Foolish Pursuit: How a Culture of Perfection in NCAA Football is the Best Argument for a Playoff System

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Even though the regular seasons for both NCAA and NFL football are still weeks off, both leagues have been making headlines since the end of their respective seasons.  Unfortunately, some of these headlines haven’t been very positive.  On the NCAA side, investigations into sports agents and the integrity of programs have been daily stories, and the Big XII Conference nearly dissolved before it was saved at the last minute.  On the NFL side, free agency has been exciting but the looming thunderhead cloud of a potential locked-out season in 2011 has caused contract disputes, training camp holdouts, and general apprehension for all who are invested in the National Football League.

Much of this is off-field; I want to look at something in the NCAA game that has been a hot-button topic for years now: the Bowl Championship Series.

Bowl Championship Series Logo

I’m not going to suggest a perfect solution to the “problem” of the BCS, because countless writers have done so before me and just about as many writers have tried to defend the integrity of the BCS for the game.  Those are all fine and good ideas, and I won’t pretend that I have anything new to bring to the table.

The perspective I am taking is the perspective of a college teacher—which is what I do for my job when I’m not writing on this site—and how the “culture of perfection” nurtured by the BCS system fundamentally works against the environment of teaching in those colleges across the country.

In the BCS system, the top ten teams in the country are put into five bowl games at the end of the regular season.  Typically teams ranked #1 and #2 are put into the BCS National Championship Game and whoever wins that game becomes the “National Champion;” these teams are also typically both undefeated on the season.  Sometimes there are undefeated teams that don’t make it into this BCS National Championship Game—the most recent example being last year’s Boise State Broncos—because the seeds are determined by various polls based on strength of schedule.

Boise State QB Kellen Moore

This sense of “fairness” in who gets to compete in the BCS National Championship Game isn’t even the primary issue, for me; more important from my perspective is why we expect college teams to BE perfect in the first place.

As a college instructor, I don’t walk into the classroom expecting students to be perfect.  I don’t have a goal of every student being perfect at the end of the semester.  I have a goal of doing the best I can to teach those students the lessons that need to be learned in the classroom.  This is a goal of all teachers in colleges, regardless of where they teach or what courses they are teaching.  A “perfect” student coming into a classroom probably doesn’t get very much out of the classroom experience because such a “perfect” student wouldn’t have any growing to do, or any learning to experience.  The treatment of student athletes and athletic programs should be no different.

For the sake of statistical analysis, I looked at NCAA National Championship history from 1999-2010 and I also looked at the NFL Super Bowl history from Super Bowl XXXIII (1999) through Super Bowl XLIV (2010).  The numbers are quite incredible to look at by comparison.

NCAA versus NFL Championship Records

Of those 12 NCAA National Champion football teams, there are only FIVE losses.  By comparison to the past 12 NFL Super Bowl Champions, there are FORTY-FOUR (44) losses.  I understand that the NFL season is longer than the NCAA football season, but this means that we have had EIGHT undefeated NCAA National Champions in the past 12 years; the last undefeated NFL Super Bowl Champion was the 1972 Miami Dolphins team.

Of the 12 NCAA National Championship game losing teams, there are only EIGHTEEN (18) losses; NFL Super Bowl losing teams from the past 12 years have FIFTY-ONE (51) losses.  Half (SIX!) of the NCAA National Championship game losing teams were UNDEFEATED GOING INTO THE GAME!  The only team on the winning or losing side of a Super Bowl in the past 12 years to enter the game undefeated was the 2007-08 New England Patriots, who lost Super Bowl XLII to the Giants.

We do not expect perfection out of our PROFESSIONAL football teams.  Losses happen, teams grow because of having experienced the pain of defeat, and teams built to handle a loss typically fare better than the teams who coast.  Why then, in the college game, do we expect teams to be perfect all season long just to get a chance to play in the title game?  Why, when perfection is achieved—again, see Boise State last year—do we deny that team the right to play for the championship?

I suppose at the end of this analysis the message is an old one: the Bowl Championship Series should give way to a full playoff system giving preferential match-ups to the teams with better records while giving the other eligible teams a chance to play above their record and succeed at the end of the season.

Will the “bowl games” at the end of the year lose some of their history and luster?  That may be.  Will regular season performance be somewhat undervalued because a “lesser” team could bust the bracket?  Just ask Patriots fans how much they wish the Giants—a fifth-seeded Wild Card team in 2007-08—had been out instead of having the chance to play spoiler and succeeding.

It is counter-intuitive to expect perfection of NCAA programs and players when the professional game does not require it for competition on the highest level.  Heading into Super Bowl XLIV, the New Orleans Saints were 15-3 and the Indianapolis Colts were 16-2; even though the Saints and Colts “won” their conferences, by the NCAA standards of record perfection, it is likely neither team would have been playing in the championship game.

Some food for thought as we grow closer to the start of football season.

Brian Parker - Born in Maine, a state with no professional sports team, Brian Parker is nonetheless a huge statistics nerd and fan of the NFL and NHL, with some passing interest in the MLB. Regional ties see him as a Patriots and Red Sox fan, though a childhood of watching Patrick Roy tend the net as a Montreal Canadien puts him on the opposite side of his fellow New Englanders for that NHL rivalry. Brian has both an M.A. and a B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from the University of Maine. - Follow him on Twitter here - Visit his personal website

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  • Your argument is exactly why I LOVE the pursuit of perfection. Being perfect is special. Going 11-5 and making a playoff run is not. The pressure on every team to never lose makes the college football season special. No other regular season can say that. In the NFL, you lose your first game, nobody cares. The players smile and hug after the game, call the season a marathon, collect their cheque and go home and try to win game two. Not that way at all in college football.

    Alabama plays Penn State right away. Miami will play Ohio State. Because the majority of NCAA champions are perfect, one loss usually means you’ve blown your shot. Is that fair? Probably not but I don’t care. It’s special. It makes every big game in college football special. There is no such thing as a big game or a special game in the NFL in week 2. No such thing exists in any sport other than College Football and that’s why I actually like the BCS and oppose any playoff system greater than 4 teams.