The question of whether college football should go to playoff system—and if so to what format—is a subject that gets way too much attention during the course of the season. But it’s become the sport’s equivalent of what health care reform is to a politician—it might not be your prime issue, but if you want to be relevant you better weigh in on the subject. And since this will be the last column before we come back next week with actual games to talk about, I thought it would be an opportune time to lay out my own thoughts on the whole Bowls vs. Brackets saga.
I am generally a traditionalist on most subjects and this one is no exception. For the most part, I like the current structure with its heavy emphasis on regular season success. But at the same time one cannot deny clear flaws in the current system that must be fixed, and one can also not deny the obvious desire in the public at-large to see a few more teams get a shot at the big prize. Therefore, I’m going to lay out two separate proposals. The first one is my ideal system. The second is a compromise format, one that was hammered out last fall with three friends—two of which are strong playoff supporters and another who shares my sympathies with the bowls.
IF I WERE KING
College football was never better than when each conference had a clear tie-in to a major bowl game. When playing in the Big Ten or Pac-10 meant winning the Rose Bowl was a part of your DNA. Or winning the Sugar Bowl if you were in the SEC. Those ties still exist, but they are looser now. More important, it’s no longer the ultimate prize for those leagues. In the old system, those schools could aspire to the national title, but it was going to end in their home bowl regardless. In the new order, playing in the Rose or Sugar is by definition a consolation prize, one step short of the BCS National Championship Game.
The sport still needed a championship event that everyone could circle on their calendar at the start of the season. So why not combine the two? Have all the major bowls be paired up with their tie-ins (The Big 12 to the Fiesta, the ACC to the Orange, in addition to the two games cited above). Play them all on New Year’s Day, restoring January 1 to its status as the great showcase of college football. When it’s over, pick the top two teams and have them play off in a National Championship Game on the off-weekend prior to the Super Bowl. If it was doable, we could even play the national championship game in the same city as the Super Bowl and turn one town into the focal point of the football world for two straight weeks.
This system preserves what I see as the two essential points of any postseason structure—continued emphasis on regular season excellence and conference championships, and the New Year’s Day showcase. It would also heal what I see as the key weaknesses we currently have. The first is that there’s no good way to deal with the midmajor teams. The postseason success of Utah and Boise State in recent years makes it impossible to just dismiss these teams. But at the same time, I can’t go along with just slotting an unbeaten midmajor into a national title game, given how much weaker their conferences are top-to-bottom. But give one of these teams a shot at a major conference champion, let them win, and then I’m all for giving Cinderella its ultimate shot. The second point is related to the first, and it’s that the bowls would give us a clear appreciation for who the best conferences really are, making it easier to evaluate the three or four teams that would have a case to play for all the marbles. Right now we have to decide that at the end of the regular season, based on only a handful of games that are really valid measuring sticks. Just quoting a league’s non-conference record doesn’t tell us much. The games have to feature comparable teams. The bowl matchups come reasonably close to doing that.
THE ECUMENICAL SPIRIT
In the age of Obama, we’re uniters, not dividers, so let’s look at a system that would give pro-playoff people the bracketed system they desire, while preserving my two key essentials of emphasis on conference championships and a New Year’s Day feast.
It would be an eight-team tournament whose quarterfinals would be on January 1. Game times would be (all times EST), 11 AM, 2:30 PM, 6 PM & 9:30 PM. The early game would be scheduled on the East Coast, the latter on the West Coast. Semi-finals can come one week later. The NFL playoffs will be in full gear, but there are free time slots at 1 PM ET on Saturday and prime-time on Sunday. As with my initial proposal, the championship is scheduled the week prior to the Super Bowl.
Automatic bids go to the six BCS conferences, just as they do now (Personally, I don’t see why the Big East has higher standing than the Mountain West, but we’ll leave that for another time). Any midmajor team that is undefeated qualifies automatically. Criteria would be set up for Notre Dame to determine if they qualify. Last year this would have taken care of the two remaining spots in the field, as Utah and Boise State would have been automatics.
But most years there will be at least one, and possibly two at-large spots still open. Here was the sticking point in most negotiations on the topic. I remain unalterably opposed to second-place teams playing for the national title. But what if a team that missed on its league’s automatic bid has a legitimate claim as the best in its own backyard? Ohio State was co-champ of the Big Ten last season. USC was very nearly a co-champ in the Pac-10 and non-qualifier until Oregon State lost its finale. For the superconferences who play a championship game there’s a different dynamic. What about a team that has the best record in its league, but lost its championship game. A prominent example here would be 2005 Virginia Tech, at 10-1, who lost to 7-4 Florida State. Should one loss on a neutral field immediately disqualify them? Particularly when they may still have a better conference record than the league champion, even after such a loss? Or take Texas’ case last year. They lost their Big 12 division title based on a BCS vote to break a three-way tie. The tie had to be broken somehow and the way it was done was fair enough, but not even the most hard-core purist can possibly argue that the ‘Horns lost their conference championship on the field.
So the remaining two spots in an eight-team tourney can be filled out that way—ideally, an undefeated midmajor team. Short of that, co-champs from the Big Ten or Pac-10 or teams with the best league records in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC that happened to lose their conference championship game or lose a divisional tiebreaker.
Either system would represent improvement over the current system. But in the meantime, let’s not overlook all the excitement that does exist under what we have now. For that reason, The College Football Notebook won’t be harping on this all season long. Come Thursday night, it’s time for some football.
Up Next: Week 1 Previews on Wednesday