The Holy Huddle: Football, Playoffs, and Fairness

Each week in The Holy Huddle, Doug Hankins takes a look at the goings on of the sports world from a distinctly Christian perspective. 

We finally have a playoff system for the highest level of collegiate football. This past Tuesday, BCS presidents approved a four-team playoff for the national championship that begins in 2014. But, the question remains: What did fans gain with this new playoff format? Did we achieve the goal of settling the age-old debate about the true champion of college football? Or did we simply create room for further speculation and debate?

My personal belief is that the new playoff format is a step, but not a leap, in the right direction. The thing college football organizers fail to realize is that fans participate based on the three laws of sports:

  1. We value fairness.
  2. We value entertainment.
  3. We believe that entertainment should be fair.

These laws help illuminate why we love March Madness. It is a fair system that produces one heck of an entertaining tournament. It is also why we bristled at the former BCS championship. It was grossly unfair and only occasionally entertaining. Consider this past year’s championship game. It featured Alabama versus LSU—two teams that had already played against each other during the regular season (a 9–6 win for LSU). Why were we watching two teams play each other again? This was neither entertaining nor fair.

Games like LSU–Bama II reveal the other, more pressing laws of sports—the ones that college presidents, conference commissioners, and media members live by:

  1. We value profit.
  2. We value entertainment.
  3. We believe that entertainment should be profitable.

After all, who stood to gain the most when LSU played Alabama in New Orleans? It wasn’t the fans of college football.

LSU–Bama II produced the lowest TV rating for a national championship game in the BCS era. However, it made a lot of money for ESPN and for businesses in the New Orleans/Alabama/Louisiana area. This match up in the title game reveals that the profit laws of college sports are the priority. And thus, we understand the driving logic behind the new four-team playoff. Make money first, consider fairness second. Ergo: Four-team playoff.

Before you let out a “Hallelujah” for the four-team fair playoffs, consider these lingering philosophical problems with the selection of the four teams:

  1. College football is not a zero-sum game (ZSG). A ZSG is one in which those who win are offset by those who lose. College football is not a ZSG because some top-tier teams, like Baylor, schedule matches with second-tier teams, like Sam Houston State. But, not every school in the top-tier plays a school from the second-tier. Thus, the wins and losses of all top-tier schools do not even out. In fact, there are about 20 more wins than losses among top-tier teams each season, causing an inequality in the weighting of top-tier schedules. This negatively affects the ranking process, which helps determine the current BCS championship and which will continue to determine the four-team playoff. This would not really be that big-of-a-deal except . . .
  2. There is no way to measure head-to-head matches due to a limitation of inter-conference play. Sadly, the five major BCS conferences do not always play one another in a given year. But, don’t worry because . . .
  3. Rankings are arbitrary. A competition ceases to be a sport when a panel of judges determines the winners. If humans and computers get to determine rankings (a flaw in the process because wins and losses are not equally weighted), then you have situations each year when some teams that lose will ultimately land at a higher ranking than other teams who begin with a lower ranking and move up (see Tulane 1998).

So who will determine the four teams for the playoffs? Arbitrary rankings, a non-ZSG won-loss column, and teams who win outside of a true head-to-head matchup? Sheesh!

Bottom line: A four-team playoff is a good step toward fair, but not the leap that fans desire. Until organizers discover a way to make the system of wins and losses evenly weighted and determine ways to make the regular season contain substantial head-to-head match ups, then a ranking system will be unfair. And to determine the best four teams based on an unfair ranking system is less than what college fans deserve.

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  • Jordan

    ” top-tier teams, like Baylor, schedule matches with second-tier teams, like Sam Houston State”

    I can’t agree with this statement at all. Baylor isn’t near the team it was last year and SHSU is going into the season with 5 1st team all americans and a pre season #1 ranking to its name. I’d venure to say that SHSU is better than at least half the “top-tier” teams in the nation (assuming top-tier means FBS). Outside of that beef I agree, the 4 team play off system is a step in the right direction but I fear it’ll leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. I say go back to the way it used to be, reverse all this re-alignment junk and go off the good ‘ol AP poll.


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