December 08, 2011
Yes, I'm doing this. No, it's not going to happen anytime soon. No, I don't care.
Earlier this week, I embarked on one of my annual harangues against the BCS as a failed system that consistently asks the wrong question — Who are the No. 1 and No. 2 teams? — about crowning a national champion. In almost every year of the BCS' existence (and in most years in the history of the sport, and every sport), there have clearly been more than two teams deserving of the opportunity, and the dividing lines over which two deserve it and which ones don't are an ongoing embarrassment to the sport. This year is no different.
If I'm going to complain about the powers-that-be posing the wrong question, though, I should also have the guts to propose a solution that asks the right question: What is the most effective way to crown a viable champion? Obviously, as every other team sport on the planet recognized a long time ago — including college football below the Division I-A/FBS level — the answer is a playoff. That covers almost any kind of playoff that could conceivably be implemented, from a four-team "Plus One" to a 16-team bonanza and everything in between.
My suggestion, first outlined in March, falls somewhere in between:
The ultimate goal of any playoff is to crown an undisputed champion on the field, with as little influence as possible from the kind of arbitrary opinion polls that have lorded over college football for the past 75 years. The sport has too many teams playing too few games against too wildly varying levels of competition to eliminate some kind of external filter — no one believes all 10-2 seasons are created equal — but its influence can at least be scaled back. My system aims to fulfill the following priorities, in order:
1. To determine an undisputed champion on the field.
2. To allow reasonable access to every deserving team, regardless of its history or conference affiliation, based on its merit in a given season.
3. To impose a higher bar for entry to limit access to undeserving teams that threaten to water down the field.
4. To propose a system that is logistically and politically feasible, and could conceivably exist in the real world with as little disruption to the existing structure and traditions as possible.
Residual Benefits (Not Goals).
• Generating more interest or "excitement."
• Increasing revenues.
• Creating more access for the "Have Nots."
The fact that a playoff would generate more interest and excitement, increase revenues and create more access for the "Have Nots" is another selling point. But it's purely coincidental to the goal of settling a championship on the field.
• Ten teams, selected by a committee and seeded according to final BCS standings. Limit two teams per conference.
• Update from the previous proposal: No automatic bids for conference champions, from any conference. The BCS now appears likely to be doing away with auto bids itself at the earliest available opportunity. The system may prioritize conference championships (see below) but isn't beholden to taking, say, unranked UConn out of the Big East.
• Four rounds, consisting of nine games. The first round consists of four teams in two games staged the second weekend in December. The other six teams receive byes into the second round on the third weekend in December.
• Winners of the first two games advance to play the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams in the second round. The other four teams with first-round byes play one another. Second-round winners advance to the semifinals.
• No intra-conference rematches until the championship game.
• Important: Semifinals are hosted in current BCS bowl locations on Jan. 1, allowing both a week off for Christmas and a full-fledged bowl experience leading up to the games. All bowls can continue to operate exactly as they do now, with the option to select teams that lost in the first two rounds of the playoffs. If the Rose Bowl is a semifinal game, it remains the Rose Bowl, with the week in Southern California and the parade and banquets and financially crippling hotel obligations and everything that currently comes with playing in the Rose Bowl. Ditto the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls.
The only difference is that the winners of the bowls designated as semifinals (determined on a rotating basis) will move on to play for the national championship.
In this case, I am the committee. The seedings are basically in line with the final BCS standings, with a few adjustments for the sake of prioritizing conference championships:
• No. 5 Oregon earns a home game over No. 4 Stanford in the second round because Oregon won the Pac-12 championship. (Stanford lost the head-to-head tiebreaker.)
• No. 10 Wisconsin earns a first-round bye over No. 7 Boise State because Wisconsin won the Big Ten championship. (Boise was runner-up to TCU in the Mountain West.)
• No. 15 Clemson is in the field over No. 13 Michigan because Clemson won the ACC Championship.
• No. 6 Arkansas, No. 9 South Carolina and No. 12 Baylor are excluded because they all finished behind two other teams in their respective conferences. No automatic bids means the Big East champion, No. 23 West Virginia, is not in the discussion.
This is a bracket that includes every worthy team, prioritizes conference championships, rewards regular season performance via home games and bye weeks and preserves traditional bowl games. The winner is indisputably the national champion. Go.
Questions I Have Not Answered.
• I don't care who runs it. Preferably it would be the NCAA. If not, the current cartel of conferences backing the BCS will be fine.
• The selection committee should be broad-based, including administrators, coaches, players and media — but no bowl or television reps.
• Instead of a fixed bracket, I'm open to arranging the match-ups in each round according to seed, so that the highest-ranked remaining team is always playing the lowest-ranked remaining team, and so on.
• I don't care about the money. Revenues will be through the roof, but the relevant parties can sort out who gets what.
In Which I Anticipate Your Criticism.
It doesn't end the debate about who's in and who's out, it only shifts it. "Ending debate" is not a priority, or even a goal. It's not even possible. At some point there has to be a cutoff, and the teams on the other side of it are going to be upset and probably feel unfairly screwed out of a position. Too bad for them.
Here the cutoff is at ten because a) It aligns with the current BCS structure, and b) It's a reasonable point beyond which adding more teams starts to produce diminishing returns. Debate about the merits of the tenth and eleventh teams is infinitely better than debate about the merits of the second and third teams, for obvious reasons. The first debate has much less influence on the final outcome.
It leaves out smaller conference champions. The tournament fields in basketball and baseball are large enough to accommodate the MAC and Sun Belt champions, regardless of their qualifications relative to the elite teams in the nation. A tournament field in football is not. The bracket is certainly open to smaller conference teams if they meet the criteria (see Boise State), but forcing them in when they're not legitimate candidates to win corrects the bias against smaller schools too far in the opposite direction. It's a waste of time.
The selection process is still arbitrary. Inevitably, yes, to an extent. But no more so than in any other NCAA-run tournament where distinctions have to be drawn over vast differences in strengths of schedule, and the stakes are much lower than they are in the current system, which is arbitrary to a fault. Again, polls and other opinion-driven decisions are unavoidable, but have dramatically less effect on the outcome in an expanded playoff format than they do right now.
Frankly, any playoff pitch that stands the slightest chance of being feasibly implemented is an improvement on a creaky, corrupt bowl system that can barely justify its own expense. The most important step to implementing a playoff is the decision to implement a playoff, whatever its form.