This topic is a departure from our normal diet of politics. I don’t do this often, and ask the indulgence of my regular, non-pigskin readers.
The college football world has been abuzz for weeks with the prospect that, in a series of meetings this month, the powers-that-be will finally settle on a system for a playoff. Major college football is the only team sport that lacks one, in the NCAA or professional leagues. Controversies over the years about which teams are chosen to play for the national championship have led the sport to the threshold of adopting a playoff. The questions have centered on how to do it. Among the thorniest: Should the field include only teams that won their conferences, or be opened to other highly ranked teams? Should the games be played apart from the traditional bowl games, or incorporate those games in the format?
So far, the fan’s voice has been missing from the debate, if only because few fans have the kind of platform available to university presidents, conference commissioners, bowl executives, and journalists who cover the sport. Well, this college football fan, smitten with the sport ever since my parents allowed me to stay up and watch a freshman named John Kasay kick a field goal to lift Georgia over Arkansas in the 1987 Liberty Bowl, has more of a platform than the average fan. And I’m using it today to offer a different proposal.
Not So Fast, My Friends
The key questions are indeed tricky. There are legitimate arguments both for mandating that playoff teams have won their conferences and for allowing at-large teams. Including only conference champions helps to preserve the importance of the regular season, as well as to guarantee more national interest by ensuring multiple regions of the country are represented. That said, there almost always are teams that lost an early regular-season game but look like world-beaters by season’s end — and requiring a team to be nearly perfect from the opening kickoff has always struck me as a bad way to decide who’s become the best team in January.
The bowls, too, are a tough point of contention. They are part of the tradition and pageantry of college football, and no sport relies more on those two intangibles. To those who complain that the current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) has diluted the other bowls, I say the problem is on the opposite end: The plethora of bowls played by middling teams, sometimes with no more wins than losses, is the culprit. The top-tier bowls are not to be discarded lightly.
As I see it, the main reason these problems are so intractable is that everyone rushed too quickly to adopt a four-team format. I agree with those who say an eight-team format is probably too large. That’s why I think the answer is a six-team playoff.
More Than Four
A six-team playoff not only affords more room for compromise on the key issues, such as making more people happy with the balance between conference winners and at-large teams. It also allows for more ways to preserve what’s best about college football.
The two highest-ranked teams, for instance, deserve special recognition. They’ve historically been set apart from the rest of the teams: Even before the BCS, they were matched up in bowls nine times between 1968 and 1996, and the teams ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the final regular-season poll by the Associated Press went on to win the AP national title 22 times in those 29 years. If the top team and the eighth-ranked teams both get into a playoff, there will be far less incentive for teams to prove they’re really one of the best: We’d be treated to more late-season games like the ones we see toward the end of the NFL regular season, when top teams sit their starters for the playoffs, knowing they’re assured of a spot.
Give the top two teams a first-round bye, as would be needed in a six-team playoff, and a strong incentive remains to be No. 1 or No. 2.
Conference winners also deserve something more than non-champs, but not to the point of excluding at-large teams altogether. In my plan, the top four seeds in the playoffs would have to be conference winners. Nos. 1 and 2 get byes, while Nos. 3 and 4 get home games in the first round. It would be a strong benefit for — to use an example from 2011 — Big Ten champ Wisconsin to get to play host to Alabama. The Crimson Tide would still make the field, but it would have to prove itself in a cold road game before moving to the semifinals.
Also, most people last fall focused on the question of whether Alabama deserved to be in the title game. But few apparently realized that, in a four-team playoff without the conference-winner requirement, Stanford might have gotten in over Oregon, even though the Ducks beat Stanford head-to-head and won the Pac-12. Resolving the Bama controversy might simply have created a different one on the West Coast.
Without further ado, here’s the plan:
To see how this system would have worked during the BCS era, view this document. Note that, in a number of recent years, champions from conferences that aren’t BCS “automatic qualifiers” would have made the field and even hosted first-round games. That’s a big step forward for those leagues and might quell some of the conference-switching frenzy we’ve seen the last year or two.
What It Would Mean for Fans
Fans would be assured that it would mean something, but not everything, for their teams to play well in the regular season and to win their conference. Fans would be assured a better chance that one team, and perhaps two or three — but no more than that — from their region would participate. That would help prevent the sport from potentially devolving into a regional one. Fans would be assured that tradition and pageantry still matter. Finally, fans would be assured of seeing at least five high-quality playoff games, and of seeing better-quality games in the other bowls as the best non-playoff teams were more concentrated in fewer games.
All in all, I think it’s much better than what the powers-that-be are discussing. Now if we can only get them to listen.
– By Kyle Wingfield