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College football's potential four-team playoff isn't perfect, but it's a start

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

The Death of the BCS is upon us, and there is no minimizing the news that college football, after 143 years, is on the verge of adopting a playoff.

The powers-that-be finally broke through decades of gridlock, entrenched interests and mind-numbing counterarguments to give players, coaches and fans what they wanted. This is a great development.

A four-team playoff may not be perfect, but it's a perfect step in the right direction. That said, there are details to be dealt with.

So here are the issues at hand, the solutions that need to be achieved and, notably, the illogical excuses that need to stop.

1. The playoff should feature the top four teams overall, not the top four conference champions.

This is, by far, the most important issue that needs to be solved and should be the primary goal for anyone who loves college football.

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The BCS champion receives a trophy for finishing atop the final coaches' poll. (Getty Images)

A four-team playoff needs to have the top four teams. Period. Larger fields could have a mix of conference champions and at-large bids, or even, we guess, all conference champions, but not one this small. There are just too many variables between schedule strengths.

It's either Nos. 1-4 or the entire playoff is suspect and doomed to controversy – last year the playoff would've featured the Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 10 teams according to the BCS formula (a lousy formula, but still).

The goal of the conference champions-only plan seems to be to prevent the SEC from having more than one team in the tournament. If the other conferences would just say that, at least we'd be dealing with an honest debate.

Instead, we get talk of how it would be "more objective, less subjective." No it wouldn't.

[Wetzel on Y! Sports Radio: There's always going to be controversy]

Whether it's the top four teams overall or the top four conference champions, someone or something has to determine – subjectively – what constitutes the "top four." One isn't more or less objective than the other. One isn't more or less subjective. It's exactly the same.

There would be a smaller pool of candidates (well, sort of) to choose from if it was limited to the 10 or so conference champions, but there still would be a choice.

Yes, an objective system would be preferred. It also isn't possible.

The only way a conference champions plan could be objective is if there were just four conferences. There aren't. There will be nine or 10 when realignment gets done. Six of them have an obvious ability to field a team capable of being in the top four on any given year. (The Big East may be down, but if Boise State, Central Florida, Cincinnati, South Florida, etc. were to emerge unbeaten, they likely would be a top-four team.)

There also are major independent programs to consider in Notre Dame and Brigham Young. And heaven help these guys if Army ever managed to put together an unbeaten season and got left out. Have fun explaining that one.

So, in the end, something has to decide whether the fourth-best conference champion is from the Big East or the Big Ten or the ACC or whatever. It still is subjective. It requires a computer or a human element (polls, selection committee) or some combination.

If your process is burdened with subjectivity, it might as well subjectively determine the best four teams.

2. The semifinals should be played on campus; the title game should be open for bidding to any neutral site in the country.

For 95 percent of college football fans the playoff will be a television show. So once the 1-4 deal is settled, nothing else really matters. The games will be played on your TV. Everything is great.

Except for the fact that a college football game inside, say, Bryant-Denny Stadium or Camp Randall or Death Valley or the Big House is infinitely superior to a game played in Cowboys Stadium, University of Phoenix Stadium or whatever they are calling the place the Dolphins play this week.

It isn't even close.

One of college football's best attributes is its plethora of incredible on-campus game-day environments. It's the history. It's the pageantry. It's the tradition.

Home field also provides incentive to finishing in the top two – thus making the regular season more important. It assures every game is a sellout, with a wild crowd. It keeps the money from sport inside the collegiate system and offers millions in peripheral income to college towns that support the game all year long.

[Related: BCS officials put topic of selection and who'll get in on shelf]

And, once, again, it's really cool. It's a way to make interregional games happen, only with higher stakes. It's a way to bring weather into the equation – all weather is football weather. It seems ideal.

"The NCAA tournament is not played on home floors – for a reason," SEC commissioner Mike Slive.

Please, no more comparing football to basketball. It's one of the great canards of all time. Why not use NCAA baseball as the standard and have double elimination?

Football is football and the applicable standard is the NFL, which uses home field until the Super Bowl.

The semifinals in college football would be akin to the conference championship games in the NFL. Over the last 15 years, home teams are just 17-13 in those NFL games, even though the host team compiled a better record in a 16-game season and presumably should win at a higher level.

While home teams are overwhelmingly victorious in college football, very few games feature equal talent, so it's difficult to get useful numbers. We do know LSU beat Alabama a year ago in Tuscaloosa and then lost in "neutral" New Orleans.

The NFL produces the greatest and most popular entertainment option in America. If neutral-site conference championship games made sense, they'd do it. Instead, they look at the idea as absolutely idiotic. Just follow the NFL lead here, guys.

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Scott's league, the Pac-12, already holds a title game at the site of the best-seeded team. (Getty Images)

"I'm a big proponent of it," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told the Associated Press. "That was the choice we made in our conference with our championship game. Collegiate atmosphere. Guaranteed sellout. We've said all along preserving the regular season is important. What better way to emphasize the importance of the regular season than having a chance to earn a home game? It's a proven NFL model."

Exactly. You give the road team say 20 percent of the tickets – in the big stadiums, that's 16,000 to 22,000 seats, a sizable block. A central organization collects the money and the host campus gets paid rent and whatever other applicable fees.

It's the hotels and grocery stores and bars of Blacksburg and Gainesville and Norman that benefit, not some touristy place that doesn't care about college football anyway.

[Mike Huguenin: Hammering out playoff details should be fascinating]

This is pretty simple, but then again, here comes the silliness.

One concern is over stadium size. Can TCU host a game in newly renovated Amon G. Carter Stadium (capacity 40,000 to 50,000)? That's a lot of lost seats, right?

Well, yes, for one game. This story by Jason Kirk of SBNation.com points out that the average capacity of the four current BCS bowls is 77,363.

Since 1998, the average capacity of the college stadiums that would've hosted the semifinals is 86,710.

Could TCU or Boise State or Oregon host a game and lower the average? Sure.

It is more likely, however, that Michigan (109,901), Ohio State (107,282), Alabama (101,821), Texas (101,624), LSU (99,500 with coming expansion) and so many others will be in the top two though. Over time there will be more seats, not less – at least as long as the Mid-American Conference doesn't start churning out national contenders.

Then there is my second-favorite anti-campus site argument:

"Where are people going to stay if Oregon hosts a semifinal game?" ESPN.com reported one BCS source saying. "In Portland?"

Um, yeah, sure. While plenty of hotel rooms are closer, Portland is a real nice place. It even has an interstate running right to Eugene. I'm sure the city – the entire state really – would love the economic boost of an Oregon playoff game.

The proper answer is they'll stay wherever they do when Oregon hosts any game. The Ducks always sell out and thousands of those seats are from visiting fans. It's not like the stadium doubles in size for the playoffs. So, just like every other week, fans that can't afford the Eugene hotel rates crash somewhere else and then drive to beautiful campus for the game.

Hey, problem solved? Right?

Actually there's more, and this is my No. 1 favorite anti-campus argument:

"Can Manhattan, Kan., take care of 1,200 media?" BCS executive director Bill Hancock asked reporters, wondering what would happen if Kansas State finished in the top four. "Where will people stay?"

Wait, now they are worried about the media? Finally I am 100-percent qualified to answer a question, and here's the answer: The media will stay wherever the heck they can. Topeka, Lawrence, mostly Kansas City. Then they will get up early and drive to the stadium because, you know, it's their job.

We do it every single week of the season. College-town hotel rates are ridiculous and usually require three-night minimums. Besides, I have never met a single sportswriter, broadcaster or television crew that doesn't know how to drive a car.

While the suits that run college athletics darn near faint if they don't get a police escort to the game, this isn't a media issue.

The NFL manages to hold playoff games, including the NFC championship game, in Green Bay, Wis., which is about as small, cold and remote as anything in college football. Manhattan, Kan., is 119 miles from Kansas City. Eugene is 111 miles from Portland. Green Bay is 117 miles from Milwaukee.

The media flies into Green Bay, or stays in Appleton, Milwaukee or even drives roundtrip all the way from Chicago. It's all done on one week planning in the middle of January. Whatever. It's the media's job to figure it out.

Have you ever woken up the day after a Packers playoff game and found no coverage because the reporters didn't know where to stay or how to get to Lambeau?

3. If you must hate on-campus games, at least open this up to bid and not engage in the obvious cronyism of using only certain bowl sites.

Bowl games stopped being useful decades ago. They may be fun, but the sport doesn't need bowls to promote it, like it did in the 1940s.

Today they are known for rampant profiteering – just this year each member of the LSU and Alabama band was charged $350 to just get into the game so they could perform for free. They've been hit with scandal, criminal indictments and IRS complaints. They've spent wildly on country club memberships, decadent parties and free-flowing expense accounts.

They pay their CEO three and four times (even more than $800,000 in a single year) the rate of similar sized non-profits.

Bowls have been horrible partners – unless you were an athletic director who received free Caribbean cruises or complimentary scotch and cigars on the 19th hole of the Arizona Biltmore. Of course, those were paid with what was college football's money in the first place.

There isn't a single bit of financial sense in outsourcing your most valuable product. None. Federal tax filings show that when BCS bowls have hosted the title game, they pocket between $10 million and $12 million in profits – even after all the high salaries and strip club tabs.

Now the commissioners want to give the bowls the semifinals, two games which each should be worth more than the current title game? When you extend it over an eight- or 10-year period, then college administrators will be handing over an estimated $300 million (and likely more) in profits to their already well-greased friends in what essentially is a no-bid contract.

That's $300 million-plus that should stay with the schools.

Now, I'm half rooting for this because I can't wait for the explanation about how the same people who can't give the players a $2,000 stipend each year have crafted a new, rich playoff system that will assure their buddy the bowl CEO keeps banking a huge salary. I'm sure the attorneys in the O'Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit, or the leadership of National College Players Association (if not a major labor union) or the eventual congressional investigation will, just like me, be eager to hear that one.

Most of these colleges are public. They receive taxpayer funds. Many require regular students to pay athletic fees to cover costs. Even the athletic departments that are self-sufficient could use more revenue. So why give it away?

Nothing drives up a price like competition. The more cities bidding for the semifinals and championship game, the higher the price for the schools.

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Ex-Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker, here greeting Boise State coach Chris Petersen, faces prison time. (AP)

It's better for everyone if the games are staged around the country, especially in markets that love and support college football such as Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, Arlington, Tex., Tampa, Nashville and so on. It's also not particularly fair to Big Ten and Big 12 teams to not have a game in their geographic region.

The bowl games can go on outside of the playoff. The Rose Bowl can feature the best remaining teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12. Not much will really change, except bowl CEO salaries will drop a bit.

In the meantime, college football won't have to hold its breath as it waits for the next John Junker/Fiesta Bowl-style scandal.

4. Anyone like math around here?

There is no good way to choose the field. None. There has to be a subjective decision made, and no one likes subjective decisions.

The best of a bad situation is to have that subjectivity hashed out in a cool, calm and studied environment and then make the selection process as transparent as possible.

As such, the sport would be best served if it created a single computer formula. People could decide how important strength of schedule (preferably giving extra credence to tough nonconference scheduling) or margin of victory or home-field/road-game criteria should be. They could program the formula accordingly and then test and tweak the next two seasons.

Most importantly, they could offer it up to everyone so that teams can plan ahead, know what they are up against and track the progress as the season goes along.

This would make all sorts of late-season games matter as strength of schedule fluctuates by weekly results. The end would be wild and debatable, but at least it would be honest and out in the open. You'd know where you stand.

This will never fly, of course. The guys who run the BCS aren't much for math. Currently they don't even know the formula of five of the six computer systems they currently use. They don't check the numbers. They don't seem to conceptualize what the computers do (the system is being boycotted by actual quantitative mathematicians). They don't care. It's just a PR tool.

So they never will trust one computer formula.

Vast opinion polls are no better. Sportswriters in the 1930s invented the weekly top 20 as a promotional tool, not to be used like this. They too aren't rooted in the principles of logic, math or science. Whether it's Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, the power of groupthink or distracted, politicized and uneducated voters, the polls are a mess.

So the BCS needs a new formula.

If they can't commit to math, a selection committee is the next best option. Five or seven people, analyzing set information and previously agreed-upon criteria will have to do. It basically is a computer formula with little human oversight.

Maybe they use some of the members of the Legends Poll, ex-coaches who put in a lot of time studying tape, to produce what currently is the most respectable poll.

Either way, there's going to be controversy.

That's OK. Controversy and debate isn't a bad thing, especially when an actual playoff follows.

This is a good debate to have. The nonsense has been limited, the possibilities considerable. Once the four-team field is set, there's almost no possible downside, no matter how hard they try.

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