With the '06-'07 season fading into memory, it seems appropriate to take up the "bowls vs playoffs" debate once more. I haven't discussed this issue here before, if only because I haven't really thought to, but I raise the question now because, well, it's that time of year and this past bowl season finds me further entrenched in the bowl system camp.
I don't want bore you with a regurgitation post of arguments made before (and made better by smarter), but I do want to mention one of them. Of all the arguments for a playoff system that have been put forth, the one that draws my ire quickest is the belief that a playoff system will somehow give legitimacy to the National Champion. As many have been correct to point out, there is no more legitimacy from a tournament than the current poll system; It's simply a measure of which team got hot down the stretch. The defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers have been held up as an example and, as a Steelers fan it pains me to say this, it's an excellent point. While the Steelers were certainly the best team in the league during the latter half of the season, they wouldn't have been considered a top ten team before the playoffs if the NFL used the polling method used by the college game to determine a champion. It's a persuasive argument, and the one that provided my initial push into believing the current system, though flawed, is the better one. But what most concerns me about a playoff system, and why I feel that it would be just plain bad for college football, is the effect that it would surely have on out of conference scheduling.
Proving that nothing good can ever come from the existence of Auburn, this whole mess really got rolling when the Teagles capped off a perfect season with an invitation to play Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl instead of playing for the title against either Southern Cal or Oklahoma. Many believe that Auburn's OOC slate was the reason they were never able to jump the Sooners in the polls and earn the right to play for the title. While I did defend Auburn's claims that going undefeated in the SEC was a serious accomplishment that should have been taken into consideration by the pollsters, I too thought that the weak OOC scheduling was enough to keep them out of the title game.
When looking at the schedules of the three teams, one can see that Southern Cal traveled across the country to open it's season with fellow BCS team Virginia Tech while OU hosted the Oregon Ducks of the Pac 10 in week two. Auburn's marquee match up? A Louisiana Tech team coming off of a 5-7 season. Further damning the Teagles was the visit to the plains of a 1-AA Citadel squad in week 4, which was not exactly a big, early season momentum builder. While it's an excellent argument that Auburn's conference schedule provided them opportunities to down highly ranked opponents while Southern Cal and OU had to go outside of their conference to boost their strength of schedule, it doesn't fly when faced with the reality that the system has a built in bias against teams that aren't highly ranked in the pre-season. Is that fair? No. But does it behoove the Auburn's of the world to schedule resume games in order to boost their poll rankings? Yes. And that's what I like about it.
After that fiasco, most SEC teams have taken to scheduling better opponents during the season in an effort to improve their "resumes" for the pollsters. Even the Tide has gotten back into the swing of things. After several season's worth of cupcake scheduling for built in wins during the probation years, Alabama looks to face Florida State in a neutral site game this season (and plays a respectable mid-major, Houston, at home), and will have series with both Georgia Tech and Penn State in the near future.
But under a playoff system, would such efforts be made? Opponents of a playoff system like to argue that, under the current system, every game counts while, under a playoff system, dropping one or two games wouldn't prohibit a team from reaching the playoffs and possibly ending up with a title. It seems like the playoffs would be the better system to ensure quality OOC match ups, for if losing a game against a team from a different conference has no effect on your division/conference record then more teams would risk taking to the road to ensure quality games against equal opponents. To that I say, hogwash. If out of conference games become virtually meaningless and, to paraphrase The Mayor, SEC teams don't have to schedule Texas when North Texas will sell out their stadium, then why take the risk of a (humiliating?) defeat and a lower playoff seed when you can schedule a mid-major bottom dweller (or worse, a D-1AA opponent) for a glorified scrimmage in order to better prepare your team for a late season playoff run? And further, after the Boise upset in the Fiesta Bowl sparked off another round of calls for a playoff, do we really believe that a playoff system would better serve the mid-majors? If major programs aren't willing to schedule other BCS teams for their OOC slate, then what would make one think they would want to schedule mid-major terrors like the Boise States and TCUs of the world? It's one thing to lose to Ohio State, but it's another thing entirely to lose to a perceived cupcake. By scheduling the better mid-majors, both the BCS schools and the mid-majors are better served. The BCS schools get a quality win against a team they should beat, while the mid-majors get a chance to show they can play with the bigger programs and possibly earn their way into the title hunt by beating a tough OOC slate to make up for their lackluster conference schedule.
While I've praised our own beloved Tide for taking steps to schedule other marquee teams, there are also some embarrassing match ups, too. Next season we open with D-1AA Western
KentuckyCarolina, and 2008's schedule doesn't feature a single BCS league opponent. Over the next few days, we'll be taking a look at teams that we'd like to see Alabama schedule, and a number of them are marquee programs that would serve to greatly increase the resumes of both Alabama and the SEC. Hopefully we'll see those match ups take place, but I fully believe that the only chance of that happening is if Alabama bucks up and schedules them in order to boost it's resume, and to draw the kind of attention and excitement during the regular season we used to get in order to boost it's standing back to the elite of college football. And that isn't going to happen under a playoff system.
As always, your thoughts are welcome in the comments, and Nico will be along later to add his thoughts on the great debate.