Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Playoff Mythology

I don't only think about playoffs. I devote at least 10% of my day toward something else. While I say that facetiously, playoffs have become massively inclusive farces that annoy me. I consider it a myth that these second seasons are the pinnacle of champion selection methods.

We want brackets on the left and the right side. The President wants to fill one out on television. We claim that playoffs decide things on the field, or court, or what ever. What of the games played during the regular season? Perhaps we just love the mindless nature of a playoff. Someone has to win, and we don't even have to think about it!

Once you step outside of the two team format, you leave the security of knowing the most deserving teams are playing for a championship. This leads to the uncomfortable situation of telling a clear number one team that their regular season accomplishments only warrant an opportunity to play their way into a championship game. They could be the only undefeated team, from the best conference in the country, a clear number one. Yet, they are only worthy of a chance to play in a championship game.

Part of the movement towards a playoff in college football is disdain for polls. The polls have occasionally been biased, corrupting the process of crowning a champion. However, the move towards a FBS playoff did not take place until the polls did the ethical thing and chose the two best teams, despite pressure to do otherwise. Compare the pre-BCS college football polls to recent playoffs in most sports and the credentials of the champions produced. I think you'll find that the polls, as biased as they might have been, still got things right more often.

In my opinion a fairly objective poll is a suitable way to determine if a team is championship worthy. I concede the imperfection of the process, and that is why the BCS Championship Game works. You tell each team you thought they were championship worthy, then give them a chance to prove it. A larger playoff deviates from this (even a four team format) by refusing to accept that a clear #1 deserves to play in the championship game. It promotes #4 (at best) to the same status as the #1 team. I understand this most years concerning a #1 vs. #2 match-up. But, #1 vs. #4? You must live in the land of unicorns and fairies to believe them equally qualified.

We're told playoffs are an infallible method for determining a champion. They make a process in which every team but one loses. I understand the allure, but we once believed in unicorns. We imagined this creature that could only be tamed by a virgin, and even Leonardo seemed to be convinced they existed. We now choose to vilify a method, which by objective standards (computer polls) has done a fine job, far better than larger field playoffs. Our treatment of the BCS has become a witch hunt.

I'll consider two scenarios that these “infallible” playoffs produced and have a conversation with myself (that's normal for me):

Team A is the champion! Why Team A? They beat Team B in their last game! Didn't Team B beat them earlier? Yes, but Team A won their last game! Didn't Team A lose six times as many games as Team B? Yes, but you see none of those games counted! 
Team A is champion! Didn't team A lose 9 games? Yes, they are the best team in all the land! Didn't they go .500 in conference play! Yes, but they won a tournament, and it was on TV and everything! Did they beat the #1 overall seed? No, but they won when it counted! Did, they beat any of the top seeds in the tournament? No, the highest overall seed they beat was #6. They won! They're the champions! 
It's hard to consider these "champions" and pretend a playoff is more legitimate than watching teams play and picking who you think is the best. I accept that a two team playoff has a place. I might accept more under some circumstance. I do not agree that a #4 team should have an equal opportunity to play for a championship as a #1 team (with statistics to back this up). Once you go beyond the head to head match-up, you cloud the results. If we use the beat the team that beat the team logic, Vanderbilt in 2008 was better than Florida because Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss who beat Florida. Anyway, let’s all hop on our unicorns and fill out our playoff brackets in 2014.


ColorOfGrey said...

I don't understand.

The article you linked to that actually has statistical evidence only includes wins.

But after reading this article, you're right, Alabama did not deserve to be in the title game last year, and was not the best team in the league, even though they absolutely were the best team in the league?

And a #4 team that beats both the #2 and #1-ranked teams (back-to-back, mind you) to win a 4-team playoff doesn't deserve to be considered the best in the nation? I think if that actually happened, people would love it, and it would be epic football.

You say a 13-0 team with no other team close to their record should be champion and not play for a chance to lose that opportunity.

Then aren't the conference games just as bad? Just another opportunity for a top team to lose?

And wouldn't that top team probably win anyway, like LSU? But if they don't, do you therefore still think LSU was clearly the best team in the country last year? I don't. I think the best team last year was Alabama, and I think they did a good job of proving it in the title game, and would have against Stanford or Oklahoma State also. I think if Stanford had beaten Alabama last year for a title game, it would have been incredible football and they would have deserved a title.

And the statistics in the article you linked to are only for wins and losses. Might as well call Boise State up and apologize for all those undefeated seasons, right?

Don't forget champions like Cincinnati and TCU.

You need statistics against strength of schedule. Quality wins, close battles, etc. I don't think Alabama is requesting to transfer into the Mountain West just to get an easier schedule to have more wins. Instead, they've been purposely adding quality out-of-conference opponents to their schedule for the same reason.

Adding a playoff, even just a 4-team one, doesn't diminish the regular season. It makes it even more important. Otherwise how can anyone expect to compete with Boise State and TCU's records every year? Is it more important to beat LSU or Michigan than Miami of Ohio? I say they're not the same, you and the linked article say they are a win or a loss.

Assuming the #4 team wins the title every year is one thing. It's possible, so I understand linking to it. But you could also have the #2 team win every single year in the current format instead of the #1 team.

You know, like Alabama did in January.

Not to mention that the #4 team beating TWO of the top-3 ranked teams back-to-back would make them worthy of being a champion, and I'd love to see it happen.

It's not a "slippery slope" until people make it one, and articles like this are trying to start something before it even begins. Let the games do the talking, THEN complain. Or see if they turn out the way they should, like last year.

KrAzY3 said...

To preface this, there is no perfect post season and never will be. The point I was trying to make is that while we tend to praise playoffs and demonize the polls, there is evidence that the polls actually do a better job of crowning worthy champions (based on regular season performance).

I linked to a message board post I made, and really I can only go so far with an issue that has had books written about it. The win/loss data was not definitive, but it was substantive. If I was presenting a report I would have included other data, for instance from what I recall, of all the selectors (human polls and computer formulas which heavily consider SoS) only one chose a would be #4 BCS seed (two loss USC over undefeated Ohio St.). This was out hundreds of opportunities. This I believe would set aside concern about the Boise States of the world. It doesn't prove everything, but it's hard to argue with how poor the resumes of the #4 "seeds" were when placed next to the champion.

I think you are putting some words in my mouth though. A clear #1 is a long distance from #4. I also specifically said I understand it not being clear between #1 and #2 and #2 and #3. I simply do not see the same confusion when comparing #1 and #4.

I'm not really able to defend conference games in the context of this playoff, especially since it appears that it might be weighted towards conference champions. It doesn't fit in with this process at all, which would be another gripe on my part.

I think LSU was clearly the best team in the county last year, during the regular season. I think Alabama deserved their chance not based on how they performed, but because the process elevated them to that game. My problem is with elevating a #4 to a place they clearly do not belong. As with all playoffs, there will be flukes and we are inviting them in with each round we add. Clearly, simply winning a game does not make one particular team better. Ask LSU...

What I wrote and linked to was not all directly in relation to this new four team playoff. It provided context, but the point I was trying to make is that a larger playoff does not automatically insure better results. I didn't start discussing this when this playoff took shape, and I won't stop discussing this because it has. But, the BCS was ultimately destroyed because they got it right. I think that is reason enough to complain.