FBS Football Has it Right…Sort Of

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After watching the New York Giants come away from Indianapolis clutching the coveted Lombardi Trophy I had to ask myself, was this team really deserving of being the best in the land?  Sure I realize that they had to win three playoff games, two of which on the road against (supposedly) better opponents.  I also realize that they beat the best team in the AFC (or really the best team in the AFC lost) and passed all their trials on the way to the promised land.  But I can’t help but wonder if every major professional sports’ playoff system, and really the playoff system in general, isn’t inherently flawed.

When taking a look at the past ten championship competitions for the four major sports in the US (i.e. Super Bowl, Wold Series, Stanley Cup, NBA Championship) it is evident that (except in the NBA) there is a large range of teams from where they finished in the regular season who ended up competing and winning their respective championship.  For these statistics I ranked the teams based on their overall records (for their individual conferences), as opposed to their playoff seeding, because every sport has a rule where division winners get higher seeds and so on.

World Series Super Bowl
Ranking Competed Winners Ranking Competed Winners
1 5 3 1 9 2
2 5 2 2 4 3
3 6 3 3 2 1
4 4 2 4 0 0
5 3 3
6 2 1
Stanley Cup NBA Champ
Ranking Competed Winners Rankings Competed Winners
1 4 3 1 6 4
2 6 4 2 7 3
3 0 0 3 5 3
4 3 2 4 2 0
5 0 0 5 0 0
6 1 0 6 0 0
7 3 0 7 0 0
8 1 0 8 0 0

In the NHL playoffs upsets happen all the time but it’s interesting to see that even while that is by far the most unpredictable playoffs of the four that there still wasn’t a Stanley Cup Winner that didn’t at least have the fourth best record.  Not to mention the NBA hasn’t even had any team compete for a championship worse than having the fourth best record, let alone win one is astonishing (especially considering the NCAA Basketball Tournament usually has upsets galore and very rarely do all the number one seeds make it to the Final Four).  But look at the MLB and the NFL, a very wide spread amount of contenders and winners for the prized championship.

Now of course this shouldn’t come as a shock, not every team that is the best during the regular season can also be the best in the playoffs.  However, since the system is set up to where we only remember the playoff champion as opposed to the regular season champions as well (unless a team sets a record for regular season wins) why would anyone care about the regular season at all?  In fact, what is the point in playing it.  Sure it tends to weed out the lesser teams but do we really need 82 or 162 games a season to find out the bad teams from the good?  If the playoffs end up being the only thing that matters why not just have an entire season of round robin style play?

The fact of the matter is the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision’s (FBS) logic behind them not wanting a playoff is correct: a playoff would decrease the importance of the regular season and that it is indeed something completely different from all other team sports in the US.  Why shouldn’t teams be rewarded for their regular season play over their post season play?  It is a much harder accomplishment to be the best team in your league for an entire 82 game stretch than it is to win sixteen games over a month or so span.

Unfortunately the NCAA FBS has it entirely wrong too.  Unlike the four major professional leagues, that at most have 30-32 teams (NFL has 32, all the rest have 30), the NCAA FBS does in fact need a playoff system.  Currently the FBS has 120 members and every school is only allowed to play a total of thirteen regular season games (twelve can be scheduled and in conferences that have a championship game another is allowed for teams that qualify).  Take into account that a team usually plays seven or eight intra-conference games and that only leaves four or five out of conference games that can be played.  The competition between schools is not nearly enough to allow a ranking system to decide the two teams that get to play in the BCS National Championship Game.  Instead of having a playoff, like every other professional (and most other collegiate) sports have, the FBS has yet to implement one when it needs it the most.

Perhaps the best sports system lies across the pond, in European football (soccer in the US).  Over there they have a regular season and then various cups that are competed for throughout the season.  Make no mistake about it though, aside from the Champions’ League (which is a round robin followed by a knockout stage) there is no more important win than a regular season trophy, as opposed to various country cups.  Now their scheduling and league set up is entirely different as well (I won’t get into relegation and all that jazz) but basically each time plays twice during the regular season, one home game and one away game (not counting various cups).  That is perhaps the most league set up of all.  Now it may not work for the NFL (and definitely not for collegiate sports) but why can’t the MLB, NHL, and NBA go to that set up (pretend owners making money doesn’t matter)?  That would put more importance on what should be considered the most important, the regular season title.  And don’t get me wrong I’m sure it is nice to hold the Coppa Italia, for instance, but most everyone would gladly trade an Italy Cup to be atop the Serie A (the Italian top division football league) after the regular season is done.

In any case the four professional leagues could benefit from the FBS’s mentality and the European soccer leagues’ set up of putting importance on the regular season and shunning multiple playoff seeds (or  end of year playoffs altogether).  Sure the schedules may be less fair than others (especially if division alignments are kept) but the logic is sound.  Why reward teams for being hot for a month or so to be remembered as their league’s champions when other teams have proven themselves to be more worthy after long and grueling regular seasons?  I for one am tired of seeing teams that sneak into the playoffs within the last week go onto to win a championship (and I’m a fan of the Atlanta Braves, Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Sabres, and Toronto Raptors so believe me when I tell you I am not bitter because the Patriots lost this past Super Bowl).  Why even play the regular season when no one will remember who the best teams happened to be from that season – unless of course the championship was a “huge upset” or was won by the best team from the regular season?

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