It is during this time of year that talking heads in the media and fans on message boards across the county debate the logic and appropriateness of the college bowl system.
There have been hundreds of articles written debating the merit of the current bowl system as opposed to a college playoff similar to Division I-AA and below. You know the debate like the back of your hand. You also have decided to stand on one side of the fence or the other on this topic based on the impact you think the playoffs would have on college football.
So instead of trying to convince you how the bowl system is better than a playoff from a theoretical standpoint, I will spend my time in this article trying to help you visualize what impact a true sixteen team playoff would have on Clemson’s football program. I believe the bowl system is better for Clemson than a playoff would be.
My debate will center on a sixteen team playoff similar to Division I-AA. This vision is based on a playoff system with no additional bowl games for teams not included in that playoff. Most agree that the current bowl system cannot exist if we go to a true sixteen team playoff, although I suppose that is a debatable point for those interested in running the financial numbers.
Let’s begin by taking an historical look at which Clemson teams in the past 25 years would have been eligible for the playoff system if we assume the sixteen team playoff and the poll structure as it was during those years with the AP and UPI as the defining polls.
We begin by looking at the teams that would have earned a spot in the playoffs. The 1981 National Championship team most certainly would have been in the playoffs, entering as the #1 seed.
Because of probation, the 1982, 1983, and 1984 teams would not have been eligible for the playoffs, although the 1982 and 1983 teams would more than likely have finished in the top sixteen in the polls if probation were not an issue.
The 1987 team would have squeaked into the playoffs as a #14 seed in a year where Miami won the Mythical National Championship. The 1988 team would have earned a playoff berth as a #9 seed in a year that Notre Dame won the Mythical National Championship. The 1989 team would have entered the playoffs as a #14 seed and Miami won the MNC. The 1990 team would have entered the playoffs as #14 seed the year that Colorado and Georgia Tech shared the MNC. The 1991 team would have entered as a #13 seed the year Miami and Washington shared the MNC. And finally, the 2000 team would have entered as a #16 seed the year Oklahoma won the MNC.
All of those teams except the 1991 team and the 2000 team would have had a legitimate shot to make some noise in the playoffs. The ’91 team was spanked by California in the Citrus Bowl and the 2000 team was beaten by Virginia Tech soundly in the Gator Bowl. But the 1987, 1988, 1989, and 1990 teams were playing good enough that they may have competed for another National Championship had a playoff system been in place.
Now let’s take a look at the good Clemson teams that would not have made the playoffs and would have been deprived of the opportunity to play in a bowl. The 1986 team would have missed the playoffs and would not have played Stanford in the Gator Bowl. The 1993 team would not be playoff eligible and would not have played Kentucky in the Peach Bowl. The 1995 team would not have been playoff caliber and would not have played Syracuse in the Gator Bowl (ok, maybe that would have been a good thing!). The 1996, 1997, 1999, and 2003 teams would not have played in the Peach Bowl. The 2001 and 2002 teams would not have qualified for the playoffs and would be sitting at home during the holidays. And this year’s team would be on the outside looking in, watching the playoffs from home.
From a statistical standpoint, only seven Clemson teams since 1980 would have qualified for a sixteen team playoff. Only one Clemson team (2000) would have qualified in the past 15 years. Using that information, Clemson teams have only been one of the top sixteen teams in the country (on average) once every four years since 1980.
Furthermore, Clemson would have only been better than a #13 seed twice (1981 and 1988).
Would the Tigers have run the table in any of those years that they were in the playoffs? We can only guess. However, other than 1981, Clemson would have been major underdogs considering their national rankings at the time the playoffs would have begun. While Clemson won some impressive bowl games against Penn State, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Illinois during the magical stretch of bowl games in the late 80’s, none of those teams were highly ranked at seasons end. Penn State did not finish ranked at all in 1987, Oklahoma finished 14th in 1988, West Virginia finished 21st in 1990, and Illinois finished 24th in 1991.
Those were all marquee bowl wins against big name opponents. But none of those teams were elite that year and certainly not as good as the teams Clemson would have played in a sixteen team playoff.
Another point to consider is the ramifications of finishing the season with a win in a bowl game. Of the Clemson teams that would have qualified for a spot in the playoffs, how many would have eventually ended the season with a loss at some point in the playoffs? While we can only speculate on that, we know the bowls those Clemson teams played in and won offered great memories and a lasting recruiting impact on the program.
Try to imagine Clemson not ending a season by beating Stanford, West Virginia, and Tennessee in the Gator Bowl, Penn State and Oklahoma in the Citrus Bowl, and Illinois in the Hall of Fame Bowl. None of those games would have marked the magical end to a season if the bowls did not exist in their current capacity.
Keep the Bowls
Bowls offer a great reward for players. Players get perks, gifts, money for travel, and trips to places many have never been before. Fans get an excuse to travel and support their team. In a given year, there are only a handful of teams that truly deserve a crack at the National Championship. With the new conference alignments, the road to a Conference Championship game gives teams a definitive goal that will earn them the right to play in a BCS bowl game and possibly for a National Championship.
Average teams have no business playing in a playoff. But average teams can make the most out of a bowl trip. Many argue that bowl games match up 6-5 or 7-4 teams in games that nobody cares about. But the regular season is littered with games involving teams with poor records. And we watch it all, soaking up every minute that we can find time to see.
In mid January, we will all miss college football. In July we will be begging for it. The bowls offer us one last time to get a buffet of football over a short period of time. Most of us won’t watch it all, but we will watch. What can be bad about that?
Clemson is a good football program. For a handful of years in the late 1980’s, Clemson was a very good football program. But Clemson’s football program has received way more benefit from the bowl system in its current format than it ever would in a playoff.
In a playoff, you better win it all or you will be forgotten. With the bowls, you can create a lasting impression to cap a season. For teams that get a raw deal in the BCS, a playoff would help right a wrong. But how many teams get a raw deal each year? One or two at most. This year, the BCS happened to work a year after Auburn got a raw deal. A playoff would have certainly helped Auburn last year and the Tigers may have eventually proved their worth by winning a National Championship.
But is helping one or two teams left out of the Mythical National Championship game in order to validate their season worth disrupting what could be a positive experience for 54 other teams?
I think not.
And finally, what happens if you do have that magical run during the regular season but you don’t win in a playoff? What if Clemson would have entered the 1981 playoffs as the #1 seed, only to be upset in the 2nd round to finish the season as one of the 15 losers? The playoffs could have robbed us of the greatest shining moment in our program’s history.
Keep the bowls as they are because the bowls help Clemson way more than they hurt. Keep the bowls because it gives teams that are not going to win a National Championship that year something to hang their hat on. And considering that Clemson has won a grand total of one National Championship in its 100+ year history, it is safe to say that going to bowl games every year is a pretty reasonable expectation.
Way more reasonable than finishing in the top sixteen and winning a playoff tournament.