One of my favorite moments in sports is, against all odds, the "deuce" in tennis. Not for the physical act of hitting a fluorescent ball over a net, which I find about as exciting as a city zoning meeting, but for the competitive purity of the concept. You can't win the game until you've won it decisively, by two points — no flukes, no games determined by a bad call or a single sketchy bounce. A one-point difference may be a lucky coincidence. A two-point difference leaves no doubt.
Not only is that kind of certainty practically impossible in almost any other sport; in practice, it's often directly contradicted, sometimes in the most fundamental, big-picture ways. Which is how, as an unabashed playoff advocate in a sport that is finally on the verge of making a playoff a reality, I find myself once again grappling with the problem of the thoroughly mediocre New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
Yes, I do mean problem, from the perspective of ever getting a functional playoff up and running on the college level. The BCS and its apologists have trotted out a chorus line of excuses over the years for keeping an FBS playoff at bay — it makes the season too long, it interferes with finals, it requires too much travel, etc. — all of them easily refuted by the ongoing success of playoffs in literally every other team sport on every level of American athletics, including college football on the FCS, Division II and Division III levels. Only one defense has managed to stick: The notion that, when there is no playoff after the regular season, the regular season itself is a playoff. At this point, the BCS' existence — or at least its ability to justify its existence — is so dependent on this idea that it's adopted the cliché "Every Game Counts" as a kind of unofficial creed.
It's a patently ridiculous creed, as proven (again) by the mulligan Alabama was just granted after losing its winner-take-all showdown against LSU last November. (To be clear, it would have been equally ridiculous if the mulligan had been granted to Oklahoma State after its loss at Iowa State, the point being that a mulligan for anyone obviously refutes the claim that "every game counts.") But for the second time in five years, the New York Giants' presence in the Super Bowl is an anti-playoff argument incarnate: Here is a 9-7 mediocrity that spent the entire regular season barely treading water, was outscored over the course of the season and finished behind 28 percent of the league in terms of final record. And this is your potential champion?
Even if New York knocks off New England, it will finish the season with a lower winning percentage (.650) than six other teams — New England, Green Bay, New Orleans, San Francisco, Baltimore and Pittsburgh — that happened to suffer one of their rare losses at the wrong point on the calendar. In the context of a 16-game schedule, the gap between New York at 9-7 and the top three teams in the NFC (all of which beat New York head-to-head in the regular season, en route to finishing 13-3 or better) was enormous.
But of course, thanks to the inviolable sanctity of the playoffs, the only streak that matters in the end is the Giants' three-game run in January. So here they are, and almost no one blinks. What a story!
Perhaps the "problem" here is not so obvious — after all, I'm for playoffs, right? So shouldn't I just shut up, admit that wow, yeah, the Giants are a pretty great story and take solace in the fact that the system worked? I mean, the system always works, doesn't it? Isn't the point to settle it on the field? Well, it's settled.
And I admit, conveniently rhetorical voice in my head, compared to the alternatives, you have a point. It's just that I can't help thinking that it had already been settled on the field over the previous four months. And the Giants came up short.
In fact, they're the fourth Super Bowl team in the last five years that got there by "getting hot" on the heels of a meh regular season, following the '07 Giants, '08 Cardinals and '10 Packers — all of which made it to the championship round after finishing 10-6 or worse, and two of which wound up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. It's not an anomaly. It happens all the time. And every time, the regular season means a little bit less.
So when playoff opponents in college football chant "Every Game Counts," this is what they mean: The 9-7 New York Giants (or their campus equivalent, in the event of an FBS playoff) have not advanced a legitimate claim on a championship, did not deserve the opportunity they have now taken advantage of and threaten to cheapen the concept of a championship season. To which I have to say, as an advocate of level playing fields and the virtues of competition: They're right. It's thoroughly frustrating to glorify teams for "getting hot" at the expense of superior outfits that have consistently outperformed them on the whole, effectively overturning three or four months of results in three or four weeks.
In the NFL, that may be inevitable. In college football, it is not. And I also have to say, as a playoff advocate in the college game: It can't happen here. At least, it can't if we don't let it.
In the first place, it would be impossible for the college football equivalent of a 9-7 NFL team to make the cut in any logistically feasible bracket, even one as large as 16 teams. Compare to the NFL, where more than a third of the league qualifies for the playoffs every year (a much lower number than in the NBA and NHL, which admit a majority), an eight-team playoff in college football would only include 6.5 percent of current FBS programs (8 of 123), the cream of the crop by any standard; a 12-team playoff would include 9.8 percent, still restricting the field to the elite. My pet plan favors a 10-team setup, but the specific number is frankly semantic: A field that included the college football equivalent of a 9-7 NFL team would have to consist of at least 46 teams, a logistical impossibility. And because it would be exceedingly difficult for any college team to make an 8, 10, 12 or 16-team field with more than two losses — or even with only two losses, in an 8 or 10-team field — the gap between the top of the bracket and the bottom would be a) Negligible, and b) Easily closed if the team on the bottom actually won the tournament.
In other words, the format should be (and would be) structured so that there is no doubt that the winner of the playoff is the most accomplished team as a result of winning the playoff. That means (as opposed to the BCS) setting the bar low enough to allow every deserving candidate a legitimate opportunity, but also (as opposed to the NFL, or the NCAA basketball tournament) setting it high enough that only the deserving candidates can clear it. It means being inclusive to generate a legitimate, competitive field, and exclusive enough to avoid diminishing returns. As championship credentials go, a 9-7 team that was outscored in the regular season is about as diminished as they come.
Just something to keep in mind as the BCS begins its evolution into a bona fide playoff (or "Plus One," whatever the favored term) over the next few years, when the answers to big questions — What do we want from a playoff? What do we expect from a champion? — will have a real impact on the shape of the system going forward. Something else to remember: No matter how large it gets or how diminished the participants, a bona fide playoff is always preferable to awarding championships by opinion poll.