This post is particularly in response to yesterday's Tuesday Morning Quarterback (TMQ) by Gregg Easterbrook but also covers arguments made by many other people. TMQ articles are posted on ESPN.com every Tuesday during the NFL season with additional appearances throughout the year. In his articles, Easterbrook covers certain topics on a regular basis including repeated complaints against the Bowl Championship Series or BCS. The BCS is used to decide the champion for college's football top level (Division I FCS). Easterbrook, like many other people, see several shortcoming with the system.
The main argument that people have with major college football is that it needs to have a playoff. I find that argument to be moot since the BCS decides a champion via a two-team playoff in the form of a single championship game. In reality, there are two separate issues that people have with the BCS. One is how the teams are selected. The second is that the number of team qualifying for the playoffs should be expanded.
In regards to the first concern, the focus of the complaints varies. Some people complain about the human voters in the two polls that make up the selection formula. Others complain about the computer rankings. In my opinion, the criteria for selecting team is less important than ensuring that criteria is applied consistently. In that regard, I do not understand how the BCS system is worse than the backroom selection committees that decide the playoff teams for other college sports. What exactly is the criteria used by those committees for selecting teams? At least, most professional sports have defined methodologies for selecting playoff teams, but the criteria used often seems arbitrary. A perfect example is the system for breaking ties used by the NFL. What is meant by "Strength of victory" and why is it more important than "Strength of schedule"?
Increasing number of playoff teams, in my opinion, is simply a method of reducing the force of complaints from the excluded teams by expanding the number of teams with such complaints. Currently, two teams qualify for the championship game, and there are usually one or two teams with valid complaints for being left out. If it was decided that every conference champion qualified for a championship playoff, then every conference runner-up (if not third and fourth place teams) would complain about being excluded from the playoffs. The main reason for the expansion of the NCAA men's basketball tournament in 1975 was to include teams that were not conference championship. The men's basketball tournament has expanded seven times since. Yet, every year there are still teams with complaints about being left out.
Above all, I do not think that there is any practical reason why a playoff is better than any other method for selecting a sports champion. This is admittedly a ridiculously rhetorical argument, but voting is considered the best method for selecting political leaders as opposed to say fighting it out on the battlefield. However, sports champions must be settled on the playing field in order to be considered legitimate. Why is that so? Why is voting for the best team not considered optimal? Or why not simply select the team with the best regular season record and break any ties using NFL-style tiebreakers?
There are valid arguments against using playoffs to decide champions. Playoff games add more potential opportunities for atheletes to be hurt. There are a fewer number playoffs games which take away from the value of the larger body of regular season games. Also, the standard complaint that the BCS is all about money is disingeneous. It is ridiclous to think that methods used by other leagues to select champions place a higher value on the purity of the sport over maximizing revenue. The ever expanding playoffs in other sports that continue to add more teams and more games are always first about generating more money and less about ensuring a true champion is crowned.