Sunday, January 07, 2007

BCS MYTH-BUSTER #2: The Best Teams

Perhaps the worst myth about the BCS is that a playoff system would somehow produce a more pure national champion, that it would somehow mean that the “best teams” will face each other and the “best team” will win.

Have you ever watched another sport?

In fact, a playoff system makes it virtually impossible that the best two teams will face each other. And it by no means ensures that the best team will win.

Part of this is the nature of playoffs. The regular season no longer matters. This isn’t the classic -- and correct -- argument that playoff would make the regular season less important. Instead, it simply means that everyone begins a playoff 0-0. Yes, better teams get (except in the final round) home field advantage -- which I think is overrated, but I digress. Yes, they get higher seedings and, in some cases, a bye. But, on average, you get few favors for having a better season.

Now, that leads to the dirty secret of playoffs: The best team doesn’t win. The team who plays best in the playoffs wins.

Take, as CFR has, the example of the St. Louis Cardinals. They inarguably had the worst season of any team in the MLB playoffs when October began. How bad? They had one of the best records in the nation at the All-Star break. They had the worst record in the playoffs at the end of the season. But St. Louis got hot during the NLDS, NLCS and the World Series. And they were the champions.

But St. Louis could at least make a credible argument that its record was not indicative of how good the team really was. So let’s look instead at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the NFL, six teams from each conference get in. Pittsburgh was the AFC’s No. 6 seed. Never before had a No. 6 seed won the Super Bowl. And the Steelers were not exactly seen as a great team after the season was over. Before it began, maybe. But not when people had seen them play.

Then a series of unlikely events occurred. QB Carson Palmer, whom you know as a Heisman trophy winner if you don’t follow the NFL, got taken out early in the Bengals’ game against Pittsburgh. The Steelers beat Indianapolis on the strength of an almost inexplicable shoe-string tackle by Ben Roethlisberger to avoid total disaster. And so on.

The secret to Pittsburgh's success.

Then, with an assist from men wearing white and black uniforms who were decidedly not official members of the Pittsburgh team, the Steelers defeated an underachieving Seattle Seahawks team in the Super Bowl.

Remember George Mason? That “great story” of the NCAA tourney last year? Show of hands for those who thought, from the beginning of the season to the end of the season, that George Mason was the fourth-best team in the country.

(And, no, I don’t want to see Boise State play Ohio State or Florida. Because if the Broncos then get crushed 44-3, we all have to believe that the Oklahoma game was a fluke instead of an inspiring David vs. Goliath tale. In that case, I’d rather have the dreams than the reality.)

Which brings us to another flaw in football and NCAA basketball championships: They are one and done. At least in MLB, you have to beat another team four out of seven times before advancing. Same with the NBA. In the NFL and the NCAA basketball tourney, a team that wouldn't otherwise win could pull off a 1/1,000,000 upset -- and from time to time does. At least if this happens in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game, a team that could reasonably lay claim to being the best team in the nation wins.

You might believe that a playoff is a better way to determine the national champion. So be it.

Personally, I would like to see a Plus One system because it would give four deserving teams a chance and would get rid of some of the controversy. (And I’d love to see ESPN and Keith Jackson turn red and rail against the injustice of the Big Ten and the SEC dominating the event, because the teams No. 1-4 after the regular season were Ohio State, Florida, Michigan and LSU.)

But how can we have a title game without the Trojans?

But don’t say a playoff would produce a more authentic champion than the BCS. All championships are mythical, to some degree or another.

And to say otherwise is a disservice to the debate we should be having.

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