Friday, September 19, 2008

What's the Matter with Kansas?

Every year people complain about the way college football chooses a champion. They complain the system is beholden to money interests and question its integrity in identifying the two best teams. A complex computer formula, based on some statistics and some arbitrary human polls, chooses two teams to play for the title. Just writing that, it seems completely ridiculous.

Last year, Kansas was 11-1 at season's end with the only loss in a close game to conference rival #4 Missouri (who went on to defeat the SEC's Arkansas 38-7 in their bowl game). Yet Kansas was #8 in the polls before their bowl victory over #3 Virginia Tech (who had lost to the SEC's LSU 48-7 earlier in the season). Ohio State finished 11-1 and ranked #1 because they played a schedule deemed more difficult in voters' minds than the Kansas schedule (despite a loss to unranked Illinois). This judgment reflected a bias for Ohio State's past successes and the Big Ten's reputation, it had little to do with the football played in 2007. Ohio State was blown out in the championship game, exposed in that game for a second consecutive year. There was no way to know if Ohio State was better than Kansas or many other teams that might have played in that game. Unless, of course, college football played games to decide its champion.

Many people argue that the arbitrary system is better because it maximizes the value of each regular season game. Others argue that a playoff is procedurally impossible. I believe the current system maximizes the incentive to set a lame schedule, rewards teams that play in well-respected (even if bad) conferences, and insults the integrity of players and the notion of team. Football, by virtue of its violence, has less frequent and much more heavily scrutinized and intensely played games than other sports. Every down in a football game is a battle. A team is forged over a season - players emerge, strategies are refined, cohesion is hard-won. This suggests two often overlooked truths. 1) A loss can make a team better. 2) Apparently overmatched teams with lesser recruits can beat apparently superior teams through strategy, cohesion and sheer force of will. The present system rewards teams judged best in the preseason, necessarily on history and before any games are played. Those teams will remain on top if they don't lose and will receive substantial reconsideration even if they do lose. Opinions, often set in the preseason, are a horrible substitute for playing games. Despite myriad objections from athletic directors, college presidents and bowl game sponsors, a playoff system in college football is viable. A college football playoff might become the biggest sporting event in America. And it would restore to college football the immutable law of sports: Winning makes you the better team. People seem to have forgotten that.

And, as long as I'm complaining, why can't college football continue to play football in overtime? The game completely changes in overtime as teams take turns trying to score from the 25 yard line. I admit it's pretty exciting. But alternating half court shots would also be a very exciting overtime for college basketball games.