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Wetzel's playoff plan: I'll drink to that

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

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The Bowl Championship Series has been in place since the 1998 season. This season's championship game will be held on Jan. 8, 2009 in Miami.
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Before we get to the playoff, let's start by giving the Bowl Championship Series some credit. It might not be a good system, but it is better than the old one.

For decades, college football "determined" its champion by having two or three of its highest-rated teams play on New Year's Day, only rarely against each other.

Fans at home would turn the channel (manually) and wonder why they couldn't just have that great team play this great team rather than blow out two inferior opponents. (Too complicated was the answer.)

At the end of the day, a bunch of sportswriters, who probably watched only the game they covered in person, held a vote and named the "national champion."

That was the system. Seriously, that was the system. If you set out to design the worst possible and least satisfying way for a sport to stage a championship, this might be it. Only through the clouds of nostalgia (and New Year's hangovers past) does it seem even remotely palatable. Any college football is fun to watch, so you took what you got.

At least the BCS uses a convoluted formula to choose the two "best" teams and makes them play each other. For that we are grateful. The result has been a surge in interest in the sport. Which the apologists for the BCS like to claim proves their genius.

It doesn't.

The old system was like non-alcoholic beer. The BCS is like near beer – that low-alcohol stuff that gets sold in some locales. Given no other choice people prefer near beer over the non-alcohol stuff. That's not a compliment to near beer. It's like saying the BCS has a nice personality.

A playoff is the real thing, real beer in all its varieties. If you think college football is popular now, imagine if it did away with the nonsense. You don't even have to drink beer to know real beer outsells the other two about a million to one. (You do have to acknowledge the similar addictive elements of alcohol and college football though.)

So forget these clowns patting each other on the back for creating a system better than the worst system ever.

We're demanding real beer here and like grown-ups will lay out the best postseason system while discrediting the foolish obstructionist counter-arguments. Don't credit me with the following genius – it's essentially the exact same playoff system the NCAA uses for all other divisions of football.

(Please note, while I would prefer a men's basketball style committee to set the field and follow some set guidelines that would prevent things such as in league matchups in the first round, for the sake of this argument I used the final BCS standings to place and seed the field).

A 16-team field

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Just like in what used to be Division I-AA, the tournament would feature four rounds with teams seeded one through 16. Just like the wildly popular and profitable NCAA men's basketball tournament, champions of all the conferences (all 11 of them) earn an automatic bid to the field.

Yes, all 11. Even the lousy conferences. While no one would argue that the Big South champ is one of the top 16 teams in the country, there are multiple benefits of including champions of low-level leagues.

First is to do what the apologists claim a playoff would ruin – maintain the integrity and relevancy of the regular season. While the idea that the season is a four-month playoff is both inaccurate and absurd, there should be a significant reward for an exceptional season.

The chance for an easier first-round opponent – in this case No. 1 seed Oklahoma would play No. 16 Buffalo – is just that. Earning a top two or three seed most years would present a school a near breeze into the second round, a de facto bye.

Drop to a four seed in this year's scenario and you are dealing with a pretty tough Virginia Tech squad.

On the flip side, it brings true Cinderella into the college football mix for the first time. Is it likely that Tulsa could beat Oklahoma? Of course not, but as the men's basketball tournament has proven, the mere possibility (or even a close game) draws in casual fans by the millions.

Perhaps the most memorable college football game of the last few years was Boise State-Oklahoma, in part because Boise was the unbeaten underdog that wasn't supposed to win. When it did, in dramatic fashion, it became the talk of the country. There would've been historic interest in seeing if the Broncos could do it again the following week.

Why wouldn't college football want that?

The BCS said Boise State had no shot at a national title in 2007 because either 1) it wasn't any good in 1977 or 2) wasn't geographically or politically situated to be in the proper conference. As illogical as this is, that's the system.

For even lower-rated conferences – the Sun Belts, C-USA – allowing annual access to the tournament would not only set off celebrations on small campuses but it would encourage investment in the sport at all levels. Suddenly, there would be a reason for teams in those leagues to really care. This would improve quality throughout the country.

By extending the postseason to more conferences and teams, it would actually increase interest. It would not simply make the regular season matter more it would make more regular seasons matter.

With the old system, things such as the MAC championship game, which featured Buffalo upsetting Ball State was virtually meaningless. It wouldn't have been if a berth to the playoff (and in BSU's case what would've been a pretty good seed) was riding on it.

Who's against more meaningful games?

With the bigger conferences, a championship would take on greater value. Does anyone without direct rooting interest really care who won the ACC title game?

And while everyone was fired up about the high stakes in the Florida-Alabama SEC championship, most conference title games pit one great team against a lesser one just playing spoiler (i.e. Missouri-Oklahoma). But what if Missouri had something to really play for? And Oklahoma was still desperate to maintain that high seed?

At-large bids

In addition to the 11 automatic bids, there would be five at-large selections made by a basketball-like selection committee which could agree on what criteria it values. This is where independents, such as Notre Dame, would have access to the tournament. Most years, all five bids would come from the power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC).

This year, the at-large process would allow for a shift in power out west. Texas Christian of the Mountain West would join league champion Utah in the playoff. Considering the league went 6-1 against local rival the Pac-10, it's well earned. No longer would perception and politics trump reality.

While the selection process would still draw complaints from the teams left out, those schools often would have two or three losses or significant flaws. Gone forever would be the days of an unbeaten Auburn in the 2004 season not getting a chance at the title or the bizarre 2003 season where nearly everyone thought USC was the best team but it got left out anyway.

The apologist argument that the complaints and controversies would never cease is silly. It's pretty easy to tune out a three-loss Oklahoma State team. One-loss Texas? Not so much.

Ignore outdated bowls

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Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly accepts the trophy for winning the Papa Bowl against Southern Mississippi on Dec. 22, 2007.
(Dale Zanine/US Presswire)

BCS bowl games are the single worst deal in American sports. College football's continued willingness to be fleeced by outside businessmen, who gleefully cut themselves in on millions in profits, is akin to the Knicks offering Stephon Marbury a contract extension right now.

What other business outsources its most profitable and easily sold product – in this case postseason football?

The bowls were needed back in the 1950s. These days they are nothing but leeches on the system. Outside of (again) nostalgia there is no value in these games. The NCAA could stage the games itself, cut out the middle men, and pocket tens of millions of extra revenue.

It has no place in a real solution. You're allowing business outside college football to determine how college football does its business.

The bowl lobby is a powerful one though. ESPN itself owns six smaller games and isn't going to rip the system. Most of the media blindly – or still drunk from bowl game media parties – follow the idea that a playoff must include the bowls.

Just about every idea you'll hear or read will use these bowls for the quarterfinals and these for the semifinals and all of it is ridiculous.

The travel demands alone on teams and fans for three or four weeks of neutral sites make it implausible. Going neutral site makes seeds meaningless. This is exactly what the apologists want the debate to be about, a non starter of a solution.

The solution, however, is to ignore the bowls.

That isn't to say eliminate them. The 34 bowl games can continue to operate outside of the playoff, just like any non-affiliated business. All the non-playoff teams can compete in them. With the BCS, only one game matters anyway. It's not like the Sun Bowl is going to be all that different. If the people of El Paso want to continue staging the game, then they should.

First- and second-round losers in a playoff could even take a slot in a late December bowl game. As long as the bowls don't mess with the playoff, who cares what they do? The more football the better.

At worst some of the true bottom-feeder bowls (the ones owned by ESPN) will have to fold for lack of eligible teams. The death of the Bowl is a price I think everyone is willing to pay. Maybe even Papa John himself.

Home games for higher seeds early

The playoff would stage the first three rounds at the home field of the higher-seeded team before shifting to a neutral site, a la the Super Bowl. As a nod to history, it could be a rotation of famed stadiums such as the Rose Bowl, et al.

This allows the playoff to capitalize on perhaps college football's greatest asset – the pageantry, excitement and history of on-campus stadiums. There is nothing like a game day and it doesn't matter whether you're in Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor or Norman or Los Angeles. Each one is uniquely thrilling and adds tremendous value to the product.

So why does college football stage its postseason in antiseptic pro stadiums?

Hosting games would be a boon to the schools and the campus communities – literally tens of millions of dollars into the local economy.

It would also reward the higher seeds (again placing value on the regular season) by providing the distinct advantage of playing at home. To be a top two seed, and host through the championship game, would be a monster reward.

This would also placate complaints from northern teams that are seemingly always playing bowl games near the campus of their opponent.

We've seen, say, USC have its way with Ohio State and Michigan in Pasadena, but what if the Trojans had to travel to Ohio Stadium on a cold and snowy day? Perhaps USC could prove it has grit not just talent. Intra-sectional games have all but died out due to recent scheduling philosophies, but the idea of them returning each December and January, famous jerseys in famous faraway stadiums can warm any fanâs heart.

The schedule

While the former Division I-AA plays all four rounds in four weeks and stages the title game before Christmas, football's top division might be better served playing the first one or two rounds in December, breaking for final exams and staging the semifinals just after Christmas and the title game in early January.

Different schools have different academic schedules – two guys sent me a chart last year that showed there was no weekend when someone wasn't having exams. However, college athletics has never allowed academics to stand in its way before. In this day of 12-team super leagues and midweek television games, this isn't an excuse.

Something can be worked out.

One of the apologists' greatest whines is that a playoff would make the season too long. It's conceivable that some teams would play 17 games. Oh the horror! Mike Tranghese, commissioner of the Big East, once claimed, with a straight face, that so many players would be injured a team might not complete the playoff.

Due to the way college football runs its clock, there are about 10 percent more plays in a college game than a pro one (135 to 122), which means they’re already playing an extra game, game and a half now.

Really? The kids at the old Division I-AA, Division II and III must just be tougher, even though they often sport smaller rosters than major college football. In plenty of states high school teams that win the state title play between 16 and 18 games and the best players often compete on both offense and defense. The NFL does it and more with just 53-man rosters.

The truth is it's not the number of games that raises the risk of injury; it's the number of plays. Each snap of the ball is the trigger that puts bodies in motion and risks potential injury. A game is just a grouping of plays, it holds no value.

Due to the way college football runs its clock, there are about 10 percent more plays in a college game than a pro one (135 to 122), which means they're already playing an extra game, game and a half now. If they're that concerned about the health of the players, they should continue to tinker with the clock to reduce the number of plays.

This is just a weak smoke screen. If the suits who count the money in college athletics actually cared about the welfare of the players, the number of reforms would be dramatic. Staging fewer games would be deep on the to-do list.

Since the college schedule would still be shorter than the NFL (12 to 16) and fewer teams would qualify for the playoffs (13.3 percent to 37.5 percent) the idea that the college regular season would become less meaningless wouldn't seem to wash. There are plenty of meaningless games now as teams attempt to pad their record and just survive the season unbeaten, sneak into the title game and go for broke there.

With a playoff, that wouldn't be possible. You'd earn your title by surviving a four-game test that would rival the NFL playoffs.

The presidents

There's nothing easier than blaming it on those guys. They don't want a playoff, everyone says. The truth is they've never been presented a real playoff plan. Presidents are notoriously weak-spined and revenue desperate. Pressure and cash can change opinions in a hurry. They follow the herd.

"It's not a question of if there is going to be a playoff, it's going to be a question of when," T.K. Wetherell, president of Florida State said last spring. "It's going to be driven by money. None of us sitting at this table … are ever going to admit that."

Unfortunately, last spring four leagues – the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10 – fought to stop the SEC's plan for a modest plus-one plan from even being discussed.

The reason? They feared that once fans got a taste of even a mini-playoff, they'd demand a real playoff.

Kind of like getting a taste of near beer; pretty soon you're going to want the real thing.

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