Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My Take on an NCAA Playoff System

After a two-loss champion was crowned Monday, everyone is pushing hard for a playoff system in college football. The hot proposal now is an eight-team playoff for the BCS title. Is that better than the current setup?

The answer depends on our goals. Basically, the postseason is designed to accomplish three things:

- Make money
- Entertain fans
- Determine which team is the "best"

Will a playoff system make the NCAA richer? Almost certainly yes. The eight-team playoff proposal includes three more postseason games, which are big moneymakers.

Will the fans be better entertained? Maybe. Fans of six additional schools per year will enter the postseason thinking their team has a shot at the title. At the same time, a playoff system would greatly reduce the drama and excitement of the NCAA regular season--college football used to be the only sport where a regular season loss would knock you out of the title hunt.

Will a eight-team playoff do a better job of awarding the championship to the best team? Absolutely not. This is most easily illustrated by looking at some eight-team playoffs in other major sports.

In this century alone, MLB seen 11 teams win 100 regular season games, and exactly none of them have won a World Series. In eight years, the best regular season team has won the World Series just once (2007), while the worst playoff team (by record) won twice, in 2000 and 2006. Those teams won 87 and 83 games, respectively.

Now, you could argue that teams like the 2006 Cardinals and 2000 Yankees were actually the best in the majors, and that's exactly why we need a playoff system. But that's simply not true. The regular season, by virtue of its length, is more effective than the playoffs at determining which team is best. Because it's so hard to win three consecutive playoff series, the best team is usually eliminated at some point along the way.

On to the NFL. Eight teams currently remain in the NFL playoffs. I think we can all agree that the Patriots are by far the best team in the NFL this season, and maybe the best team ever. We can probably also agree that if the Pats are upset in the playoffs, it doesn't mean they are inferior to the team that beats them; they would still be the class of the NFL.

Yet according to the oddsmakers, they have only about a 56% chance to win the title. If the NFL operated like the NCAA, New England would only need to win one game as an 80% (or greater) favorite to claim the title.

While the NFL playoffs are great entertainment, they also greatly reduce the probability that the best team will win the Super Bowl. Here, the Patriots have seen their chances cut by a full 24%. In a sport where the average team has a 3% chance to win the Super Bowl in any given year, that's a massive difference.

If the NCAA wants to move to an eight-game playoff to raise money and fan interest, fine. But no one can argue that it will be a better way to determine which team is really best. If that's a problem with the current BCS, improve the selection process for the title game. How about turning it over to oddsmakers?

No comments: