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The Super Bowl is Not an Argument Against Playoffs

For the second time in five years team that went 9-7 in the NFL regular season made the Super Bowl. This time, that 9-7 team actually won the thing. It's enough to make a die hard college football fan scoff at the pro league's standards for who gets to be called champion.

Before going further, it's worth noting that the NFL is fundamentally different than the college game when it comes to scheduling. NFL teams play 16 regular season games instead of 12, so they have more opportunities to pick up losses. Plus, they don't get to stack a third or a fourth of their schedules with cupcakes who are outclassed in every conceivable way. If college football had 16 regular season games and only competition between the top 32 teams, there would not be too many zero- or one-loss champions there either.

That said, there's no reason to blindly accept a team with a .563 winning percentage as a rightful "champion" unless you're a Chan Gailey enthusiast. Rejecting that premise does not mean, however, that you reject the concept of a playoff. It just means that the NFL's playoffs are too large.

On that level, 12 of the 32 teams make the postseason every year. That comes out to 37.5% of all the league's teams. If college football did a bracket of an equivalent size, it would have 45 teams in it. Cut the field down to just the current 67 in BCS conferences plus Notre Dame and you still get a field of 25. Not even the status quo-hating Dan Wetzel and friends who wrote Death to the BCS are promoting a playoff that large.

I want to see a playoff in college football, but I don't want to see a 7-6 team or 8-4 team in it. If they keep the bracket at a reasonable (i.e. smaller than the NFL) size, we never will see such a team in it. In fact, look through the archive of BCS standings. Not that the BCS formula is perfect, but you'll notice a pattern that there is generally a big gap between either No. 7 and No. 8 or No. 8 and No. 9.

Once you get past the top seven or eight teams, you find that teams don't really have realistic claims towards being a championship candidate. On purely competitive grounds, capping the playoff at eight teams (or less) shouldn't be controversial. It, of course, will always be controversial who gets a shot at the title and who doesn't, but that's a cut off point that should be able to find a consensus. Expanding beyond eight is difficult anyway because teams can only play one game per week.

I think ultimately though, this all boils down to a fairly fundamental argument. Is college football its own sport that should only be concerned about its own competitively purity, or is it a fundraiser that subsidizes nearly every other sport that schools sponsor? While in practice it is both, I fear that more and more, the powers that be see it solely as the latter.

It's too late for men's college basketball; its tournament accounts for roughly 95% of the NCAA's income. It's no wonder they floated a plan to go to 96 teams two years ago. Increasing March Madness revenue is far and away the easiest way to increase the NCAA's operating budget, something that's important in this day and age when investigations are getting longer, more numerous, and more expensive by the year. The schools could all chip in some more dues money, or they could fabricate a "First Four" to try to wring out a few more dollars.

The BCS is happy to act like the cartel it is, and even the staunchly anti-playoff Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany doesn't believe the current system maximizes profits. However, in this weak economy with state and federal education budgets in jeopardy, many programs can't afford to leave postseason money on the table while leeching money from their general university budgets anymore.

Starting up a playoff would generate more money. If those in charge then look at it as nothing more than a piggy bank, then we'll never be safe from bracket creep. Hopefully the advent of other revenue streams like conference networks and online streaming deals can stave off that temptation and keep the field small.

It will never feel right to crown an 8-4 team as champion anymore than it feels right to see a 9-7 team take home the Lombardi Trophy.