March Madness and the BCS are Different, and That's OK

I love this time of year because of the big basketball tournament, but increasingly every year, people are using as a touchstone to fight the college football playoff wars. I hate that, and it's the only thing about March I can really say I hate.

March Madness works because of saturation. The first two days of the tournament are incredible, each with four sets of four games featuring 32 teams all with their seasons on the line. You get to see one fantastic finish, flip to a new channel just in time to see another, and then flip to another channel just in time to see another. From noon to nearly midnight there's high drama going on all across the country and all across your TV subscription. We get fewer games with each passing round, but the stakes get higher to compensate.

The momentum made by staging two rounds a weekend for three weeks really makes it go too. If the NCAA ran it with six rounds in six weeks, it just wouldn't work as well. We also don't have to wait more than a month from the end of the regular season to see the country's best teams again. Plus, it plays up the strength of the tournament as a haven for underdogs. On the first two days of the tournament, the nation discovers a couple unheralded teams and players, and then we immediately get to see them again two days later. The forward movement is like a snowball rolling down a hill, and it is brilliant in most years.

The BCS works because it is (mostly) exclusive. With a few exceptions due to the automatic qualifying rules, which are almost certainly going away for the next contract, you don't go to the BCS if you can't play at a high level. For the most part, at least three of the five games each year are very good. That's a better batting average than we get in the rest of the bowls and even the basketball tournament, which relies on volume to make up for the blowouts in the 1-16 and 2-15 type games.

I think the BCS could be even better with a four-team playoff, but I don't want to see a college football playoff of eight or 16 teams. I also want to see the rest of the BCS preserved without AQ status to line up the best teams against each other. Basketball teams can play several days in a row, and the cumulative toll on the players' bodies of playing full a season is nowhere near the same for them as it is for football players. Football can only be done once a week, and each additional game you add tears up the players that much more. Because college football can't go with a volume-oriented postseason like basketball can, then it absolutely must focus on quality.

If I could sum it up in a sentence, this is what I'd say: March Madness is all about the journey, while the BCS is all about the destination. The NCAA tournament experience comes very close to being equal to the championship prize at the end, while the BCS's laser-like focus on the championship above all else suits the sport's constraints the best.

College basketball and football have very different postseasons, and that's OK. They both work for very different reasons, largely because the sports they come from are so different. Having a preference between the two is fine, but there's no reason why the two sports have to have the same postseason format. March Madness is wonderful, but matching up the best college football teams at the end of the year is also wonderful, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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