Varsity Numbers: The Perfect Playoff
by Bill Connelly
If you deign yourself a college football fan, at this point you've had to make a choice to retain your sanity: ignore any and all talk of a college football playoff, or embrace the idea and scream louder for change. Maintaining an "I'm okay either way -- I just want to watch college football" middle ground on the topic has become impossible because the subject just will not die. Not only do most college football analysts either directly or passive-aggressively mention it at every opportunity over the last two months of a given football season, but now Congress has gotten involved.
Because one all-posture, no-resolution hearing wasn't enough, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch is getting ready to hold a second Senate BCS hearing next week, asserting that the BCS violates the Sherman Antitrust Act by intentionally favoring certain participants over others. Meanwhile, Texas Representative Joe Barton introduced legislation prohibiting the NCAA from calling the BCS Championship a true national championship without a playoff.
(A cynic would point out that these two men happen to hail from states whose teams were on the short end of the BCS stick this last season, and that they didn't seem to care too much about the issue beforehand. A cynic would also point out that most other political decisions these two have made haven't exactly taken the "siding with the little guy" approach. But there's no room for cynicism here. Nope, none whatsoever.)
Assuming nothing becomes of this issue at the legislative level -- that this will just give elected officials some free points with constituents, and then they will move on to more pressing issues, if there is such a thing -- the issue still will not die. But one thing is virtually certain: a playoff will happen one day. Maybe not today, maybe not next year, but soon (relatively speaking). What will be the tipping point? Simple sports geology. As Red from Shawshank Redemption would say, "Geology is the study of pressure and time. That's all it takes really, pressure, and time." That, and TV ratings. Another few years of poor ratings for BCS games like Virginia Tech-Cincinnati or Georgia-Hawaii should be all it takes. The playoff ball is in motion -- it's just going to take a while to find its inevitable destination.
So with that in mind, it behooves us, as sports fans, writers, and nerds, to shift the focus from whether there will be a playoff, to what kind of playoff there will be. And only one idea combines the needs and wants of concerned parties and gives everybody a seat at the table. It is the perfect playoff.
Before the perfect playoff is revealed, however, it is time to take a look at some of the primary concerns of those standing in the way of such a thing, or those just sitting at home and railing against the idea. All of these are stances are somewhat legitimate, but they can be accounted for within a playoff structure.
It would ruin the bowls.
This rationale comes up now and again, and it is understandable. No matter what naysayers think, bowls are great, and they are completely inoffensive and inobstrusive. If you don't like them, don't watch them. No other sport rewards fans as much as college football, and it is because of the bowl system. While cries of "monopoly" and "antitrust" are being tossed around constantly about college football these days, bowls are the closest thing to socialism in sports, and in this case, that's a good thing. Do not get rid of the bowls.
However, there is nothing saying that a playoff would have to impact, in any way, the New Mexico Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the EagleBank Bowl, or the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
(Bonus points, by the way, if you can identify where the EagleBank Bowl takes place without looking it up.)
Where's the tradition?
This is of the same tangent as the pro-bowl outlook above. More than any other sport, college football wraps itself tightly in tradition. Just looking at USC's uniforms, it is hard not to produce images of not only Mark Sanchez, Reggie Bush, or Matt Leinart, but also everyone from Keyshawn Johnson to Marcus Allen and O.J. Simpson. For the most part, college teams play in the same stadiums, with relatively similar jerseys (in most cases) as they did 25 or 50 years ago. And teams still fight to play in bowls like the Rose, Orange, and Sugar.
The playoff already exists. It's called March Madness. Why can't college football be different?
This one was offered by yours truly for years. March Madness is wonderful, but so is college football. Why does one have to conform to the other? Any playoff structure better take into account the differences between college football and all other sports (i.e. the aforementioned bowls, traditions, etc.). The current system could be retained in its entirety while adding a simple Plus One type of game, where either a) the top two teams after all bowls are completed face off in the national title game a week later, or b) two semifinal games are created among the BCS bowls, with the winners facing off for the title. That would be fine, and it is honestly the most likely solution, but it eludes the potential for the perfect playoff.
There are already too many demands on student athletes.
This one has just never held water. Football players in all other divisions and subdivisions play through December, and it appears they still get accommodations to take finals and keep up with their school work (more or less). And college baseball players miss half of the spring semester every year! We cannot selectively care about athletes' academics. Pretending that FBS athletes' academics are suffering because of the sport they play, while ignoring FCS athletes and those participating in every single other NCAA sport, is disengenuous.
Plus, just about any realistic playoff idea will wrap up by the second week in January, meaning teams would be finished before the second semester starts. This is a fall-back excuse with almost no merit.
The little guys still probably wouldn't get a seat at the table.
This is the major issue with just having a Plus-One system. Utah was ranked 6th in the BCS standings last year. A Plus-One system would not have helped them. If a four-team playoff were drawn up, it would have almost certainly included Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida, leaving the Utes out in the cold. If a Plus-One were based on post-bowl BCS rankings, the final would have most likely pitted Florida against Texas and once again left Utah hanging. The Plus-One idea is a solid one, but in most circumstances it would not, in any way, help the "little guys" unless there is a significant penalty for losses incorporated back into the BCS formula, which is not a terrible idea.
Every game counts in college football! Why change that?
This is true, except for the exceptions. What sets college football apart from other sports is that an upset loss in September could possibly wreck your title chances. In general, if you are from a major conference, going undefeated will most likely get you into the title game (2004 Auburn being the exception, of course). If you lose a game, you have to rely on numerous other teams and factors, but you may still get there. If you lose twice, your title hopes are dead (2007 LSU being the exception, of course). The idea that every game during the college regular season is a playoff game is riddled with exceptions, but it still relatively common. The biggest imperfection with the below "perfect playoff" would be that it would open the door for a 3- or 4- or 5-loss champion. The odds would be miniscule at best, but the possibility would exist.
But that is enough naysaying. Time to unveil perfection.
Is there a playoff out there that could accommodate these concerns and still deliver the playoff that proponents want to see? Absolutely. It is a 16-team tournament that a) includes every conference champion and five at-large bids (thereby giving everybody a seat at the table), b) accommodates most student athletes' schedules (meaning, it doesn't cram 2-3 games into finals preparation -- only one or so), and c) completely preserves the pomp and tradition of every bowl game that chooses to exist (is there pomp in the St. Petersburg Bowl?).
Here's how it works:
1. Tourney Selection Show the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Conference championship games are eliminated. (For that matter, college football's 12th game could also be eliminated, dropping the schedule back to 11 games, but eliminating a source of easy revenue in tough economic times might be a no-go, especially after dumping the conference title games.) All conference champions get a seat at the table, meaning champions from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Pac-10, SEC, Sun Belt and WAC occupy 11 of the tournament's 16 slots.
Five at-large bids will be selected by an approximation of the BCS rankings. The formula can be tweaked however deemed necessary, but the concept would be the same -- human polls and computer rankings would both be taken into account.
Other notes: There would be no limitation to how many at-large bids one conference receives, and seedings could be adjusted to assure that no conference members play each other until the semifinals (as in basketball), unless more than four teams from the same conference qualify (which almost certainly would not happen).
2. The playoffs would start the next weekend, when conference championship games currently take place. In 2009, that weekend falls on December 5. The top eight seeds host the first round games.
3. The quarterfinals take place the next weekend (December 12). The higher seed in each game hosts.
4. On the day after the quarterfinals (in this case, December 13), bowl pairings are announced. All teams not in the semifinals are eligible. The tournament semifinals would take place at two rotating BCS bowls. Where applicable, the other BCS bowls can follow their automatic bid processes, meaning an SEC champion who did not make the semis could still go to the Sugar Bowl if it is not one of the semifinal sites. More importantly, the Rose could still hold onto whatever Big Ten/Pac-10 match-up it wants as long as semifinalists are not involved.
5. The semifinals would take place on or around January 1, at a designated BCS bowl. The rotation could, in many ways, operate as it does now. One year, the Rose and Sugar host the semifinals while the Orange and Fiesta produce match-ups with other teams. The next year, it is the Sugar and Orange. The next, Orange and Fiesta. The next, Fiesta and Rose.
A rule could be created to say that quarterfinal losers will fill the other two BCS bowls. That way, if a Troy or Central Michigan or some low seed pulls off a monumental first-round upset, they are rewarded with a big-time bowl if they lose in the quarterfinals. The bowls might not agree with that -- the Fiesta Bowl wouldn't be excited about taking Troy unless they absolutely had to -- but it would be interesting. Plus, it would allow all non-BCS bowls to fill their slots a week earlier as normal, meaning travel to non-BCS bowls could be arranged within the same timeframe in which they are currently arranged.
6. The championship game would take place as it does now--a week after the January 1 bowls (and now, semifinals) at a designated, rotating BCS host.
The idea of bowls as consolation games assures that bowl spectacles are not lost. Purists retain the tradition of the bowls, while playoff enthusiasts get their playoff.
The best way to determine how this would work is to do some simulating. Using the current BCS formula (and an estimation of how things would have played out without conference championship games), here is how the field of 16 would have been determined and seeded for the 2008 season. Conference champions for conferences with title games are simply determined by best overall conference record, regardless of division.
1. Alabama (12-0, SEC Champion)
2. Oklahoma (11-1, Big 12 Champion)
3. Texas (11-1, At-Large #1)
4. Florida (11-1, At-Large #2)
5. USC (10-2, Pac-10 Champion)
6. Utah (12-0, Mountain West Champion)
7. Penn State (11-1, Big Ten Champion)
8. Texas Tech (11-1, At-Large #3, bumped from #7 to avoid Oklahoma at #2)
9. Boise State (12-0, WAC Champion)
10. TCU (10-2, At-Large #5)
11. Ohio State (10-2, At-Large #4, bumped from #10 to avoid Penn State at #7)
12. Ball State (12-0, MAC Champion)
13. Cincinnati (10-2, Big East Champion)
14. Boston College (9-3, ACC Champion, determined by lengthy tie-breaker*)
15. Tulsa (10-2, Conference USA Champion)
16. Troy (8-4, Sun Belt Champion)
* The first stab at an inter-division, non-title game tie-breaker: divisional ties are settled first. In this case, Boston College of the Atlantic Division and Virginia Tech of the Coastal Division would win their division tie-breakers. The first interdivision tie-break would be head-to-head, which in this case favors Boston College because of their 28-23 regular season win over the Hokies. If no head-to-head match-up took place, tie-breakers would likely include a) records against common conference opponents, and then b) BCS rankings.
On December 6, 2008, the following games would have taken place:
16 Troy at 1 Alabama
9 Boise State at 8 Texas Tech
12 Ball State at 5 USC
13 Cincinnati at 4 Florida
11 Ohio State at 6 Utah
14 Boston College at 3 Texas
10 TCU at 7 Penn State
15 Tulsa at 2 Oklahoma
To avoid any arguments, this example will just assume that all home teams win in the first round. That probably wouldn't happen, but actual results here aren't important. What's important is the possibility of a major upset like, say, Tulsa over Oklahoma.
If you are using the "Quarterfinal losers go to BCS bowl" rule, the Round One losers and all other bowl-eligible teams would have found out their bowl fates on December 7.
Here are the quarterfinal games, which would have been held on December 13.
8 Texas Tech at 1 Alabama
5 USC at 4 Florida
6 Utah at 3 Texas
7 Penn State at 2 Oklahoma
Again pretending that all home teams won, that would have resulted in semifinal match-ups of Alabama-Florida (in, say, the Orange Bowl) and Oklahoma-Texas (Fiesta). Meanwhile, the losers could fill the BCS bowls if that rule were to be implemented. USC and Penn State would have gone to the Rose Bowl, and Utah and Texas Tech would have gone to the Sugar.
While other bowls were taking place as normal, the semifinals could have taken place as they currently do, likely on the evenings of either December 31, January 1, or January 2.
The finals would then have taken place on January 8, 2009, and we might have even had the same matchup.
While there is certainly no true guarantee that a playoff will ever be implemented, the long-term odds are very good. While there are no truly perfect playoff ideas, this one would get the closest to assuaging the most worries. Bowls would not be impacted, traditions would go untouched, and the benefits of this 16-team idea would end up being a) better rewards for the "little guys" of Division I, b) more potentially classic, high-impact games (like, in the above example, a USC-Florida quarterfinal match-up in mid-December), and of course, c) a more clear, true national champion. A Plus-One addresses some worries but probably wouldn't help the little guy very much. An 8-team tournament would, in some seasons, shape up pretty well, but in some season, eight would be too many, in others not enough. A 16-team affair would set rigid rules for who qualifies, offer everybody a seat at the table, and in the end, give you the closest thing possible to a perfect playoff.