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July 16, 2013

Taking a look at the new playoff system

All things must come to an end, or so they say. So, too, shall the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) at the end of the 2013 season. As the BCS prepares to give way to the new College Football Playoff, there is a growing concern among some in the media that the new system will be even more exclusive. Given the BCS' track-record of failures, it not surprising that this would come to pass. But the new playoff system calls into question other issues that few people seem to be addressing. FSBulldogs decided to examine some of these issues and what they could mean for Fresno State, the Mountain West, and college football in general.

Methodological Mayhem

College football is a rare gem among the sporting jewels. Not only does college football have the honor of being the only sport where an NCAA champion is not officially recognized, it also happens to be the only NCAA sport decided by something other than a playoff format. Instead, the NCAA has ripped a page right out of James Cameron's Terminator and turned everything over to their version of SkyNet -- the BCS. This version of SkyNet regularly dispatches their model of the T-1000, disguised to look like Kirk Herbstreit, to assassinate smaller college football programs on live television.

Analysts frequently dismiss conferences like the Mountain West as separate but equal. They routinely admit these programs are hard-nosed, tough, and spunky, but then immediately follow that up with some reason as to why that conference should be on the outside looking in. The reasons are always the same. They offer strength of schedule, conference parity, and not being 'tested' as justifications for playing in a consolation bowl and the grand prize of a top five ranking when the season concludes.

The points they make have substance, which is probably why nobody questions the methodology that usually follows this line of thinking. To most of college football, as long as we get the answer we're looking for, how we arrived at that conclusion seems to be irrelevant. The simple fact of the matter here is that it is not irrelevant. The questions being asked are often as important as the answer itself. Many college-trained journalists are guilty of statistical overfitting and poor methodology, but this isn't an indictment of the media, it's an indictment of the problem.

Often times we point to nebulous concepts like 'strength of schedule,' but conveniently ignore the fact that conferences aren't even playing the same schedules, so how can we compare them? As it currently sits, the SEC is two teams away from only having to play half their conference, but we routinely compare them to teams that have to play every team in their conference. Beyond that, some teams will play a 14 game schedule while others will only play 13 games. Yet, the merits of both seasons are often compared to each other as if they have identical properties.

Top 25 polls come out before the season begins and feature a bevy of subjective criteria, but we pass these facts off as objective and quantifiable when we present them. If a team is highly ranked to start the season but finishes poorly, we still refer to them as having been a 'ranked opponent.' They were only ranked because a group of like-minded people decided it was so. Even then, their ranking varied among the people who agreed that they should be ranked. It's a mess.

These over-ranked teams then proceed to pollute the rest of the methodology pool by having a cause and effect on their overall worth. It often leads to comments featuring some variety of '[insert team] would never be able to compete in the [insert conference].' The most recent example of these certainties on display would be the Texas A&M Aggies. Predicted to get hammered by the rest of the conference, the Aggies instead went 11-2, beat the eventual National Champion, and had the Heisman Trophy winner playing quarterback. The same people who told you the Aggies could not compete in the SEC are now talking about their SEC speed.

The entire system is a mess and it's hardly the fault of one conference. We exist in an era where a school from Idaho can play a "neutral site" game over 2,250 miles from home while their counterpart only has to drive five hours. On what planet is a game between Oregon and Louisiana State, played in Dallas, a neutral site? University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale, Arizona would have been a neutral site. Instead the game was played less than a seven hour drive from LSU's campus. Oregon fans, meanwhile, were subject to dysentery, snakebites, and typhoid on their 2,000-plus mile trek. Michigan fans logged twice the miles Alabama fans did when they met last year.

Misnomers, faulty comparisons, and subjective material passed off as fact are a part of the fabric of college football. The mid-major conferences are usually the ones to find themselves on the losing end of these debates. As we mentioned earlier, it's not that the arguments about the depth of the conference is a bad one. The problem, even though it's routinely ignored as part of the taken-for-granted world, is that there is little these teams can do about their conference schedule.

Mid-major access to a major playoff

Conference slates are not something that teams can control. Sure, they can changes conferences, and teams are doing that at a rapid rate right now. But the ever-changing landscape of college football is going to have to settle as some point and there are going to be some unhappy parties when that day comes. New conferences will be formed, allegiances will be made, and lines will be drawn in the sand.

Fortunately, even though it sounds rather grim, the Mountain West is going to be a conference that will have a voice moving forward. There are no guarantees that the conference will look the same when this is all said and done, but its current composition has them firmly entrenched in all discussions. Unfortunately, this is about where their train completes its course.

Historically, the phrase "more access" hasn't really applied when it comes to the mid-majors. Whenever the powers that be have increased access, all they've really done is create another major bowl where they shuttle the Little Sisters of the Poor. Nobody is saying that the Mountain West should automatically get to play for a title, but to dismiss the idea that these teams could compete with college football's elite on the basis of conference mandated play? It's patently foolish.

The new format will feature six bowls as its marquee games: The Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton, and Chick-fil-A. The ACC, B1G, Big XII, Pac-12, and SEC will each have an automatic bid to one of those marquee games. The newly-named American Athletic Conference, the Mountain West, Conference USA, and the Sun Belt will fight amongst each other for one auto-bid for the group. Since only four of the participants in these marquee games will be in the actual playoff, the odds are very much stacked against the mid-majors winning a title in the near future.

What does it all mean, Basil?

While there is no way to know how things will pan out once the playoff beings, there are a number of issues that FSBulldogs will examine moving forward. One article is simply not enough space to cover the scope of these issues and we will be bringing them to you in segments over the coming weeks. The goal is to promote discussion as we enter the next phase of college football.

Some of the topics we will cover are conference realignment, playoff access, and other wholesale changes to the NCAA's administrative processes. Many of these issues are directly related to the Fresno State program. There have been ideas that Fresno State attach themselves to Boise State as conference realignment continues. These and other ideas will be explored in this series.

Every issue is not going to be applicable to every team, and it's important to remember that as these topics are discussed. We recognize that there isn't a panacea for what ails college football. The NCAA isn't under attack from just a single direction. The problems are mounting and this thing is likely to come to a head in the near future. Driving discussion now can only help in the plight to rid college football of its stains.

Every idea isn't going to be a home run. That doesn't mean we should toss out the baby with the bathwater. It is more likely that will we come to some solutions via the open source method than the proprietary stance taken by the NCAA and the BCS.

We don't pretend to know much, but we know the fans deserve better than what they're getting.

Stay tuned to FSBulldogs.com for more in this series and for more updates on the Fresno State 2014 recruiting class.

Josh Webb is a special contributor to FSBulldogs.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @BulldogsTwist.


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