The 2nd round of the NAIA, NCAA Division 3 and Division 2 football playoffs are this Saturday. At this time of year I always try to sell 1A football fans on watching these playoffs since so many of them complain about the lack of a playoff at college football’s top level. In recent years even slimy politicians like Republican Orrin Hatch (Motto: “A 21st Century man with a 19th Century worldview”) and Democrat Barack Obama (Motto: “The first demagogue in history to be utterly helpless without a teleprompter”) have tried to wrangle votes by endorsing a playoff for NCAA Division 1A football. I know we’re supposed to say “Football Bowl Subdivision” now instead of 1A but I feel like a wild man when I say 1A and 1AA.
Anyway, along with the good aspects of settling it all on the field there are some down sides that 1A fans are completely unaware of since their divisional snobbery often means they’ve never once followed the lower division playoffs. Not only that, but many of them obviously weren’t paying attention to the proposed playoff format when Congressional hearings were held about forcing 1A to change to playoffs from the current BCS system. Let’s try to clear up the major misconceptions about how a college football playoff in Division 1A would work.
STOP THINKING THEY’LL TAKE THE TOP 8 TEAMS IN THE BCS STANDINGS FOR THE PLAYOFF FIELD – Hilariously enough, many 1A fans actually think the teams ranked 1 through 8 will all make the playoffs. When discussions about an 8-team playoff field were being held it was made clear that the 8 teams would really be the conference champions of the 6 Power Conferences and 2 At-Large teams. So even if we no longer call the system “The BCS” the 6 BCS conferences will still be calling the shots because of the money and influence they have. That’s not conspiracy talk, it’s just pretty much the way it goes, even in NCAA Divisions 1AA, 2 and 3 not every conference champ gets an automatic bid to the playoffs. The term “AQ”, for Automatic Qualifier, which 1A commentators are using a lot recently, was being used in the lower divisions long ago to distinguish those conferences where the champion is automatically in the playoff field from the conferences where the champ has to wait to see if the Selection Committee will give them an At-Large bid.
STOP THINKING A PLAYOFF WILL PUT AN END TO POST-SEASON CONTROVERSIES – As the previous paragraph makes clear, a playoff in 1A will mean that even the champions of the Big East Conference and the ACC, who in recent years have finished comparatively low in the Top 25, would be in the playoffs while teams ahead of them in the rankings would be left out. This happens often in the lower divisions. To use one example, this year in the NAIA’s 16-team playoff field the William Penn Statesmen, ranked #11 in the nation, were left out, while a questionable team or 2 that were ranked lower, made the playoffs. If that happened even once in 1A try to imagine the arguments that would provoke in the 24 hour a day sports news cycle we have today.
STOP THINKING A PLAYOFF WOULD BE MORE FAIR TO THE NON-BCS CONFERENCES – 1A playoff advocates always claim a playoff would be more fair for teams from Non-BCS conferences with teams like TCU and Boise State the poster children for that argument. Ironically if the 8-team playoff format that had been discussed was in effect last year, we would not have had both TCU and Boise State in that field anyway. With only 2 At-Large Bids available, there is no way the Power Conferences would have let both of them go to teams from Non-AQ conferences. They’d have put the highest-ranked non-champion from a Power 6 conference in 1 At-Large slot and at best just 1 team from a Non-AQ conference in 1. (Compared to the supposedly unfair BCS system in which both teams got to participate in a big money bowl last year, albeit against each other) The reason why is always the same: money. Money is the same reason why the 6 power conferences would never allow the Top 8 teams in the rankings to constitute the playoff field. Doing that might leave some of them out in the cold (And I’m talking to YOU, Big East and the ACC) while some conferences might get 2 or more teams in. (On a related note this is also why 1A football made teams with 6-6 records bowl- eligible. It wasn’t that there was a shortage of teams with winning records to fill all the bowl slots but there was a shortage of teams with winning records FROM THE 6 POWER CONFERENCES to fill those bowl slots. The powers that be would rather have a 6-6 team from a Power Conference than a 7-5 or better team from one of the other conferences.)
Now, many people may say “Well, just include more than 8 teams in the playoffs” but I don’t think that would be advisable either because then you would be devaluing the regular season too much. It also presents the slippery slope of adding more and more teams, like with 1AA, which used to have a 16 team playoff field but this year is expanding to 20 teams and will be expanding to either 24 or 32 teams in the near future. Or the way the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament keeps adding teams, further devaluing a regular season that seems to get less attention all the time.
I love following the playoffs in the divisions Balladeer’s Blog covers, but I think 1A fans need to keep in mind the unique problems posed by the huge number of teams in college sports and stop pretending a playoff system will solve all problems or end all post-season arguments.