Mandel is not Quite Right in His Playoff Critique

I am not one of those people who spend their time plotting the end of mainstream media. I generally don’t comment on the work of people from the big print, TV, and internet outlets because there are already too many people who do and I try not to get to meta in my writing.

That said, I feel like commenting on Stewart Mandel’s column on how the Arizona Cardinals make an easy case against playoffs for college football. Mandel is a long-time playoff skeptic, whereas I cannot remember wanting to preserve the bowl season instead of having a playoff. I don’t have a problem with that; reasonable minds can find room to disagree without animosity.

On the surface, he is correct, but I don’t think he gets it quite right. The Arizona Cardinals do illustrate one of the pitfalls of setting up a tournament: the time before it only matters inasmuch as it gets you into it. Once you clinch your playoff bid, the rest of the regular season has no meaning.

The Cardinals perhaps have one of the highest ceilings in the league, but they were not one of the best teams week in and week out. Their appearance in the Super Bowl, along with last year’s Giants defeat of the 18-0 Patriots, show perfectly that the best team doesn’t win the NFL championship, merely the hottest team at the end of the season does.

Size Matters

However, Mandel forgets to account for the size of the NFL versus the size of the top division of college football. He, and many playoff opponents, are worried about the prospect of a three- or four-loss team winning the national championship just as now a seven-loss team could win the NFL championship.

Well, the NFL admits 12 of its 32 teams into its postseason. That amounts to 37.5 percent of the league. If college football let the same proportion of teams into a tournament, you’d have 44 or 45 teams. Going off of the compilation of nearly all available rankings, that would allow several five-loss teams and even a few six-loss teams to be involved.

The main problem with the NFL’s system is not that it has a tournament, but that its tournament is too big. On top of that, it pulls its teams using the vestigial AFC/NFC partition and the outdated concept of regional champions. That is how 9-7 Arizona and 8-8 San Diego get to go to the playoffs while 11-5 New England sits at home.

The Matter of Automatic Bids

On the second page of his piece, Mandel assures us that any college football playoff scheme would necessarily include automatic bids for the power conferences. After all, every sport with a tournament rewards division champions in this manner. That would mean that among the Floridas and Oklahomas you get four-loss, ACC Champion Virginia Tech with a shot to come out as champion if the Hokies got hot.

That’s not an outrageous claim by any stretch, but I am not convinced that playoff bids for major conference champions is a done deal.

For one thing, I don’t believe any eight- or 16-team playoff is going to happen without first going through a plus one (four team playoff) phase. Obviously, you can’t promise auto bids to the Big Six conference champions when there are only four openings. Therefore, the first playoff phase will absolutely not have auto bids for any conference champs.

If the playoff were to expand beyond a plus one, the topic of automatic bids will surely come up. I’m not convinced its as inevitable as Mandel thinks it is that we’ll ever get beyond four teams though.

You can shoehorn in a plus one into the current system. It’s a stretch, but it can be done. All the BCS would need to do is invite another bowl, probably the Cotton, into the first week of BCS games to ensure that ten teams still get the prestige and cash that comes with going to the BCS. Then, the plus one game gets played when the current title game is.

The conferences still get their BCS auto bids and the major bowls keep their historical tie-ins in that scenario. If you go beyond that though, then the last bits of the old traditional system will have to be completely scrapped. If you think that will come easy at any point in the future, you’re underestimating the money (much less the emotions) invested in those ties.

But let’s assume for argument’s sake that eventually the decision is made to grow beyond four teams. That decision will not come quickly after the move to four teams. If there’s one thing that’s for sure, it’s that the power brokers of college football are slower to make things happen than a split Congress.

In order to move to eight teams, people will have to give up the idea of the sanctity of winning a major conference. After all, they would have to be junking the auto bids to the major bowls. In addition, the plus one will have set the precedent that college football’s tournament only pulls the best teams and doesn’t necessarily just blindly pull division winners.

Combine those facts with how intensely everyone (coaches, players, media, and fans alike) focuses on the top of the polls at the end of the season, and you have an environment where it is not a certainty that conference champions get auto bids to the tournament.

General Relativity

Finally, Mandel argues that an eight- or 16-team playoff necessarily devalues the regular season just like the NFL’s and college basketball’s tournaments have devalued their regular seasons.

I already explained why that is faulty logic for the NFL thanks to the discrepancy in league size. Sixteen teams out of 119 means 13.4 percent of teams are playing for it all. Proportionately, that comes out to an NFL playoff with just four teams. Narrow it to eight college teams, and you go back to the 1930s through early 1960s when only two NFL teams played for it all (if necessary).

College basketball is a whole different animal. Basketball can be played more often than football can, so the sport has more regular season games. The Law of Diminishing Returns takes over from there, as every extra game adds less and less value.

The college basketball tournament is also proportionately larger than any proposed college football tournament. The 65-team tourney is the equivalent of a 22-team college football playoff, which is bigger than anyone wants.

The most popular setup for college football is an eight-team playoff, and that is the equivalent of a 23-team college basketball tournament. Do you think the regular season wouldn’t be seen as more valuable if only 23 teams played in March? I sure do, though I wouldn’t want to be on that selection committee.

Keep it in Perspective

If you’re going to prophesy doom for the college football regular season based on the dynamics of other sports’ regular and post seasons, then you have to make sure you’re comparing apples and apples.

An eight or 16-team playoff for college football really is not that big. The smallest postseason tournament in major American sports is Major League Baseball’s, where eight of 30 teams get to go. Even it has problems with seemingly unworthy teams winning championships, but that has more to do with the selection process than the size. Proportionately, the baseball post season is equivalent to about a 32-team college football playoff.

In general, I am for an eight-team playoff where the best eight teams are selected. Go back through every final BCS poll (start with this year and work your way back) and look at the scores rather than the rankings and records. You’ll find that there is a significant gap between either the No. 7 and No. 8 team or the No. 8 and No. 9 team in nine of the BCS’s 11 seasons.

Not only is the complaint of the No. 9 team who got left out weaker than that of the No. 3 team who got left out, but you can see that generally there is a drop off after about No. 7 or No. 8. I interpret that as even more evidence as to why eight is the right number.

Conclusion

Yes, Stewart Mandel is correct in asserting that the Arizona Cardinals’ presence in the Super Bowl is evidence of a problem with playoff systems.

What he got wrong is that the problem lies not in the concept of a tournament in general, but in the NFL playoffs’ size and selection process. He then continues to draw more analogies with other sports without addressing properly those issues of size and selection process.

I generally enjoy Mandel’s work, especially in the way that he tends not to overreact and try to write instant history as so many do. This time though, his analysis wasn’t quite right.

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One Response to Mandel is not Quite Right in His Playoff Critique

  1. Mike says:

    Great Points. I’ve always been a proponent of a CFB playoff system, and agree that Mandel’s arguments don’t hold much water.

    Thanks for the insight.

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