The Cardinal women’s basketball team hasn’t dropped a game in either the Pac-10 conference or its end-of-season tournament since January 2009 (a narrow loss at Berkeley). In comparison, none of the Pac-10 men’s basketball teams has managed to come close to a perfect record over the same time period. Does this mean: a) the Stanford women’s team is freakishly good; or b) the standard of play in the women’s conference is worse (and thus one team can more easily dominate)?
The honest answer to that question is probably halfway between the two: the Card is clearly a very talented team, but the other teams in the conference are not able to perform consistently at an equal level. Lack of enough week-to-week competition may even have hurt Stanford’s aspirations in March and April, when it has perhaps not been fully prepared for the brick wall of UConn for two years running, despite the upset last December. Maybe a few losses earlier in the season would have made some difference.
Now consider football. Oregon finished this year with a perfect record and its second consecutive Pac-10 championship. In that time, the only team to actually knock off the Ducks in conference play was last year’s Cardinal. Looking further afield, before the season-ending bowl games, three of this year’s teams had perfect records, and in the year before, five teams could claim that honor. So, is college football competitive? Were those perfect teams truly special, or did they just play weak opponents?
I wouldn’t be the first person to question the legitimacy of the BCS Bowl system to wonder how to decide which unblemished team should get to play for a national championship but it’s not just the perfect teams that could benefit from a fair playoff system. In this year’s NFL regular season, not a single team can claim to have won every game they played. The New England Patriots came closest with 14 wins and two losses, and the last time anyone achieved such perfection, it was the Patriots again, back in 2007. The Green Bay Packers, Super Bowl XLV champions, were tied for eighth in their regular season results at 10-6. Any college team with the same results as this year’s best professional teams would not even have figured in the running for the big prize.
It does seem strange that we demand so much more from college students. The pros do play a few more games in the regular season, 16 compared to about 13, but that’s their job. They are paid a lot of money not to lose. They don’t have to worry about taking classes they can just train and play.
Finishing a season unbeaten should be no mean feat. Arsenal achieved this in 2004-05 to become only the second ever ‘Invincible’ team in the top-flight of English soccer. The other was Preston North End in 1888-89. The best thing that a playoff system might do would be to make the perfect season rare again. At most, just one Division I school would be able to achieve this each year (the national champions), but even that wouldn’t be assured. There would be powerful one- and two-loss teams around the league that would certainly not be pushovers, and tricky unexpected challenges from all the conferences. There might even be the chance for a rematch, and some serious payback, from a defeat earlier in the season. The few teams that did achieve this would etch their names not just in school history, but also in national lore.
What the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team achieved over the last few years was almost unbelievable. It remained unbeaten for over two entire seasons, recording back-to-back national championships with a 90-game winning streak that took it past the high water mark for any winning streaks in the sport, set by John Wooden’s legendary UCLA men’s team in the 1970s. By looking just at recent regular season records, there would seem to be little in common between UConn and Stanford, the team whose wins bookend that incredible streak. But that comparison would do neither justice. The Cardinal was clearly a great team over that stretch, but the Huskies were a phenomenon, setting records that may never be beaten. The fact that it was only UConn that kept Stanford from writing its own little piece of history in this era, and that the Huskies still have only lost to one team in three years, says a lot about both.
Playoffs aren’t just needed to make the BCS system fair, but to separate the good teams from the truly legendary.