Before we get to how foolish it would be to be to limit a four-team college football playoff to conference champions only, it's worth noting that just about everything said (both public and private) by the commissioners brooding over the future of the postseason has been encouraging.
Yes, a playoff almost certainly is coming. Four teams is the likely move, a reasonable step forward. The bowl lobby is crying, but the powers-that-be want to do what's best for the sport, for the players and coaches that want competition, for the fans who demand better.
Oh, and it'll make a ton more money, of course.
So they deserve credit for that.
The devil is in the details, they keep saying, but it actually isn't much of a devil. As long as petty interests don't overwhelm the process, the best option for a four-team playoff is sitting there for the taking.
A small selection committee selects the top four teams. The top two seeds get semifinal home games. The title game is bid out to any city in America that can properly hold it. The entire tournament is held over the holidays, with the championship game as close to Jan. 1 as possible.
Done and done.
If this is successful (and it will be), then future generations of college football leaders can easily expand it. If it isn't, they won't. There is no need to bow to bowl executives concerned about the future of their $700,000 salaries and try to prohibit future growth. Just trust the market.
With this simple football final four, the colleges control their championship, they stop outsourcing their most valuable games to third-party bowl committees/golfing buddies, great on-campus environments come back into play, only the truly remarkable regular season is rewarded, the bowl system continues on as a reasonable alternative for everyone else, anti-trust concerns are alleviated and perhaps teams are even rewarded for strong non-conference scheduling, which might encourage better regular seasons.
We can go on. Obviously, through the years, we have.
Only here come some public comments, first by former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer and later echoed by current Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, that perhaps the four-team field should be made up of conference champions only.
Kramer's support of this wasn't surprising (and he's recently amended it to the three conference champs who are the most highly ranked and one wild card, which could be a conference champion). Scott's was.
Kramer is beyond old school. Smart, good guy, but he's been retired for nearly a decade. Scott is supposed to be the cutting-edge leader with an overwhelming amount of common sense.
"So much of the passion of a move to a playoff is to see it earned on the field," Scott told the New York Times. "What more clear way to have intellectual consistency with the idea of a playoff than to earn it as a conference champion. It would de-emphasize the highly subjective polls that are based on a coach and media voting and a few computers."
Scott's instincts aren't completely off; deemphasizing flawed, groupthink-powered polls and mathematically unsound computer formulas is an admirable goal. The only reason polls (25 teams deep) are used is because college football still believes there was validity to something invented by some sportswriters in the 1930s.
It was a just a promotional tool then (try comparing teams in the pre-TV era). It should've remained that way. It never should've been used on an official level.
The computers were brought in to partially take subjectivity out of the equation. The formulas were bastardized, however, by PC decisions such prohibiting margin of victory.
At its core, this is the intellectual inconsistency that plagues college football, one that Scott reasonably wants to escape.
The problem is obvious: Rewarding only conference champs would be intellectually consistent only if all conferences were competitively consistent.
They aren't even close to that. Plus they shift on an annual basis. Decades and decades of history in every sport says that there are years the second-best team in one conference or division is superior to a champion of another conference or division.
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It's simply common sense to maintain access to the championship for that occasion. Even the backward BCS knew that – it didn't disqualify eventual champion Alabama this past season because it didn't win the SEC West. There is also the fact that Notre Dame and BYU are independents and need some access to the tournament.
Under an all-conference-champions requirement (the top four conference champions using the BCS formula), this past season's final four would've featured No. 1 LSU, No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 5 Oregon and No. 10 Wisconsin.
That doesn't make any sense at all.
Scott has one thing right: Rewarding conference champions with a spot in the playoff would increase the value of the regular season. We've argued that for years. The Big Ten, for one, has seen a number of highly competitive races lack national interest because they didn't impact the BCS championship game.
The BCS made those regular seasons mean less.
There are, at this point, five major conferences, with the Big East a debatable entity as No. 6. That leads itself to an eight-team playoff – six automatic bids and two at-large spots. Yet Scott, among others, has expressed an unwillingness to make a move to that large a field at this point.
With the pending Mountain West-Conference USA merger and the highly possible death of the WAC, college football may have only nine conferences by 2014, when the changes would be made. To give every league an automatic bid would require either a 12- or 16-team tournament.
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Sixteen would allow for seven at-large bids, a number so big that it actually would affect the way the regular season is staged. A 12-teamer would allow for three at-large bids, but then the top four teams would get byes and the first round often would become a non-competitive mess.
These are the detail devils everyone talks about, but they only come into play when bad initial decisions are made.
Just keep it simple.
If college football is set on a four-team playoff, then it needs to just set the field with the four best teams, regardless of conference affiliation. Yes, subjectivity still comes into play, but as long as the commissioners are unwilling to create a larger field, that can't be avoided.
The playoff will work fine as long as the suits in charge don't complicate this. That should be easy because it really isn't very complicated.
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