March 14, 2011
We're coming off the second weekend in March, which means America is beginning to display the most severe symptom of its annual case of "March Madness": Bracketitis. In fact, if you're an American and you're reading a sports blog of any stripe today, odds you're already infected.
If you happened to have come here in search of refuge in the notoriously most anti-bracket corner of the sports world, you've come to the wrong place — Dr. Saturday is a longtime, consistent advocate of an NCAA-style tournament in college football for just about any reason you can imagine: It's more profitable, it's more fun, and it makes infinitely more sense for crowning the champion of a sport that's been plagued by the inconsistencies, snubs and hypocrisies of opinion polls from time immemorial. The basketball version is a little unwieldy, but it's heart is certainly in the right place.
The one step I've never taken in that advocacy, though, is to propose any particular playoff system of my own. Mainly, that's because the specifics are secondary (and possibly even counterproductive) to the main goal of getting something in place of the clearly cracked status quo: Frankly, any playoff pitch that stands the slightest chance of being feasibly implemented is an improvement on the creaky (and occasionally 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.
With that in mind, inspired by the beautiful basketball bracket, I've decided to lay out for the first time the official Dr. Saturday Playoff Plan for college football. Behold:
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 last 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 aside from the standings — no one believes all 11-1 seasons are created equally — 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 and undercut the results of the regular season.
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.
• Ten teams, selected according to final conference and BCS standings. Yes, we're keeping the BCS — essentially, with the rare exception, the 10 teams in this system will be the same 10 teams selected for BCS bowls under the current structure.
• Four rounds consisting of nine total games, staged from the second or third weekend in December through the second weekend in January. Ideally, I'd allow for a "Christmas break," a bye week between the second round games and the semifinals, and stage the semifinals on New Year's Day.
• The first round consists of four teams playing two games. The other six teams receive automatic byes to the second round.
• Rounds one and two are played at the home site of the higher-seeded team. The semifinals and championship games are played at current BCS bowl sites. (The championship game rotates among the sites each season, as it does now. That leaves one site out every year — three games for four sites — but the bowl that doesn't get a playoff game can still select two of the eliminated teams for a sort of consolation game. Which, let's face it, is basically what the non-championship games are now.)
• The winners of the two first-round games advance into the second round; the eight remaining teams are then matched so that the lowest-ranked team visits the highest-ranked team, etc. Second-round winners advance to the semifinals.
• Automatic bids go to:
— The champion of each of the "Big Six" conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — regardless of ranking. (NOTE: The existing, meritocratic BCS formula for selecting which conferences earn this distinction will remain in effect, leaving the door open to the Mountain West, WAC, Conference USA, etc., to earn "Big Six" status, and keeping, say, the ACC and Big East from becoming entrenched if they fail to perform on the field.)
— The top four at-large teams in the final BCS standings (limit one at-large bid per conference).
In its most generic form, then, the format looks like this:
But the "Big Six" conference champions don't get off quite so easily. There are also built-in incentives and demerits based on certain benchmarks in the BCS standings:
• First-round byes go to "Big Six" conference champions except when:
— The lowest-ranked "Big Six" conference champion is replaced by an at-large team ranked in the top four of the final BCS standings.
— A "Big Six" conference champion finishes outside of the top 12 in the final BCS standings, in which case its bye goes to the next highest-ranked at-large team.
• Second-round home games go to the top four "Big Six" conference champions in the final BCS standings, except when:
— A "Big Six" conference champion is replaced by an at-large team ranked in the top two of the final BCS standings. (If two at-large teams are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, they take the home games of the third and fourth-ranked "Big Six" champions.)
• First-round home games go to:
— First, the ranked "Big Six" conference champions that failed to qualify for a bye (i.e. that finished ranked between No. 13 and No. 25 in the final BCS standings).
— Next, the highest-ranked at-large team(s) that failed to qualify for a bye.
• Any "Big Six" conference champion that finishes outside of the top 25 in the final BCS standings forfeits its home game to the next highest-ranked at-large team.
• It's politically feasible. The structure (especially the continuation of automatic bids for conference champions) guarantees a place for each of the "Big Six" conferences, which is fundamental to any system the commissioners and presidents of those conferences would consider enacting.
• It respects the regular season. A 10-team system is inclusive enough to open the door to more deserving, qualified contenders, while remaining exclusive enough to severely limit the chances of a marginal team "getting hot," which threatens to undermine the importance of the regular season.
• Specifically, it rewards the regular season by emphasizing:
— Conference championships: Winning a "Big Six" conference earns an automatic bid. And because of the limit of one at-large team per conference, a championship is essentially mandatory for at-large teams from non-"Big Six" conferences. Even in the top conferences, an at-large team with a loss isn't assured a spot, and two losses will eliminate the vast majority.
— Strength of schedule: Besides automatic bids for their champions, "Big Six" leagues that play tougher schedules have more favorable conditions for earning byes and home games.
— BCS standings: The higher a team's finish in the BCS, the more likely it is to earn a bid, a bye or a home game, regardless of its conference affiliation. On the other hand, even automatically-qualifying conference champions are punished by degree — loss of a second-round home game, loss of a bye, loss of a first-round home game — for failing to meet certain benchmarks. A "Big Six" champion that finished outside of the top 25, like UConn in 2010, would be forced to win two true road games against top competition to earn a bid to the semifinals. Whereas top-ranked teams only have to win once — at home, against a lower-ranked opponent — to punch their ticket to the same destination.
The 2010 bracket, using the final BCS standings of the regular season, would have shaken out like so:
• Auburn (SEC Champion)
• Oregon (Pac-10 Champion)
• TCU (At-large; ranked in Top 4)
• Stanford (At-large; ranked in Top 4)
• Wisconsin (Big Ten Champion)
• Oklahoma (Big 12 Champion)
• Virginia Tech (ACC Champion)
• Connecticut (Big East Champion)
• Auburn (No. 1 Overall)
• Oregon (No. 2 Overall)
• TCU (Ranked in Top 4)
• Stanford (Ranked in Top 4)
• Wisconsin (Big Six Champion)
• Oklahoma (Big Six Champion)
NOTE: Virginia Tech and UConn would not earn first-round byes as Big Six champions, because a) They were replaced by TCU and Stanford, at-large teams ranked in the top four in the BCS standings; and b) Both finished ranked outside of the top 12, forfeiting their bye, anyway.
• First Round: Virginia Tech (ranked Big 6 champion), Ohio State (highest-ranked remaining at-large).
• Second Round: Auburn (No. 1), Oregon (No. 2), Wisconsin (Big Six champion), Oklahoma (Big Six champion).
• UConn would not receive a home game, even in the first round, because it finished unranked in the final BCS standings.
Or, in convenient bracket form (seeds based on final BCS standings, and assuming for the sake of convenience that the higher-seeded team wins each game):
Connecticut's automatic bid as Big East champion represents a unique problem: I've filled in brackets based on this structure going back to 2006, and UConn is the only team that makes the cut without finishing at least in the top 20 of the final BCS standings. (The only other team ranked lower than 14th that would have wormed its way in over the last five years is Virginia Tech in 2008, when the Hokies won the ACC title despite coming in 19th at the end of the regular season. Those Hokies and ACC champ Wake Forest in 2006 are also the only other teams that would have made the playoff field with more than two losses.) So it's not a question this system would have to answer to very often, and in fact is specifically designed to avoid. But to that question, I can only answer that the Huskies are an extreme outlier, and have the deck stacked against them to an appropriately extreme degree: To win the championship, they'd have to win on the road against a top-10 opponent in the first round, on the road again against the No. 1 overall seed a week later and then against two other top teams in the semifinal and championship games.
If they get through that, they will have conquered a gauntlet unmatched by any other team in America and deserve the title of champion. Which is the entire point: By making it past a severe velvet rope and surviving a level playing field with its elite peers, the winner here has established itself by definition as the legitimate champion, with no rival claims on the throne. And the television networks, individual conferences and NCAA have cleaned up, besides, without diluting the regular season contracts that serve as the real moneymakers — again, only three teams out of 50 that would have qualified for the tournament field since '06 finished the regular season with more than two losses, and only five of the 20 teams that would have qualified for a first-round bye had more than one. The current requirements for the BCS are a high enough bar as it is: Expanding the format for the teams that clear it already gives you a legitimate championship field without reinventing the wheel.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.