Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

28 Nov 2012

ESPN: Death to the Conference Title Games

Steve Spurrier has been beating a drum regarding the imbalanced conference scheduling that has paved Georgia's path to the SEC championship game the last two seasons. It might be whining, but he's right. The SEC championship game features the two teams with the weakest conference schedules. The Pac-12, ACC, and Big Ten conference championship games are all disappointing games in their own way this year as well. Now is the time to revisit the conference championship game structure and figure out a better way to do determine the best teams in each league, because a four-team playoff is only going to make the current conference championship model worse.

Posted by: Brian Fremeau on 28 Nov 2012

16 comments, Last at 30 Nov 2012, 4:36pm by Dan in Philly


by Dennis :: Wed, 11/28/2012 - 7:52pm

The problem isn't with the conference champion game setup, it's with the selection process for the BCS championship (and presumably the four team playoff). With the current system where losing late in the season is worse than losing early, it is better for a team to not play in its conference championship than to play in it and lose. And this will get worse with the playoff because of the insistence on allowing multiple teams from a conference. If they simply made it so that only conference champions could get bids, it would be a non-issue.

It also goes to the point of whether you are trying to determine the best team in the conference (and ultimately the country) or crown a champion. If you want to crown a champion, then the current conference championships are fine. There is a predetermined system for determining a champion and every team knows exactly what it needs to do to win.

by Dan in Philly (not verified) :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 10:26am


This is a very good example as to why playoffs stink in college football. Get used to more whining about this kind of thing as we go to a national playoff system. Can you honestly say that AL, GA, and FL don't belong in the top 4 this year? But this freezes out the very deserving 1 loss teams such as Oregon and Kansas State, but should the loser of the SECCG get shut out? Or Florida?

Expand the playoff will be the call, until college football regular season is as meaningless as the college basketball regular season, and college football is just like every other sports game.

by Alternator :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 2:42pm

Yes, not all three belong. Georgia has played a comparatively weak schedule, and does not belong in the conversation. Being a member of the SEC does not automatically make a team good.

You can make a case against Florida, as well, at least if you artificially restrict it to "top four".

by Dan in Philly (not verified) :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 5:15pm

My understanding is that the current playoff proposal is 4 teams, and it would make sense to take the top 4 teams in the country. If Bama/GA are 2/3 at this time, let's say Bama beats GA by 1, why would GA fall even 1 spot? The beat FL already, and if the voters think GA and FL both are already better than Oregon, then why should a game where there must be one winner and one loser beween two teams ahead of them change their opinion?

Anyway, we all know the top 4 teams won't make any 4 team playoff, and soon enough that will justify an 8 team, 12 team, then 16 team playoff, maybe even eventually a 24 team one. Of course that's what ESPN has wanted all along.

by Dan in St. Louis (not verified) :: Fri, 11/30/2012 - 4:14pm

Maybe the irony of your statements escaped you...but you DO realize that on one-side you are arguing that playoffs make the season meaningless and out of the other you are arguing for including 3 SEC teams in the proposed playoff? Does cognitive dissonance mean anything to you? You seem to be more of a fan of the SEC and wish to maintain the illusion of dominance in place of truly deciding a champion through playoffs that maintain the importance of regular season and rivalry games.

Now, either the regular season games have meaning - ie., if you lose one it really hurts your chances of making the playoffs and 2 losses knocks you out entirely; or the regular season games are meaningless exhibitions - ie., even if you lose, the game is really to showcase your team's potential and qualify for the big games based on eye tests, rankings and subjective polls.

If you are Florida, under a system where the regular season is preserved, your loss to Georgia drops you OUT of the equation entirely unless and until ALL other teams stub their toes as well. There is no room for a meaningful regular season AND a system of appeals that claim your loss should not count in your own league because your league is too tough. Don't like it? Engineer a conference that pits UF in the ACC and then just PROVE how awesome you are and win the damn league every year!!! But quit whining and appealing to the refs because you shat the bed and ended up with a loss to an inferior team after committing 6 turnovers....

If you are in the SEC and participating the in the annual round-robin loss tree (where South Carolina destroys Georgia who beats Florida who had already beat LSU who had lost to Alabama when they should not have, etc., etc. , etc.) then the playoff is only available to you if you WIN THE CONFERENCE TITLE....in other words, last year Alabama had NO BUSINESS in a rematch title game...it was unfair to LSU, it made the regular season game meaningless and it was unfair to all other 1-loss teams in the country who had not yet had a chance to play and beat or lose to LSU. Alabama should NEVER have been recognized as the "champion" after they failed to even win their conference DIVISION TITLE!!!

Its the lack of balls in the SEC - the lack of gumption to say "we really ARE the best conference and IF a team wins this league, there is NO DOUBT that are the best team for the playoffs and a clear favorite"...no, what the whiners of the south want is to stack the deck in their own favor, pretend that losses to each other are somehow better than anyone else's losses and put multiple teams in the brackets to keep the whole illusion rolling...NO SALE!

The formula for a playoff AND a meaningful regular season is clear - allow a second team from a conference ONLY as the runner-up from the conference title game (if the team plays in a conference) or from the at-large pool for unaffiliated teams like Notre Dame. I bet you would see the Florida States, Penn Sates, Miami (FL)'s and many, many more independent teams once again - just like it was in the 80's before the conferences tried to kill the sport and corral all the money for themselves...

by Dan in Philly (not verified) :: Fri, 11/30/2012 - 4:36pm

OK, I haven't done this for a while, but just for fun:

I am not arguing for including 3 SEC teams in a proposed playoff, I'm only pointing out that if you have a playoff with the best 4 teams, then by the polls 3 of them would be SEC teams. This will never, never happen, so one or two of the top 4 teams will be shut out in favor of another, which after all is equally deserving to "settle it on the field" having only 1 loss. This leaves 1 or 2 SEC teams and maybe 1 or 2 other teams whining about not getting a shot. Since this is the very argument which carried the day in favor of creating a 4 team playoff, it will win again, since you cannot support expanding the playoffs to 4 because otherwise deserving teams will get shut out and then turn around and argue it shouldn't expand to 8, 12, 16, or 24 for the very same reason, which means inevitably expansion of the playoff system, which is and has been my recurring point every time someone claims they support a limited playoff system - that ain't possible.

Once you unlock that pandora's box (and we have!) you can't control the result, so it has never been a question of no playoff vs. a 4 team playoff, but rather no playoff vs. a 16 or 24 team playoff, which will inevitably happen. I happen to think the old way of evaluating an entire season to judge the season's champion is a good one and I had no desire to see the playoffs become so important that the regular season becomes much less so (as has clearly happened in college basketball for example), but I have lost that argument in the court of public opinion, thanks in part to relentless decades of campaigning for a playoff by those who have a greatest interest in having one, namely ESPN and professional gambling.

by Just Another Saints Fan (not verified) :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 11:39am

Time to use the only band-aid that football fans ever want to hear about, playoffs. For a conference to have enough teams to have a conference championship game, they need to have at least 8 teams. Make it so that each sub division in a conference has a championship game (i.e. SEC West top 2 play, SEC east top 2 play, then winner of both of those games gets to play in the conference championship game). This solves two probles for the stronger conferences, one, it gives them not one, but two games against likely top teir ranked opponents near the end of the year, strengthening their bid for entry into the final four. The second issue is that it helps stronger conferences that have lots of powerhouse schools have the ability for their best schools to survive a loss or two during their regular season and still be relevant on a national stage in their final few games. This year, for the SEC, it would feature LSU vs. Alabama for the east and Georgia vs. Florida for the west. In all liklihood, it would still feature an alabama vs. Georgia SEC championship, but there would be that additional top 25 win for each team coming out. The problem here is that this would almost always feature a rematch game for each division in a conference. What does playing the same opponent over and over again prove?

by TV_Pete (not verified) :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 11:39am

I’m a Gator fan. I think the Gators were bad this year. I was expecting a loss could happen in almost all of the games at half-time. The exceptions: Kentucky, South Carolina (so many turnovers was more a weakness of Gamecocks, IMO).

FSU the Gators played what I thought was their best game and looked good at the half and fourth quarter, but looked about to lose in the 3rd quarter. FSU’s turnovers and dropped balls helped greatly.

In every other game, I would rate the Gators as about a Top 10-15 team in most years and not worthy of playing for a championship in SEC, let alone national level.

I think the current year works fairly well for matchups with the SEC champion being a slight favorite to win it all, IMO.

The bigger problem with the BCS for the past 10 or so years is that they refuse to allow the computers to use margin of victory. I believe FEI and Sagarin Ranking or Predictor are better indicators.

by freddrick (not verified) :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 2:13pm

Weak schedules are the key to college success. Come to think of it, the Falcons aren't doing so bad with the same strategy.

by Adam H (not verified) :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 4:01pm

I think the problem with conference championship games is that the winner is not necessarily going to be the best team in the conference. I'd rather the two teams selected for the championship game be picked by a committee rather than having to deal with the divisional scheduling crap.

If conference champions are the undisputed best team in the conference, then you can do away with non-conference-champions in the playoffs. Having non-conference-champions in the playoff (or BCS championship game) is basically admitting that the selection process to pick the conference champion is flawed.

by Dan in Philly (not verified) :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 5:17pm

That's the problem with every playoff format for picking the season champion, as all who are honest admit. The "Champion" in college football has for a century been determined by who had the best overall season. That's soon to perish. It was fun while it lasted, anyway.

by James13 (not verified) :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 7:53pm

Honestly, I don't know what people expect. Georgia played three games against teams in the top 40 of FO's F/+ ratings (Vanderbilt, SC, Florida). So did Alabama (Michigan, LSU, A&M). Both went 2-1 against the upper third of the FBS. So good for them. That's 67%.

Even if you move the line out to the F/+ top 60, Georgia and Alabama only played six or seven real games. Why do people tolerate these schedules? There are way too many good, interesting college football teams to justify such a small fraction of them actually playing each other in a given year. Thank God the NFL doesn't operate this way. If I could only watch the Falcons play six or seven competitive games a year, I'm pretty sure I would've stopped giving a shit a long time ago.

by Dennis :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 11:07pm

Actually the NFL does operate this way. On average, teams will play about half their games against teams that are .500 or below. To use the first example from the top of my head, the Broncos get to play 6 games against the dreck of the Chargers, Raiders, and Chiefs. Plus they play Carolina and Cleveland. That's 8 games against teams where the best one is 4-7 right now.

With the exception of a couple of independents, college teams have to play conference schedules which include good teams and bad teams. The problem with the scheduling isn't that they play bad in-conference teams, it's that there aren't enough non-conference games between good teams. Most teams have four non-conference games, and usually three of them are total cupcakes. There aren't enough games like Alabama-Michigan that match up the good teams from the major conferences to be able to make meaningful comparisons between the conferences.

by James13 (not verified) :: Fri, 11/30/2012 - 1:46am

Right, but every NFL team plays all of its games against teams that are among the best 32 teams in the league. (My point being, a 32-team league with a 16-game schedule is managable; a 124-team league with a 12-game schedule is not.)

I'm well aware of how college schedules came to be as uncompetitive as they are. I just think it's stupid, and I'd like to see more resistance from fans. Alabama played Western Carolina a couple weeks ago, and thousands of people paid actual money to see it. Why? And why do people still act surprised and upset when, inevitably, it's impossible to tell which two of the 124 teams are the best based solely on the half-dozen-or-so meaningful games they played?

by Just Another Saints Fan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/30/2012 - 11:22am

But, how do you fix this mess while still keeping to the charade that the kids are student atheletes? You can't reasonably go to more than 12 regular season games. You now have very large conferences where some have divisions that are 8 teams. That covers seven of your games right there. That leaves 5 games, at least one or two of which will usually be taken up by local rivals. Coaches are going to continue to demand a cupcake team or two to tune up against, that covers one or two FCS or bottom tier FBS schools. That leaves you basically with one game that you can have a reasonable control over. Well, if you look at most of the top 25 programs that have appeared there at least 5 times over the last decade, and then look at their schedules, they almost all have played a decent out of conference opponent at least 2 out of each three years. Given the difficulties in scheduling that many of the schools have, that seems perfectly reasonable to me.

I see the only real fix to this mess is to declare that there shall be one or two exhibition or pre-season games for each FBS team schedule. Those games shall not count towards any rankings or conference records. To make up for the duration of the schedule, no team can have more than 11 scheduled regular season games. No more than one of those can go to a non-FBS opponent. At least two must go to out of conference FBS teams. That would go a long way to helping things.

by Dennis :: Fri, 11/30/2012 - 3:10pm

And every NFL team plays all its games against teams that are among the worst 32 teams in the league. I'm not seeing how that's relavent to your point, and I do agree with your point.

The FBS isn't a 124-team league, it's a bunch of separate. 8 to 14 team leagues. That's why IMO a playoff needs to include all the conference champions. As we agree, it's impossible to fairly compare teams from different conferences. So take the conference champions and let them play on the field.