I've never wanted a college football playoff. I realize this puts me in the minority, but when Jason Kirk, SBNation.com's College Football Editor, asked me to write something about the proposals for a new playoff system, my first reaction was to explain why a playoff is a horrible idea that we'll all eventually regret. But then I thought about it a little more and realized it's actually kind of great.
The reason I never wanted a playoff is a total cliche. "Every game matters" in college football, and that's not true in any other sport. I realize this is a tired defense of a broken system, and I think I saw Jason Whitlock make this argument once, so it's safe to say I'm on the wrong side of logic with this one. But still, this is how I've always felt, mostly because of experience.
Example No. 1: I'm a diehard North Carolina basketball fan. The kind that reads message boards, obsesses over one or two big recruits, and remembers every Carolina-Duke game for the past 15 years. But even as a truly unhealthy diehard, there are only like 8 games a year that really bring out the manic psychopath in me. Both Duke games, obviously, and then maybe one Duke game in the ACC Tournament, and whatever games they play in March. All the other games are kinda meaningless, because Carolina's always got a chance at a title, so even when they lose, it's like... Okay, well let's not freak out because none of this matters come March.
When they lost to UNLV back in November, it didn't really bother me. They still had the best team in America, so who cares? A few losses can actually be a good thing in college basketball, and 10 or 15 straight wins means absolutely nothing if you lose in the tournament.
Even when Carolina lost to Florida State in the ACC Tournament this year, I took it as a good luck charm, because the same thing happened in 2009, the last time they won a National Championship. But when Kendall Marshall went down with a broken wrist against Creighton? I literally almost cried, and the next weekend, I was borderline homicidal watching their season crumble against Ohio and Kansas. The tournament is when things get real for college hoops diehards.
So, March Madness gives us three weeks of insane sports fan nirvana as a reward for shuffling through three ambiguous months, and it all works just fine. But for fans of the best teams in college football, the three months are that nirvana, and it's three weeks of bowls that are ambiguous and pretty much meaningless. All things being equal, I'd rather have three months than three weeks.
This is why I've never really understood the annual freakouts over the BCS. If you want to freak out, do it because college football players should be getting paid. The bowl system? That's just what makes college football unique and insane and completely addictive.
Example No. 2: I was in Eugene, Oregon one weekend last November. I was at a nice restaurant Friday night, in the background there was a game on TV. We ate dinner and didn't pay much attention, but as the night went on, pretty much the entire restaurant had slowly crowded around three or four TVs they had in various corners of the room, because an unranked 5-3 Iowa State team was somehow beating Oklahoma State, the only undefeated team sitting in front of the. If Iowa State won, Oregon would be the number two team in the country, and front-runners to face LSU in the national title game.
So as the game unfolded and Iowa State kept scoring, the restaurant slowly turned into a giant party. An entire room of people with no connection to Iowa State or the Big 12 or Oklahoma State was totally hooked into to this random Friday night game that most people probably didn't even know was on TV. When Iowa State won in OT, it turned into ecstasy.
The next night I was at Autzen Stadium, watching the ecstasy turn to agony turn to ecstasy and then agony again. After the night began with fans hoping to punch their ticket to the title game, USC went up 38-14 through three quarters, and the loudest stadium in the country was dead silent. Then Oregon started coming back. First with a 96-yardkick return, then two more touchdowns to make 38-35. By that point, the place was deafening again, and I'd forgotten how cold and windy and rainy it was, because this was maybe the coolest college comeback I'd ever seen. If they won, they'd be going to the title game.
They lost. Chip Kelly inexplicably played for a field goal and Oregon's shaky kicker missed it, the title dreams died, and I shuffled out of Autzen surrounded by a bunch of miserable, drunk Oregonians. But as I was walking out, I thought, "This whole weekend of insanity probably never happens if there's a playoff." Right? Wouldn't that Oregon team go to the Football Final Four regardless?
Who knows, actually. This week when I started thinking about what a playoff might really look like, I realized that Oregon fans probably wouldn't know either. That's the thing about college football--whatever they decide on for 2014, you can safely assume that it's gonna make no sense.
No matter if they were going with a plus-one, or conference champions, or the four best teams, or anything else. Nobody's talking about expanding it past four teams, and there will either still be some indefensible formula or bullshit committee that decides who goes where and whether they play in the Rose Bowl or Fiesta Bowl or whatever bowl. This won't be March Madness for college football. No matter what happens, nobody will be satisfied outside of the four teams that get in, and most fans will probably hate the playoff system probably within the first season.
The flip side: As deserving teams continue to get screwed every year, every game will still matter, and there will always be weekends of anarchy like the one I saw in November. All a playoff means is that one or two great teams might be able to survive a loss, and we'll get to see more of them play in January with everything on the line. But the regular season will still mean more than it does in any other sport, and fans will still drive themselves completely insane, terrified that their favorite team will get screwed if they lose.
I love college football mostly for the insanity of it all. Spencer and Jason and Holly hooked me in a few years ago, and what I found is this bizarre alternate universe where nothing makes sense but everyone just accepts it. A merit-based system that's not always fair. This third world has laws, but the most successful people have ways of getting around them. God's away on business here. And it's all so completely transparent. Everyone knows this sport's probably corrupt on 10 different levels, we all complain, but we enjoy it anyway.
Adding a playoff changes nothing. We'll still commiserate about whatever stupid format they adopt and complain for another 15 years until they change it again. Just the same, restaurants will still be full of people huddled around TVs on Friday and Saturday nights in November, hoping to get a guaranteed shot at a title, terrified that an inexplicable formula or some committee of 70-year-old rich guys may screw them out of the chance. It'll be great for all the same reasons college football's always been great.
Oh, and also: If teams like Oregon and Oklahoma State get a shot at teams like Alabama and LSU in January, and we get a Football Final Four? That should be pretty awesome too.
While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together: