Opinion: The NESCAC Needs a Football Playoff

The 4-4 Mammoth football team will head up to Williamstown, Massachusetts, to take on the Ephs in their annual end-of-season clash next weekend. While every rivalry game has some level of school spirit, this year’s match will hold a little less weight than usual: both teams are out of contention for a NESCAC championship.

Why is it that football is the only NESCAC sport that awards its champion by record alone? Every team’s season culminates in some kind of bracket-style structure, pitting the top teams of that season in competition with one another to see who reigns supreme. Teams that falter early or have a late resurgence can sneak their way into a playoff bracket. Some of the greatest stories in sports — college or otherwise — stem from an underdog counted out early rising to the occasion on the highest stage. The regular season isn’t the end-all-be-all in determining success because once you’ve got a ticket to the dance, anything can happen.

The football team’s season lies in an entirely different context. The NESCAC championship relies on wire-to-wire perfection, or the closest thing to it. The only team with a chance to win the championship this year is Middlebury, sitting at 8-0 atop the standings. Wesleyan, just a game back, cannot possibly win a championship, even with a Middlebury loss and Cardinals win.

This kind of confusion over titles happens often in the NESCAC. Last year’s Amherst football team finished second to Trinity despite holding the same record as the Bantams. Amherst beat Trinity in the 2017 season, but an Amherst loss to Williams in week eight handed the conference title to Trinity. The 2016 season saw Tufts fall short, with their only loss being to an undefeated Trinity team. Nearly every NESCAC football season over the last decade has been decided either with an undefeated season or a tiebreaker scenario in standings. Since 2000, there have been three seasons that ended with co-champions, two of which ended with three-way ties. This simultaneous focus on perfection and the trivializing of championship titles has led to a conference whose teams feel as though their season is officially over after their second loss.

The arguments against playoff expansion are valid ones. The first and most important is health concerns. Football is a dangerous game. The NESCAC wants to keep its student-athletes safe, and exposing players to more snaps in a season increases the risk of injury. The second consideration is an academic one; an extension of the playoffs would encroach on preparations for the end of the semester, asking student-athletes to sacrifice more of their fall semester for their sport.

While the two criticisms of expansion are understandalbe, the NESCAC has already expanded its season in recent years. Beginning with the 2018 season, the NESCAC has grown from eight to nine games in a season, refuting the claim that a season-culminating game would push too deep into the calendar while also putting athletes at an increased risk of injury.

The NESCAC Football Championship should be decided by one game: a championship game. The regular season has to act as a prelude to something. Deciding 11 weeks of hard work, coupled with hours of film and months of off-season preparation, all by standings alone is underwhelming.

The infrastructure already exists for both an eight- and nine-game regular season. If it would be possible for two teams to stay into the first Saturday and Sunday before Thanksgiving break to play a championship game (most playoff systems for other NESCAC sports already encroach on school breaks and time off for student athletes). We can keep the nine-game season and add a 10th final game for two teams. If that ask is out of the question, revert to the eight-game format used two years prior in order to accommodate a season conclusion in game nine.

The two-team playoff allows for more teams to play meaningful games late in the season. As the league currently stands, not a single team can affect the championship outcome in the 2019 NESCAC football season. In a playoff atmosphere, the possibilities are wide open. Wesleyan would be in contention for the second seat in the NESCAC Championship playing a 5-3 Trinity team. Williams sits at 6-2 hosting Amherst this weekend. If a playoff were to exist, this would then mean both Trinity-Wesleyan and Amherst-Williams would have meaningful games this weekend. Having at least three teams in close proximity to one another would allow for better competition and more meaningful football late into the season.

Sports aren’t meant to be practices in perfection. Nobody cares about the 2007 Patriots’ 16-0 season; they care about the 10-6 New York Giants that stormed into the playoffs and left the Patriots with one giant loss. The excitement in sports comes from the potential in something unlikely, this constant possibility that we are about to watch some redemptive narrative arc reach its exciting conclusion. The idea that David can take down Goliath is why we as fans tune in. No kind of Cinderella story or iconic NESCAC football moment is born out of stipulation over standings. Those come from on-field moments in games that mean something.