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Book Review: Death to the BCS

Granted, it doesn't take much to convince me that a playoff is superior to the existing bowl system, but "Death To The BCS" by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter, and Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports surprised me with their proposal for a 16 team playoff and shooting down almost every reason to retain the existing system. Their proposal makes perfect sense to me once they explain it:  a 16 team playoff with all 11 conference champions and five at-large selections.

Almost immediately, people respond "What?  The MAC champion? The Sun Belt Champion?"

And the answer is, of course, yes.  One of the biggest reasons people reject a playoff system is that it makes the regular season meaningless. The thought is that in a playoff system, you merely have to get into the playoff system, and once you qualify for the playoffs, there is no reason to worry about the regular season anymore.

That argument gets skewered by pointing out that teams who make the playoffs get seeded based on how they finish the regular season, and there are two rewards for getting a higher seed.  First of all, higher seeds host games all the way through the semi-finals.  Second, the #1 seed gets rewarded with a home game against the #16 seed, who almost always will be the Sun Belt Champion.  And when you win that game, you get another home game.  Win that, and the #1 seed gets rewarded with a third home playoff game for the semi-finals, with a reward of a national championship berth.

Tell me again how a playoff system makes the regular season meaningless? If anything, the BCS has made the regular season less meaningful, as schools now avoid non-conference challenges to improve the odds of making the BCS game since you have to be one of the top two teams.

The other reason why people resist a playoff is that the bowls (and the tradition they represent) won't survive. But there's no reason why the bowls have to disappear; they have bowls in divisions 1-AA and 2. The bowl system will simply exclude the 16 teams that play in the playoffs. The Rose Bowl gets to return to a Big Ten/Pac 12 matchup, just now with the runners up in those conferences (who don't earn at large spots).  All the tradition still exists, and it's still a big deal.  The Big XII runner up gets a Fiesta Bowl berth...which means Nebraska would have ended up in Phoenix the last two seasons.  The top bowls still exist, albeit with a smaller payout and reduced visibility.  The bowls that disappear are the ones that nobody really gives a darn about: the bowl games in Washington and St. Petersburg, for example.

And why is anybody concerned about saving those bowl games anyway? Very few fans attend them, and schools spend far more money playing in them than the bowls pay out, thanks to the one-sided deals that bowls have with conferences. ESPN owns these lower tier bowls for a reason; they are very profitable to operate since the schools, not the bowls take all the risk. In fact,, the authors have determined that several bowl games actually pay schools less (after adjusting for inflation) than they did in 1998.

What the authors really can't explain is why the bowl system still exists, though they point the fingers at the conference commissioners. But really, the finger points toward Jim Delaney of the Big Ten. The best explanation is that while the existing bowl system leaves an incredible amount of money on the table, the revenues of the current system are distributed in a way that benefits the big conferences. Under the BCS system, the Big Ten gets many more times the revenue that the MAC or Sun Belt receives. In a playoff system, they might actually get the same amount...and that's a risk that a conference like the Big Ten is unwilling to make.  Thus, Delaney and Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman are painted as the villains who use the BCS as a weapon to defend the preferential treatment the biggest conferences receive in the current system.

In the end, the authors hope that by shedding light on the deals and exposing the bowl system for what it is, that eventually the opposition to the playoff system will fold like a tent. I'm not sure if that's going to happen soon, as the presidents and conference commissioners are pretty entrenched. So while this makes for a great story, it's not going to change in the forseeable least until the end of the current BCS television deal with ESPN.