I used to be a huge fan of the bowl games. New Year’s Day was one of my favorite days of the year. As a kid, I still remember watching Bo Schembechler spit the bit in Rose Bowls at my great uncle’s pharmacy while visiting relatives in Oklahoma. Later, in high school, I would have all day long New Years Day bowl watching parties, and a long day that started at 10 am was highlighted by flipping back and forth between the Orange and Sugar Bowl 10 hours later. The matchups on New Year’s Day were almost always great ones, with teams that were among the best 10-15 that year.
At 36, I’m now officially entering grumpy old man territory. If the choice is playoffs versus the current system, I say playoffs. If we are talking tradition, they have already done away with the tradition I remember. The Cotton Bowl on January 7th? The Orange Bowl not on NBC on January 1st, and not involving a Big 8 team? Some other bowl game played in the Cotton Bowl but called the Dallas Football Classic, but featuring Texas Tech and Northwestern, as the only game starting before noon on New Year’s Day? The only nightcap involving Connecticut? No Thanks.
I also believe that the current system has made a playoff more, not less, necessary. Let’s compare this year to twenty years ago, before the BCS system was installed. While the advent of the championship game, pairing teams ranked #1 and #2, has been a positive, we have also moved to a system where determining the identity of the best teams has become more difficult.
The culprit has been the massive proliferation of bowl games named after companies I had never heard of. In 1990, there were 18 bowl games. This year, there will be 35 bowl games, with such glorious names as the MAACO Bowl, GoDaddy.com Bowl (formerly the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl), the BBVA Compass Bowl, and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. The Meineke Car Care Bowl seems completely old hat in comparison. We have both the Military Bowl, which does not actually feature any service academies, and the Armed Forces Bowl, which does.
The effect of all of these additional games has altered the mentality to avoiding losses to maintain bowl eligibility, rather than trying to gain good wins. I went back and compared this season to twenty years ago. In 1990, here was co-national champion Colorado’s non-conference schedule: Tennessee (SEC champion), Stanford, Illinois, Texas (SWC champion), Washington (Pac-10 champion). Could you imagine any team playing a similar schedule today? When I looked at the highest ranked teams in the final regular season poll from the six major conferences (SWC in place of non-existent Big East) plus the four highest ranked at-larges (all independents), there were 9 head to head matchups in the regular season between the top ranked teams, none of them conference games.
This season, there were only 3, all conference games (Stanford-Oregon, Wisconsin-Michigan St., Wisconsin-Ohio St.). In addition to the head-to-head matchups in 1990, and the common opponents those created within the top tier of teams, there were also 22 other teams who played at least two top teams, and they consisted of a lot of other good programs (Oklahoma, Va Tech, Iowa, Florida, Auburn, etc). Four teams played three common opponent top teams (Stanford, USC, Pitt, Purdue).
Auburn and Oregon have no common opponents this year. Auburn doesn’t in fact share many common opponents with any of the other teams that could have a claim for the title. Oregon State is the only meaningful common opponent between undefeateds Oregon and TCU (they both also played patsy New Mexico), while Wisconsin shares Arizona State with the Pac-10 teams.
Teams from the current Big XII, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC (I excluded Penn State and South Carolina as they were independent then) played 56% of their non-conference games against other teams that are currently in a “BCS” conference back in 1990. This year, that same number was 32%. It’s also that those other non-BCS games are far more likely to be complete cupcakes now that have no connection to other good teams. Back in 1990, a much higher percentage of the other games were against current members of the Mountain West (then the WAC) or the Southern Independents (now, many in Conference USA). The Pac-10 is the conference that has most stayed consistent with its scheduling from 20 years ago, while the Big Ten’s scheduling is hardly recognizable (22 games against “BCS” teams in 1990; 8 this year).
The result is much less interconnectivity and more isolation between the good teams in the top conferences. Of course, there was no championship game back in 1990. #1 Colorado, as Big 8 champion, went to the Orange Bowl, and #2 Georgia Tech, as champion of the ACC, went to the Gator. But the need for a more involved playoff was probably unnecessary, as we had so many cross-region matchups during the regular season that it basically operated as a playoff among the elite teams. Now, we know far less how Auburn or TCU compares to Oregon or Wisconsin than we would have back in 1990. We make judgments on more tenuous connections and vague conference pride.
If they are going to persist with this current format where everyone gets a participation medal at the end of the season, and good teams rarely play each other out of conference (or if so, it’s one “good” game now) then we need to have a playoff. Not a 16-team playoff where every conference gets in, but one somewhere between 4 and 8. I might change my mind if we somehow reign in this bowl game expansion and disincentivizing playing good competition in the regular season.