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Why March Madness Is a Bad Comparison Point for Football

I am a proponent for a playoff in college football. That much is very public record.

I also love March Madness. I think the opening round of the tournament makes up the best two days in all of sports. It is this time of year though that college basketball guys like to take shots at college football over post season format. Seth Davis took his turn at it recently.

It's a noble sentiment, but the NCAA basketball tournament is a terrible comparison point if you're talking about college football. Think for a second about the two aspects of March Madness that make it great.

A ton of games on, all at once. All are meaningful.

The most fun is had on the first weekend, which is a basketball fan's delight. There are up to four games going at once, and the season is on the line for all eight teams. Sure you might get a 1-seed vs. 16-seed stinker, but CBS will switch you to a closer game soon enough. What's not to like?

Well, that's only possible because there are 64 teams in the tournament. Basketball can pull off a field of that size because there are 342 schools in Division I. College football's Division I-A has just 120 teams, so inviting 64, or over half of them, to the post season makes no sense at all.

Oh, wait.

Well, it wouldn't make sense to put over half of them in a championship tournament at least. A proportional college football tournament would have 22 or 23 teams in it, and if it was to be that big, we would barely get the same kind of nonstop action on a single day only. Most playoff proposals max out at 16 teams anyway, and smaller setups would provide even fewer games.

Besides, basketball can be played far more frequently than football. Games are shorter, and a team can play more than one in a week. Even if you did throw open the doors and stage a 64-team college football tournament, each team could play just one game a weekend. The magic of the opening weekend of March Madness really can't be done for college football.

Surprises, Cinderellas, and Upset Specials

This year's tournament has provided plenty of these so far. It's part of the charm.

College football's historical mindset however hates them. It has an undeniable Cult of the Undefeated Team, where nothing is settled for everyone unless champion is without blemish. Well, almost everyone. It's a perfectly understandable side effect of having the shortest regular season in major sports.

Matt Hinton covered this one pretty well, so I won't belabor the point too long. College football doesn't like the idea of a March Madness-style Cinderella having a shot at a title. If there's an undefeated MWC or Boise State team near the top, that's all right because it's Undefeated. If it's a team that blew its chances in the regular season by dropping a couple games, college football fans by and large do not want to see that squad have a chance at a title.

That's why it's important not to make a college football playoff too big. Anything larger than eight teams brings about the possibility of such a team winning it all for sure, and some years, even eight is enough for that outcome to become possible. Cinderella's great in March, but she's a persona non grata in the college football world. The cultures of these two sports are entirely different in this way.

So... football?

The elements of the NCAA basketball tournament that everyone likes are not repeatable in a football context. Because of that fact, it doesn't make a lot of sense to point at March Madness and say, "Hey college football, look what you're missing!!"

That's not to say that some sort of playoff format shouldn't be considered. The BCS is mess that reeks of design by committee. It devalued the bowl season (though perpetual bowl expansion helped that along too) while not providing true closure to a season or eliminating bad incentives. After all, a team can schedule four cupcakes, blow through a major conference in a big down year while squeaking by any opponent with a pulse, and be rewarded with a place in the national title game (hello, Texas '09). Of course, that's also the Cult of the Undefeated Team showing its ugly side a bit too.

I'm on the side of the argument that college football needs a playoff of some sort, but the fun of March Madness is not the reason why.