Why March Madness and the BCS Make a Bad Comparison

These things are different from each other.

Last night's stinker of a national title game did nothing to placate those who don't like postseason tournaments. What were you expecting matching up the second place team in the Horizon League against a 9-9 Big East team?

Of course, that's a red herring. This year's BCS capper was an ugly game only an Auburn fan could love, and we've seen plenty of unwatchable blowouts since a national title game was initiated in 1992. No matter what system you use, there's never a way to guarantee that any one particular game is going to be good.

That said, there is plenty of room to disagree on postseason formats. When doing so, it's important to remember that football and basketball operate off of entirely different principles.

Football goes by a principle of scarcity. It is the only sport that truly does, and it has no choice given the brutality of it. College football in particular works this way, given that it has the shortest regular season and postseason tournament of the major American sports. Yes, you read that right. College football has a tournament; it's just a two-team tournament.

College basketball works on a principle of abundance. The marginal value of any one regular season game, rivalries and the like aside, is much lower than the value of a college football regular season game. The sport makes up for that lower value in volume.

The trick is knowing whether you are operating from scarcity or abundance and playing to the strength of the format. If you're going to mix the two, you want to have abundance in the regular season and scarcity in the postseason. The last thing you want is scarcity in the regular season and abundance in the postseason tournament, because it drops the value of the regular season games considerably.

That's the main, and supremely valid, concern of those who are against expanding college football's tournament beyond two teams. Can you do it without sacrificing scarcity?

Of course you can. Opening it up to a four-team playoff does the trick, and I could be persuaded to go up to about 10 teams like with Matt Hinton's playoff plan. I would absolutely be against a 16-team monstrosity involving the champions of all 11 conferences. The trick is making sure that playoff creep doesn't happen and expand the field too far, but if you can keep a playoff at two teams indefinitely, you can keep it at whatever number you want indefinitely.

Ultimately, both college football and college basketball have the same problem: their divisions are too big. Does anyone think Arkansas and Arkansas State are on the same level in football? Does anyone think Connecticut and Central Connecticut State are on the same level in basketball? Of course not, but they're in the same NCAA division. Fix that first, and then we can squabble about the postseason.

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