What Does (or Should) It Mean to be Crowned “Champion”?

Given that some form of a college football playoff now seems to be a reality, I am glad the BCS is gone and generally think this move to a playoff is a good thing, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently better about a playoff over any other system. There’s no “right” way to determine what a champion is in almost any sport. In thinking through this I was reminded of a piece I wrote a few years ago on the old site. I’ve included it below:

One way or the other

[A]ll this made me wonder what the designation “National Champion” is supposed to capture, anyway. The baseline that everyone — including the President-elect — seems to push for is a playoff. So we can use that to ask about each view.

Doyel’s argument seems to be that Utah doesn’t deserve to be #1 because —“People, please” — you wouldn’t really expect them to beat Texas, OU, or Florida, right? I mean, just look at all their bare victories over mediocre or mid-level teams. In other words, one could phrase the Doyel view as the “National Champion” is the team that you think is the absolute best team in the sense that, were they to be matched up against any other team in the country, they would always be favored to win.

That can’t be right, though. That’s not at all what a single-elimination playoff gives you. Had the 2007 Giants played the 2007 Patriots the week following the Giants’ Super Bowl win, would Eli and Co. suddenly have become the favorite? I think not. In March Madness, with teams playing every couple of days, do we really think that the better team always wins each game? No, and that’s kind of the point of a playoff.

Indeed, series-based playoff systems, like with MLB or the NBA, are presumably based on the very idea that one-game is not enough to determine the best team. So, if we still think the playoff is the best solution, then it makes no sense to say that Utah can’t be the National Champion just because you think the other teams might actually be better overall. Though, if you subscribe to the Doyel view of “National Champion,” then the BCS probably does a better job for you than a playoff would, because the system is all about crowning the perceived best overall team. Although it lacks the precision of a playoff, it gives you fudge-factors so that Florida’s and Oklahoma’s (though not Texas’s) losses can be overlooked.

So, maybe instead of crowning as National Champion the best team in absolute terms, that distinction is a reward for having the best overall season. I don’t really watch racing, but that seems to be what they go for with their points system. And many BCS defenders say that it makes “every week a playoff,” so the best overall season gets rewarded (let’s just pretend like that is true). Well, a playoff doesn’t give you that either: Exhibit A – the 2007 New England Patriots. They played unbelievably all year, blew everyone out, and then lost. No one — not even them — tried to argue that they should get a share of the Super Bowl via media vote or whatnot.

And that sort of thing happens all the time in playoff systems. It seems like a lot of the recent Super Bowl winners haven’t been that great overall, or certainly were not considered the best teams going into the playoffs. Even when the Colts won the Super Bowl, it was with arguably their worst team in something like four or five years. Luck and circumstance play a huge factor, and again, the playoffs are decided by single, permanently binding, contests.

So what does a playoff give you, and why is it probably a better solution for crowning a National Champion? Let me say first that I think it would be a better system than the current BCS morass. But the advantage the playoff gives you is not anything metaphysically correct. It probably does not crown the best team. And it does not reward the best season (sorry Utah).

It merely gives you relative certitude. It’s not perfect — some clunker teams can be crowned, some historically great teams will get the relative shaft — but, before the season, during the season, and in the playoffs, everyone knows what it takes to be the champion: you must get into the playoffs, and you must win every game once you’re there. The Patriots couldn’t lobby for votes, they couldn’t say that they got jerked around, and they even couldn’t say that they didn’t get their chance. They played and they lost. They were probably better, they might only have had a bad day, but hey, you knew what you were getting into.

Which is really the issue here. No one has any idea what being “National Champion” ought to mean — especially in college football where you have over a hundred D-1 programs and no team can come close to playing all the others. A playoff would simply lay some ground rules people could follow. As it stands, without a playoff, everyone may mount their high horse and argue past each other.

  • JayJayDean

    As a big NASCAR (and obviously football) fan, your allusion to racing caught my eye.  Racing point systems range from – all my opinion – terrible (NASCAR’s, the WORST point system…like BCS-level bad) to pretty good (IndyCar) to superior (Formula 1).  Each series puts a different weight on the value of finishing 1st or 2nd vs. the value of finishing last (or anywhere else).

    I honestly think NASCAR thinks its fans are largely dumb when it comes to the points system.  They also seem, in a BCS-ish way, to feel like controversy = people talking = always good.

  • ric

    i like the bcs. i dont care about the rankings. good teams will usually end up playing good teams and who really cares about crowning a national champion anyway? i mean really, who cares? its college football. its amateur athletics. theyre school kids. the whole point of the bcs is that everybody gets their game and thats their game and its important. who cares if the formula is really that much off (or on)? its modern college football. youre going to have bs. its not even important for posterity sakes to crown some sort of champion so why bother with a playoff? bear bryants teams were great teams and who really cares about a crown? its not pro sports where the point is to be a champion. lets throttle down on the intensity. if we really wanted to help collegiate sports we might want to start by putting it in a safer and easier place and proceeding to engage thusly….just my two cents

  • sunday_silence

    How do you start with the premise that a college playoff is “generally” a better idea than the BCS and it’s “probably a better solution” than the BCS and then say: “There’s no right way to determine who the champion is.”  I mean either you have an opinion and/or a criterion or you dont.

    if you dont have a criterion or an opinion about what the champ. should be than how do you know a playoff is better? The article spends much of its time arguing in circles and then inserting straw man. What is the pt. in bringing up a playoff series or perfection? No one is seriously raising these arguments, they are straw men.

    Maybe the epitome of contradiction is this sentence: “The baseline that everyone seems to push for is a playoff. And we can use that to ask about each view.”
    What? One view is a playoff the other is the BCS, at least those are the two view pts the article discusses. HOw can you take one view pt. and call that the BASELINE!

    SEriously, sports writing in general needs a higher standard. Ref: the Mark Cuban/Skip Bayless debate this week.

  • smartfootball

    Some of the premises were the result of the original point of the article; as the first paragraph says, this piece was originally written several years ago. The point was to tease out which of the many based upon which champions are mostly chosen that we actually care about and then to discuss which format leads you there.  

    As I see it, there are three main possible criteria for choosing a champion: “best season,” “best team,” and “most deserving.” The BCS made nods towards both of the first two criteria but wound up incoherent, especially since it was then settled by a one game playoff. The piece above was meant to demonstrate that playoffs say very little about crowning the best team or best season. The best season clearly goes out the window in a single elimination tourney, and the best team — in terms of quality of the team, i.e. is likely to beat everyone on their schedule — is only, say, 70% likely to win all of their games. That’s pretty dominant but also far from certain. 

    Playoffs are a way to try to crown the “most deserving,” simply because they are usually set up to reward good seasons (bye weeks, home field advantage, facing lower seeds early on), but also the idea that it’s an accepted way to decide the champion and good teams should rise up in the crucible of a tough playoff. But these aren’t really logical arguments; they may be correct, but they are more about our value judgments — “most deserving” isn’t as objective as “best season” or even “best team” (for the latter Vegas odds may be an imperfect but best approximation), but playoffs are just one possible way to determine what team is most deserving. It’s a time-tested, accepted way, but it’s just one way. I said I was happy with it over the BCS because the BCS was incoherent, but the playoffs just kind of are what they are. This will be relevant when the discussion of “bracket creep” starts in.

  • Tom
  • Chris, good stuff.  The previous system was flawed with the preseason polls and the lack of transparency throughout the process.  The proposed system is flawed with the introduction of a “selection committee” with its built-in biases.  I only hope that the powers-that-be can do this in a way that doesn’t ruin the absolutely best regular season in sports with the tradition, rivalries, and fun of college football.

  • salt_bagel

    I’m not sure I agree with your use of the word “objective”. From a philosophical standpoint, you would love to decide a championship based on “best team”, but you can’t do it. That is, there is probably a true answer to those questions (or at least most of us believe there is a true answer), but measuring teams against those criteria must involve some level of subjectivity, and there will always be a chance of error. We need something more practical.

    It’s all about using one measurement as a proxy for something else you can’t measure as easily. “Best team” is kind of the Platonic ideal, and is what everyone *really* wants to measure, but it’s also the hardest to measure objectively. Your best hope is to have a system whereby the team with the “best season” must unmistakably be the “best team”. “Best season” is a proxy for “best team”. This is why we play seasons in the first place. But then you need to be sure you can measure “best season” correctly, and that’s also hard. 

    If you had a sport where all the teams could play round robin, multiple times both at home and on the road, then the accumulation of on-field results would do a good job of determining the best team. Of course, this is how it’s done in most soccer leagues, and nobody complains that much because it’s relatively fair, and importantly, it’s still decided *on the field*. European leagues generally have their season champ and then their cup champ, but the season champ is always the more prestigious title, and rightfully so.

    If you have too many teams for a true round robin format (as in college football and college hoops), it’s entirely logical to use the regular season to separate out the good from the bad, and then pool those teams together to determine the “best of the good”. Probably the fairest way to do that would be to hold a whole second season where these playoff-caliber teams could do a round robin amongst themselves (Champions League comes closest to this). But that would take too long, so we resort to a single elimination playoff, which is an awful way of determining the “best team”, but is maybe the best practical solution given our constraints. 

    But underlying all this is the idea that having a “best team” can only exist in terms of real world performance. There has to be a winner and a loser, and the best team does not always win, but there is no best team without a game. We seem to inherently know this, and we feel uncomfortable whenever we try to decide a best team any other way. This I think is part of the discomfort of the BCS. If you’re going to pick two teams in such a subjective way, why not just pick one? A real contest is always the better way, and even though it’s not totally fair, we *respect* the contest on a deep level of our brains, because it’s the whole point of sport. 

    You can take the same argument from the season level and reduce it down to the level of a single game, and it remains the same. Again, in soccer (sorry for the constant soccer analogies), where it’s possible, even common, to completely dominate a game but still draw (or even lose): Whenever a game is over, the announcers will immediately talk about whether the result was “deserved”. We do this in all sports, but in soccer more than others. They may say, “Team X had the better of it, but only managed a draw.” The subtext to that discussion is, “Team X may be better, but that only matters in an abstract sense, because this is what happened today.” We accept that discussion and are comfortable with it, so we ask for the same when it comes to determining a season champ.

  • stan brown

    It’s never about finding the best team or the most deserving team.  Look at MLB.  Clearly, the best way to determine a league champ is a 162 game round robin schedule.  With a World Series, at least one of those teams is champ.  Even then, you get the Pirates over the Yanks in 7 in 1960.  But MLB keeps adding more teams to the playoff mix.  Why?  Fans like it and it makes more money.  Best and deserving have nothing to do with it.

    The BCS was never intended to be anything more than an improvement over the prior system.  And it was undoubtedly a tremendous improvement.  The unfortunate part of the BCS was that no one was willing to defend it, even against some really stupid attacks.  It wasn’t perfect, but most of the changes made it worse, not better.  The computers were a recognition that the polls, both coaches and writers, were a horrible combination of ignorance (coaches never watched many other games), favoritism, and stupidity.  But who was willing to go on tv and point out that coaches were ignorant, writers stupid, and both guilty of rampant bias?

    Teams will complain about getting left out of 4 just as teams complain about being left out of 2 and NCAA hoops teams complain about getting left out of 64, 65, 68.  And just like in hoops, all close calls will be decided by the committee in terms of maximizing revenue (short term).

  • Teams complain about being left out of the field of 64-68, but nobody thinks that a team that has been left out would have had any shot of being the best team.

    That kind of criticism is clearly not the same when you only have 2 teams included in the championship game.  If you have three undefeated teams from three major conferences, under the 2-team system, it’s clear that one of the three teams is left out for no good reason.

    It’s much less likely to have this problem with a 4-team playoff.  In the current state of college football, it’s pretty clear that some of the BCS conferences are much weaker than others, and this is a problem that’s going to get worse.  If you take the SEC champion, the Big 12 (really 10) champion, the Big 10 (really 12) champion, and a fourth team either from the Pac 10, SEC, or wildcard from somewhere else, you’ve pretty much nailed down 99% of the argument for “best team.”  

  • Xon Hostetter

    One thing about the hoops tournament, though, is that I think many people really do think that the bubble teams have a chance to win if they get in. Not a great chance, but a chance. 

    Villanova won it all as an 8 seed once. George Mason or whoever it was made it to the final four as a 12 seed a few years ago, right? 

    And many bubble teams (especially from major conferences), if they do get in, get seeded at the 8 spot or so. So even the bubble teams often do, it stands to reason, have a *chance* to win. 

    People make this comparison all the time b/w only having 4 teams vs. having 64/8 teams, but it seems like more or less the same kind of situation really. I understand that at a larger level society doesn’t feel as sorry for a jilted team when the field is bigger, but that’s really just a point about how subjective this all is, isn’t it? Designing the post-season with an aim to not make people upset is a bit different than changing it because you honestly think it could be improved.