Taking a Detour into a Holiday Tradition

As I was enjoying the Christmas and New Year holidays, I reflected on the joy that the season brings.  For me, one of the great joys of the season is the excitement and pageantry of the traditional New Year's Day college bowl games.  The Rose Bowl Game, long referred to as "the Granddaddy of them all," has been played since 1902, which makes the Rose Bowl Game a tradition of longer standing than Major League Baseball's World Series, which was first played in 1903.

In recent years, the traditional New Year's Day bowl games have been coopted into a playoff system designed to select a "national champion" team in college football.  Thus tonight, January 8, 2018, #3 ranked Georgia will play #4 ranked Alabama for the college football national championship, in the intergalactic spaceport known as Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Besides disrupting the traditions inherent in the New Year's Day bowl games, the playoff system based on New Year's Day bowl games has proven frustrating and dissatisfying for fans of college football.  Here I offer my analysis of the major reasons for that dissatisfaction, and propose a solution designed to bring tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people who are fans of high quality college football.

No College Football Playoff Can Ever Satisfy

Assuming the goal is a championship game between the two best college football teams, any playoff is almost certain to disappoint.  The primary reason for this is an old adage that I call the immutable rule of college football:

On any given Saturday, any football team can beat any other football team.[1]

What this portends for any playoff – even in a four-team playoff as currently exists – is a high likelihood that the two teams regarded as “the best” will not play in the final game. This likelihood increases dramatically as more teams are added to the playoff.

A second major reason that no college football playoff will ever satisfy is that by New Year’s Day, the teams haven’t played in over a month.  Injured players might have recovered in the interim, but no team will be anywhere near its best after such a long layoff.  So even if the two “best” teams play in a national championship game, the quality of play will almost certainly be worse than the mid-season performance of those and dozens of other teams.

A third, less direct reason that no college football playoff will ever satisfy is that the college football season is already too long to permit the highest level of athletic competition.  Football players simply cannot maintain during the season the kind of conditioning – both strength and cardiovascular – that is necessary for peak performance.  My educated guess is that a 9-week season is about the maximum length for optimal athletic performance.  The 13-game-plus-conference-championship-game season exceeds that by half. So again, the quality of play in the playoff games will certainly be lower than mid-season quality of play.

These factors inherent in any college football playoff system nearly guarantee that the championship game will be a low quality athletic contest between two good teams, but likely not the two best teams.

A Modest Proposal

Given the above difficulties, to provide maximum quality college football and maximum fan value, I propose a system that includes the following elements:

  • Regular season limited to 9 games

As mentioned, quality of play decreases (and likelihood of injury increases) when the season is too long.

  • Conferences limited to 10 teams

When a conference has 10 teams, each team can play every other conference team over the course of a 9-game regular season, and the conference champion will be clearly known.  Today, many conferences are too large to permit each team to play every other team.

  • Severely limited interconference play

From 1903 until 1997 the World Series was the only time that an American League team would play a National League team.  As a result, the World Series was invariably exciting, and the "underdog" won at least a third of the time.  Let this be a lesson to college football.

  • Emphasize local rivalries

Ask any Auburn or Alabama fan, he or she will undoubtedly agree that the "Iron Bowl" game is the most eagerly anticipated game every year.  The same holds for Michigan v. Ohio State, Texas v. Texas A&M, and even Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute v. Union College (a rivalry that dates to 1886, with 115 games played to date).  When teams have such rivalries, their fans are treated to exciting games even when the teams don't make the playoffs or get invited to a New Year's Day bowl game.

  • Playoff (if you must) between conference champions

Building on the foundation of "on any given Saturday," a playoff between conference champions with no (or few) common opponents makes for an exciting, unpredictable tournament, while minimizing disappointment that the "best" team lost.

  • Happy New Year!

Conduct a playoff that concludes well before the college bowl season.  This frees up the great venues such as the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and others to host New Year's Day bowl games that are a return to tradition, where teams from different conferences play each other in warm weather locations.  Throw a parade, play a football game, have a good time.  Everybody wins!

No solution is perfect, and I welcome your comments and input.

At Toikka Law Group, this is the sort of leading edge collaborative analysis and deliberation that we apply to our clients' concerns.

© 2018 Russell O. Paige, all rights reserved.

[1] Harry Waters, Old Adage Is Still Timely Ohio Football Teams Learn, Coshocton Ohio Tribune, Monday, October 27, 1952, at p. 8, col. 4 ("On any given Saturday afternoon, any football team can beat any other football team," quoted from the "Old Coaches' Book.")