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Why Should Top Seeded Playoff Teams Get A Bye?

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Jeff Fisher thinks giving the top seeds in the playoffs a bye is a bad idea. He also thinks that not giving them a bye is a bad idea. Jeff Fisher thinks all ideas are bad ideas.
Jeff Fisher thinks giving the top seeds in the playoffs a bye is a bad idea. He also thinks that not giving them a bye is a bad idea. Jeff Fisher thinks all ideas are bad ideas.

Ah, another day where college football pushes me toward some random NFL tangent.

So today, the SEC and Big XII agreed to a southern-fried Rose Bowl where their respective conference champions would meet for all the, uh, bluebonnets? Sure, it's largely a move to be able to negotiate with the Big Ten whose reluctance to advance the discussions on a potential college football playoff relies entirely on their steadfast commitment to the actual Rose Bowl. To be fair, steadfast commitment is an understatement. And the agreement between the SEC and Big XII noted that should college football eventually move to a playoff format, the bowl game will only include the conference champions if neither team makes the playoffs...which is pretty much a 0% possibility.

As I was thinking about that last point, I started thinking about seeding in general. In doing so, I wondered how strong the top seeds in college football would be compared to their competition. Like the NFL, college football enjoys a great deal of parity. Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, for T. Boone Pickens' sake (author's note: that's intended to be read as one would read "for God's sake", not as in the actual sake of Mr. Pickens). But unlike the NFL, the top seeds wouldn't receive a bye in the first round of their playoffs; and no, I wasn't concerned with the fact that it's more or less impossible in a four-team playoff.

Ignoring the semantics, the best teams in college football would have to play in the first round of their playoffs, just like March Madness (those play-in games fall under that "semantics" umbrella), just like every major sport except for the NFL.

On its face, providing top seeds with a bye suggests their regular season successes earn them protection from losing in the first round of the playoffs.

But how often does that happen? And what impact does the bye have in the NFL Playoffs?

Answers for all major sports and college basketball after the jump.

So first, let's review the playoff populations the entrants:

League Playoff Teams Total Teams % of League in Playoffs
NFL 12 32 37.5%
MLB 8 30 26.7%*
NBA 16 30 53.3%
NHL 16 30 53.3%
NCAAB 64† 344† 18.6%

*MLB's conferences aren't populated symmetrically, so the percentage is a bit misleading. The AL has 14 teams, so 28.6% of the league is represented in the playoffs, while the NFL has 16 teams so that rate is 25%.

A couple points. There were actually 347 teams in D1 last year if you consider the three independent schools...but that's changing next year. And probably the year after that. If you add in those three, it's 18.4%. Additionally, 68 actually teams participated in the tournament with the four play-in games. They're dumb, because they make the bracket look unpretty. So if you go off the 68-school number, it's a 19.8% of D1 in the tourney, 19.6% if you count the independents.

So there's that. I always forget how many college basketball teams there are. That aside, I wanted to compare the numbers just to set a baseline for the competitive equality of each league. A 16 seed in the basketball tourney has never beaten a 1 seed simply because the parity isn't strong enough to provide competitive equality that deep, frmo 1-4 to 61-64. And it's happened before in the other sports because, well there aren't even 64 professional teams and you still get a gulf between the best and the worst.

But how does that gulf bear out in the playoffs when the worst of the worst have been sent home to watch the best of the best play the worst of the best (or is it the best of the worst? Who cares. The movie was better.)?

To get a sense of that, let's compare top seed performance in the first and second rounds of each playoff from the last decade (bearing in mind that the NFL's top seeds don't play in the first round and that baseball's playoffs are only 3 rounds long):

League # of Top Seeds (# of Playoff Teams)
% of Playoff Pop. # of Rounds Round 1 Wins-Losses Round 1 Win% Round 2 Wins-Losses Round 2 Win%
NFL 2 (12) 16.67% 4 N/A N/A 12-8 .600
MLB 2 (8) 25% 3 11-9 .555 5-6 .455
NBA 2 (16) 12.5% 4 18-2 .900 16-2 .889
NHL* 2 (16) 12.5% 4 16-4 .800 10-6 .625
NCAAB 4 (64) 6.25% 6 40-0 1.000 36-4 .900

* Since the entire 2004-05 NHL season including the 2005 Stanley Cup playoffs were locked out, I threw in the 2000-01 season to provide a decade of data for the NHL.

So what to make of this?

First, David Stern hates parity. For a league that allows more than half of its league into the playoffs, you'd expect more upsets in the second round all things normal. But the NBA isn't normal. It's very, very top heavy.

With March Madness, because every conference champion makes it into the tournament, you've got some really bad basketball teams to weed out through the first two rounds or so. But when it doesn't happen, it makes for spectacularly entertaining drama (see: Duke-Lehigh and Missouri-Norfolk St.). Still, those are anomalies. The large majority of top seeds handle their business.

Unlike the NBA, the NHL enjoys a great deal of parity. Just two years ago, a 7 seed made it to the finals.

Baseball, like the NBA, enjoys wonderful parity at the top. The difference is, they cut out the mediocre teams from the playoffs entirely. In a way, baseball's wild card round is analogous to the NBA's Conference Finals. Two seasons ago, you had the lowest seed in the NFC (the Packers) win the Super Bowl and the lowest seed in the AFC (the Jets) make the Conference Championship.

Where does that leave the NFL? There's obvious parity; the top seed from each conference won just 60% of their games in the divisional round. On the other hand, the bottom two seeds from both conferences lost in the wild card round this past season, so it's not pure insanity.

That being the case, why not get rid of the bye? Why not add two more teams to the playoff mix, and just let the top seed play the eight seed in round one?

There's already parity. In the last two years, #1 seeds from both conferences are just 1-3 in the divisional round. In the last four, they're 3-5. Given that as the case, it's hard to argue that top teams really "deserve" a bye.

And with divisional winners automatically getting a higher seed and home field over what some might argue are better wild card teams (see: 2010 Seahawks and Saints), the seeding structure is already somewhat imperfect.

So what's to lose?