Saturday, June 30, 2012

It's a big jump from nothing to something

So ... this post obviously got delayed a little bit since I promised it Wednesday and it's now Saturday. Apologies, etc.

There was a post on the old, crappy version of this blog about a playoff-type thing and why I wasn't really sure I wanted one. My reasoning was basically this: Lots of money + lots of people with a vested interest = a fustercluck of a thing with way too many teams and thus the end of a meaningful regular season. In other words, the 9-7 Giants. I didn't really consider the possibility of something with fewer than eight teams that would therefore be acceptable/appropriate because my assumption at the time was that any playoff would be mandated by the NCAA (or maybe Congress) and required to include all conference champs, meaning at least 12 teams and probably 16 or 24, which no thanks.

It's not that I didn't want a playoff; I just didn't want a stupid playoff that would result in me turning into Chris Crocker ...

... after watching college football turn into college basketball, which literally nobody (except the Dick Vitale-type folk) cares about until March since basically nothing matters until March. There's something to be said for having, like, important games and stuff during the season. IMO, maintaining that has always been as important as resolving the ridiculousness of 2003 Auburn/2004 USC/2008 Utah/insert screwed-over team here. I'm also kind of a sucker for the idealistic concept of the "best" team and the champion being one and the same; that's kinda the point of playing a season, right?

The thing that now exists isn't entirely optimal -- six teams with byes and on-campus semifinals, plz -- but comes reasonably close in terms of size and structure. It's amazing that in the span of about 18 months, the interest level in a playoff among the people who matter went from zero to "YEAH RIGHT NOW!" and actually produced something not disastrous.

The BCS took a lot of crap for the wrong reason: The system itself wasn't as faulty as the concept of the system, which was to pick two deserving teams from a field of (usually) more than two deserving teams with little meaningful data to distinguish them. Not possible. The inherent problems with the polls and here-are-some-numbers-that-mean-something computer rankings were just the facade that took the bombarding.

I've seen/heard a lot of stuff the past couple weeks about how this playoff-type thing isn't really a playoff and isn't really significant because of said non-playoff-ness. My response: Nay.

ESPN's Ivan Maisel wrote this about a week ago:
(The playoff) may be an incremental change in the game, but it is a sea change in the philosophy of the postseason.
He's exactly right. It took about 130 years (!!!) of organized-ish college football to go from nothing to something in terms of a coordinated postseason (I'm not counting the BCS since that was really just an affiliation of high-profile bowls that didn't change the system/structure). The talking-about-it part has been going on for as long as I'm alive; the doing-something part required a total overhaul of the thought process that had important people freaking out about the idea of a plus-one just four years ago.

I was never much of a chemistry fan but remember learning about enthalpy and state changes in a couple requisite college chem and physics classes. I'm not sure I can explain it very well without just reciting an example; I'll use the melting of ice. The warming of a block of ice -- from, say, 10 degrees below freezing to freezing, at which point it's still ice -- requires about 28,000 joules. That's a relatively small amount of energy. The melting of that block of ice -- which requires no temperature change at all but a state change from solid to liquid for every molecule -- requires about 430,000 joules. That's, like, a lot more.

Obvious segue statement: A playoff is a state change. "Death to the BCS" and Craig Thompson's playoff jabbering back in 2008 and Mike Slive's plus-one proposal the same year represented the temperature-change part that established the possibility of said state change.

The plus-one actually would've been a far easier and far less significant step and therefore seemed a more likely transition, especially after the aforementioned Slive thing; it didn't get very far but obviously had some influential support. That said, I'm so, so glad that proposal died a fiery death, because a plus-one was never the answer; it was a compromise that would've lived in the ether between the BCS and a playoff without really being either one and thus not solving the things only a playoff can solve.

This appeared in one of my playoff-related posts about a month ago:
I really have no interest in a plus-one given the potential for multiple-undefeated-teams weirdness. Example: Take the BCS title game out of last year's equation and you end up with LSU beating somebody in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama beating somebody in (probably) the Orange Bowl and Oklahoma State beating somebody in the Fiesta Bowl. Adding a step would help provide some extra data points but wouldn't always do any of the settle-it-on-the-field thing; this would be especially problematic in the event of a TCU or Boise going unbeaten and not getting matched up with another playoff-caliber team for reference/elimination.

That could still be a problem in a straight-up four-team playoff, I guess, but the inability to find a perfect answer =/= the inability to find a better answer. 

The way I see it, there's a significant difference between a seeded four-team bracket and an additional bowl that would still require picking two teams from a group that might or might not have been sufficiently narrowed down by the first layer of bowls. The latter scenario would've represented something other than a state change, and I would not have needed to see 12 or 16 or however many years of a plus-one to make that determination.

A six-team bracket with byes and on-campus semifinals and ice cream notwithstanding, the thing that's being implemented does about as well as realistically possible at straddling the fine line between "woo plus-one pointlessness" and "ARGH Y U WANNA BE NFL???" I would still prefer the six teams and ice cream and whatnot, just to be clear.

Acknowledgment: It's not only possible but definite that this whole playoff thing is already being overrated. This was the lede to Gene Wojcadskfjadflkj's column on Tuesday:
Presenting the five greatest documents in American history:

1. The Declaration of Independence.

2. The United States Constitution.

3. The Bill of Rights.

4. The 14th Amendment.

5. The just-announced college football playoff agreement.

I know what you're thinking: This is ridiculous. Why is the new 12-year playoff agreement ranked so low?

And you're right, of course.
Mmmmkay. This does not warrant a direct response.

I started thinking the other day about how much awesome-er it'd be to watch Michigan in a post-semifinals championship game than a regular BCS championship game and then realized that the awesomeness would be pretty much exactly the same (except for the one extra win against a top-four team the previous week). I mean, the bowl-site semifinals will be way different/better in terms of intensity and atmosphere and all that, but the games will still be the games and will still be played at neutral sites with a moderately interested crowd, the Goodyear blimp and Brent Musberger doing his "You're looking live ..." thing. Insert standard adamant phrasing about the need for on-campus semifinals.

BTW, that was prompted by the following tweet from friend of the blog Brett:
This so-called BCS "playoff" is the InNOut of sports. Love it, want it, but can still admit it's ridiculously overrated.
Yeah, pretty much ... at least in an on-field-product sense. That said, I don't think it's possible to overrate the significance of the structural/philosophical change required to produce said "playoff." This would be an appropriate spot to refer back to the Ivan Maisel blockquote roughly 1,000 words ago about the "sea change" or whatever in regards to the recognition that picking two teams for a championship game does not necessarily produce a true champion.

There'd be some irony in that philosophical change being the thing that eventually produces a FOUR-WEEK PLAYOFF EXTRAVAGANZA SATURDAY SATURDAY SATURDAY; I hope that never happens (for all the reasons listed at the top of this post) but have to acknowledge its possibility. To clarify, I'd be OK with eight teams but not at all OK with any number bigger than eight; in that regard, starting at four creates two levels of Downy-soft padding (six-team perfection and eight-team acceptability) between the playoff-type thing that'll exist through at least 2025 and hypothetical outrage. I'm pretty comfortable with that.

This has gotten way longer than intended and doesn't really have a logical ending, so I'm just gonna stop here. The tl;dr version: A state change just happened, and I'm definitely down with it since this state is somewhere in between the old state that sucked and the hypothetical state I feared would suck even more.


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