Will Playoffs Make College Football's Regular Season Less Exciting?
Auburn beat Alabama this past weekend in one of the most incredible endings you’ll ever see. The stakes couldn't have been higher. With the defeat, Alabama lost any realistic shot at playing for the national championship this year.
However, if this defeat had occurred next year, the loss would mean absolutely nothing to Alabama, at least in terms of playing for a national championship. If four teams were selected to compete in a playoff, Alabama would certainly be one of those four teams despite the loss. Likewise, if four teams made the playoffs, undefeated Florida State could lose their game this weekend and be fine, too (though the same can’t be said of Ohio State). This has led some to complain that the BCS is actually a better format than the playoffs because we don’t end up with meaningless games. They all count!
Of course, this isn’t entirely correct. If Ohio State and Florida State both win this weekend, the SEC title game between #3 Auburn and #5 Missouri is completely meaningless. And what about #6 Oklahoma State vs. #17 Oklahoma? Oklahoma State currently has no shot at the BCS title game, so that game is completely meaningless. But if there were a four-team playoff, they would still have a shot.
(One quick tangent before I get to the point of this post: You might have stopped in the middle of the last paragraph and said “Wait, a 1-loss Auburn could still jump an undefeated Ohio State, so that game isn’t meaningless.” Actually, because Ohio State’s computer numbers will improve this week with a win, it would take almost every voter in the Harris and Coaches poll to vote Auburn ahead of Ohio State for Auburn to be #2 in the BCS.)
Okay, so where were we? Oh yeah...meaningless college football games! So, no matter the format (BCS or playoff)some meaningless football games will take place late in the season. But which system will create more of them? I went back through the last 5 years' worth of data and determined the number of meaningless games in each system that occurred during the last two weeks of the season. Meaninglessness, of course, can be a subjective judgment, so I made sure to specify what a meaningless game was before I started.
- A game is meaningless in the playoff system if a team loses in the last two weeks of the season, but still would have been in a four-team playoff. I know for the playoff there will be a selection committee to determine the teams, but for the sake of this post, I used the top 4 teams in the final BCS standings as my “playoff” teams. This year’s Alabama team is the perfect example.
- A game is meaningless in the BCS system if a team lost in the last two weeks of the season and still ended up in the BCS title game or if they finished outside the top two spots in the final BCS and in the last two weeks of the season playing in games that would have secured them a spot in a playoff. Last year’s game between Florida and Florida State was a perfect example of the latter. Neither team had a shot at the BCS title game, but at 10-1, both had a shot at making a playoff. Florida ended up winning and finished #3 in the BCS. But when you only take the top two teams, that game becomes meaningless.
Keep in mind a game can be meaningful in both situations, too! Last year #2 Alabama played #3 Georgia in the SEC Championship game. Alabama won and went to the BCS title game, while the loss plummeted Georgia to #10 in the final BCS standings. So that game would have been for a spot in both the BCS title game and a playoff. Therefore, it was meaningful in both.
But enough talk, let’s get to the data analysis!
I used Minitab to tally the number of meaningful and meaningless games there would have been the last 5 seasons. Keep in mind I only used the last two weeks of each season. You can get the data I used here.
So there have only been 2 games in the last 5 years where a team ranked #1 or #2 lost in the last two weeks of the season and still finished in the top 4 of the final BCS standings. One of those teams was Alabama in 2008. The Tide lost to the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators in the SEC title game, but still finished #4 in the final BCS standings.
The other team was LSU in 2007. The #1-ranked Tigers lost to Arkansas in their regular season finale, a game that everybody thought cost them a chance for a national championship. But not only did the Tigers finish in the top 4 of the BCS, they actually finished #2! So that game was meaningless for both a playoff and the BCS systems!
So the idea that a playoff system will result in a lot of late-season games in which a team loses but still makes the playoffs isn’t correct. Sure, every now and then it will happen, but not very often. And on the flip side, look at the number of games that have been rendered meaningless because only the top two teams make it: 16 games! You think the regular season is going to become boring because of a playoff system? Au contraire mon ami!
It’s going to become more exciting!
I’m not going to go through all 16 games, but let’s see if we can determine a year where we missed a lot of excitement because we didn’t have a four-team playoff.
We see that in both 2007 and 2010, there were four games in the last two weeks of the season that would have been meaningful if we had a playoff system. If you’re a college football fan, you’re probably familiar with the craziness that happened in 2007 just with the BCS system (the #1 and #2 ranked teams both lost in each of the last two weeks of the season). So let’s focus on 2010.
Oregon and Auburn were ranked #1 and #2 and were both undefeated. In the last two weeks of the season, Oregon won both of their games by 3 scores. Auburn won a thrilling Iron Bowl against Alabama by a point, then won the SEC Championship game by 39 points.
So one exciting game and 3 snooze fests. And by the way, in the second-to-last week of the season, Oregon and Auburn both won on Friday (it was the week of Thanksgiving). So we had an entire Saturday of football the next day in which none of the games mattered. Nice job, BCS!
But what if there'd been a four-team playoff instead?
What Could Have Happened
The Friday night after Oregon and Auburn had already won, #4 Boise State played #19 Nevada. Nevada won a thrilling game in overtime, knocking previously undefeated Boise State out of the playoffs. That meant #5 LSU was next in line to get the last playoff spot. But the next day, they lost to Arkansas! That left another spot open, which Stanford grabbed with a win over Oregon State. TCU was ranked #3 in the BCS, so they also had a meaningful game that Saturday against New Mexico, which they won easily.
So that’s four extra games in just one weekend (neither TCU nor Stanford played the next week) that would have been meaningful if 4 teams made the playoffs. And keep in mind I’m actually lessening the number of “meaningful” games in the playoff by automatically taking the top 4 BCS teams. In 2010, Wisconsin was sitting at #5 with the same record as Stanford. When you consider the fact that a selection committee might have taken the Big Ten champion over the Pac 10 runner up (or even an undefeated TCU), then all of Wisconsin’s late season games become meaningful too!
So don’t fear the 4 team playoff. It’s not going suddenly make the end of the college football season boring. Not even close. All it’s going to do is give us more opportunities for moments like this!