not. If Butler had won last year, would anyone really believe they were the "best" team in college basketball**?

For all the criticism about the length of the NBA playoffs, it really is a much better system for picking a champion. Long series eliminate some of the randomness--if you prefer the best team advancing, changing the opening round to seven games was a great idea. Obviously, because match-up problems still exist, there are some problems, but this is probably as close as you can get to picking a real champion, save European-style soccer leagues--as opposed to cups--where only the regular season counts.

As a closing note, this also raises the question of why we as fans need to have ONE champion. Isn't it simply enough to say we had at least three teams that had excellent seasons? Granted, sports is all about competition, but it's still sort of odd that people demand that only one team receives recognition for being the best in any year. Especially as more styles of play develop, it is becoming less likely that there really is one team better than every other--there are always going to be some styles of play that don't match-up well. The "everyone-is-winner" mentality is a bit of overkill, but, on the other hand, so is the other extreme.

* Which, admittedly, is very difficult to do. Do we consider a team "better" for getting hot at the end of the year, or playing consistent throughout the season? If a star player gets hurt, should we take that into account? Obviously, many of these distinctions are completely subjective--it all depends what qualities you believe demonstrate excellent. But it also shows why the idea a playoff is somehow objectively better is a bit absurd.
** Again, assuming this is what we believe a national championship should measure.

1 comment:

shaun said...

i've been told that in most of the european leagues winning the regular season championship is a greater honor than winning the tournament.