The best plan for a college football playoff

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.

The Plan

Without further ado, here’s the plan:

  • The two highest-ranked conference champs, as ranked by the BCS formula, advance to the national semifinals as seeds 1 and 2. The next highest-ranked conference champs are seeded 3 and 4. After that, the two highest-ranked remaining teams, whether they are conference champs or not, are seeded 5 and 6. If Notre Dame or another independent school were to finish in the top 6, it would be seeded as if it were a conference champion. In 2011, the seeds would have been 1 LSU, 2 Oklahoma State, 3 Oregon, 4 Wisconsin, 5 Alabama, 6 Stanford. Wisconsin, which was ranked 10th in the final BCS standings, would have been the first team to make the playoff field from outside the BCS Top 6 since 2003. So, by and large, we would get the six best teams in the six-team field.
  • The first round would be played at the home stadiums of the 3 and 4 seeds: 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5. The games would take place the third Saturday of December (i.e., two weeks after conference title games).
  • The semifinals would be played at the bowl games to which the top teams’ leagues would have ties: Big Ten and Pac-12, Rose; SEC, Sugar; Big 12, Fiesta; ACC and Big East, Orange (although I could imagine the Big East establishing a unique tie-in for itself, just as the “mid-major” leagues would need to do). The games would be 1 vs. the 4-5 winner and 2 vs. the 3-6 winner, and they would take place two weeks after the first round. In 2011, that would have been 1 LSU vs. 4 Wisconsin or 5 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and 2 Oklahoma State vs. 3 Oregon or 6 Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl. (Yes, LSU and Oklahoma State fans would have had a big leg up in terms of getting tickets, hotel rooms, etc. — another incentive to finish in the top two.)
  • In the event that the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs, or the ACC and Big East champs, were Nos. 1 and 2, they would be separated in the semifinals. This would no doubt cause some heartburn at the Rose Bowl in particular, but allowing a 1-2 game in the semis would make a farce of the final game. And it has been an exceedingly rare occurrence: The Big Ten and Pac-12 champs have not ended the regular season as Nos. 1 and 2 (in the AP poll or BCS standings) since 1969. The ACC and Big East champs managed it once during the BCS era, in 1999. One possible compromise: If the Rose Bowl were hosting a semifinal, I might allow a 1-3 or 2-4 match-up if that would provide the game’s traditional pairing — and, more important, get everyone to sign off on a strong playoff plan.
  • The semifinal winners would play one week later (to avoid dragging the season out to mid-January) in a game that cities could bid to host, a la the Super Bowl.
  • Finally: I would require bowl games to invite only teams with at least eight wins. This inevitably would lead to the elimination of some games. Then again, it might be more attractive for, say, Detroit or San Francisco to host the national title game once every six or seven years than to host also-ran bowl games every year. One possible compromise: To help teams for which a six- or seven-win season is a rare occurrence, each school might be granted a waiver to the eight-win rule once every five years or so.
  • Money? Not my problem. I have no doubt the powers-that-be will find a way to make oodles of money from any playoff system.

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

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94 comments Add your comment

State of Hawaii Certificate of Live Birf

June 5th, 2012
3:02 pm

Dear President 0bama JiveTalker,

I do not care to hear your opinion on sports, essentially the only topic you can address & articulate without the aid of a teleprompter.

Frankly, I really don’t dig your thoughts on any other topic, either.

State of Hawaii Certificate of Live Birf

June 5th, 2012
3:03 pm

It doesn’t matter whether a college football playoff system is in place.

Coach Saban and THE TIDE will still Roll all over everyone else.

ROLL, TIDE, ROLL !!!!!!

State of Hawaii Certificate of Live Birf

June 5th, 2012
3:06 pm

Alabama > Clarke County Correctional & State University at Athens

Progressive Humanist

June 5th, 2012
3:08 pm

8 teams, no consideration for conference champions, just the 8 best in the country and play it out.

Jefferson

June 5th, 2012
3:29 pm

College football playoffs will kill the regular season, look at college basketball. Nothing wrong with what we have, what does it really mean anyway ?

@@

June 5th, 2012
3:38 pm

I don’t do this often, and ask the indulgence of my regular, non-pigskin readers.

What should I wear…my tichel or snood?

No butt slappin’, fellas.

Kyle Wingfield

June 5th, 2012
3:38 pm

Jefferson: I would prefer the current system to a bad playoff system.

Rafe Hollister- trying to save the Choom Gang

June 5th, 2012
3:49 pm

Playoffs will not kill the regular season! If you go through the motions and lose unexpectedly, you drop in the polls and don’t make the playoffs. No one is going to put you in the playoffs if you lose to Vanderbilt or Duke.

Committee made up of college football reporters, equal number from each region, get together and pick the best eight teams. Seed the games 1 vs 8, with team with best record playing at home. Second round same way, home team to highest seeded team. Championship game up for bids. If your conference was not good enough to make the playoffs, a conference championship would still be a big accomplishment for someone like GT in the ACC. The conference races would still be contentious.

Douglas

June 5th, 2012
3:49 pm

I disagree with your emphasis on conference champions. I think the best 6 teams should go regardless. A team could be a conference champ and not be one of the 6 best teams. Why not just base selection on the BCS ratings?

Gordon

June 5th, 2012
4:02 pm

Not a bad idea, but with 15 games you are turning football into a two semester sport. These are student athletes. With only 14 games, you can play a semi-final around December 20th and the final in very early January.

I think the polls should be less human driven and more data driven. Conference champions in order from the top 8 in the final ranking should get in, and then any remaining spots would be filled in order from the top of the poll.

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

June 5th, 2012
4:04 pm

Why do you need to have a number one?
The conference championship was and still is the highlight of the season.

td

June 5th, 2012
4:06 pm

I want a college playoff (4, 6, 8 teams) and I agree with Kyle that it should be done the right way and make sure the best teams are on the field.

Now this plan sounds like some type of lib model to ensure everyone is represented instead of making sure the best teams are on the field.

A reader

June 5th, 2012
4:10 pm

Kyle, this made me laugh –
“Money? Not my problem. I have no doubt the powers-that-be will find a way to make oodles of money from any playoff system.”

Because you are correct, the powers that be will find a way to make money and it is ALL about the money.

Jefferson

June 5th, 2012
4:10 pm

I think conferences that are so big that all teams don’t play each other just adds to the questions — ACC, SEC… these championship games are fun and money makers, but still questions and controversy remains. 12 teams in a conference, 11 conference games and a rivalry game. Bowls could be the playoffs if you have to have them, but the folks that run the Bowls don’t want anyone telling them what to do, they like the power they have. Again after a couple of years it means little.

stranger in a strange land

June 5th, 2012
4:11 pm

in the spirit of the times in your country – all teams should get a trophy for participation as an actual ‘winner’ might cause self esteem problems for the other teams (and let’s all go kick a round ball in the net)

Kyle Wingfield

June 5th, 2012
4:20 pm

td: Well, not everyone would be represented. But I do think that, because teams in different conferences don’t compete head-to-head, it’s hard to have an objective idea of which teams are really better than the other ones. I wouldn’t want a system in which only conference champs were included, but nor do I want to water down the importance of the regular season. I think you need a mix to make sure you get “the best teams on the field.”

Oh, and don’t forget that it wasn’t too long ago the SEC fretted that its teams couldn’t make the BCS title game because they’d just beat each other up…

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

June 5th, 2012
4:21 pm

I think the best 6 teams should go regardless.

And you can determine this in 10 games? LOL

Logical Dude

June 5th, 2012
4:22 pm

I read in the spirit intended, and when I saw “6 teams” I went “huh???” you mean like give two teams wild card spots?? then I read “Give the top two teams a first-round bye” which is Brilliant.
I still think an 8 team or 16 team playoff is better for true rankings – although it would hurt the tradition and pageantry.
4 teams seems to small a measure, but the 6 team playoff sounds very workable. Although (being from Alabama and supporting the SEC) I think less emphasis should be given to conference champs, but keep the BCS standings for all teams.

Glenn

June 5th, 2012
4:27 pm

I think the best model is 8 Teams . The five conference champs with three at large bids . I don’t think there is anyway the Big East can get an automatic bid . Maybe you can have one automatic bid given to the highest seeded conference champ that doesn’t come from an automatic bid conference . Then you would have just two at large bids .

Good topic when you consider the politics between conferences & politicians representing certain state schools .

State of Hawaii Certificate of Live Birf

June 5th, 2012
4:28 pm

When I watch college football games on TV, such as when the University of Alabama throttles the likes of Florida, Auburn, LSU, Texas, USC & Clarke County Correctional & State University at Athens, GA, I like to enjoy a 52-ounce, high-calorie, sugar-infused carbonated beverage from the Coca-Cola Company with my Golden Flake potato chips.

Then, I like to pour myself a 52-ounce beverage refill, light on the ice.

Suck the carbonated fizz off THAT, Mayor Bloomberg and First “Lady” Me-Chelle.

ROLL !!

TIDE !!

Kyle Wingfield

June 5th, 2012
4:30 pm

I didn’t realize Harvey Updyke had Internet access…

Lil' Barry Bailout (Revised Downward)

June 5th, 2012
4:40 pm

The best plan is to eliminate athletic scholarships, return to the concept of the student-athlete, do away with the BCS, and have sports writers and coaches vote for the national champion.

Not enough money in that approach, I suppose.

Tiberius - Banned from Bookman's and proud of it!

June 5th, 2012
4:51 pm

Take the top 8 teams based on BSC points.

Put all the players in a large room with a single sheet of paper and a pencil each.

Ask them to spell “CAT” without having to spot them the “C” and the “A”.

Whichever team has the highest percentage of correct entries wins the national championship, provided the winning team has a percentage above 50%. :D

St Simons- island off the coast of New Somalia

June 5th, 2012
4:55 pm

That’s fine, but that lets the Big 10 / 12-Pac sneak in every year,
and that’s just not serious big boy football.

The SEC championship game IS the NCAA nat’l championship game.
The rest is like the NIT tournament.

Hillbilly D

June 5th, 2012
5:28 pm

I’ll make the same suggestion I made on the sports blog. Cancel the season and invite every team in the country to a double elimination tournament that lasts from September to January.

LonghornGuy

June 5th, 2012
5:39 pm

Like most people with college football playoff plans, and like the people actually running college football, you’ve missed the point of all this. The reason we the fans wanted a playoff in the first place is because the way that the teams are selected for a playoff or championship game are subjective at best and corrupt at worst. The polls, the BCS formula (which uses the polls), or a selection committee, would all have the same problem, people are inherently biased, and easily corruptible. I don’t care how many teams you pick. If you take 6, #7 is going to have a legitimate gripe that they were left out. There is NO WAY you can watch every football game all season, and tell me who the best 6 teams are. You can tell me who you “think” are the best 6, but then we’re right back where we started. Winning your conference is the only fair way to earn a playoff spot. Any remaining “wildcard” spots in a playoff should be decided by some sort of formula similar to how the NFL seeds its’ playoff teams. There should be NO human input AT ALL.

@@

June 5th, 2012
5:48 pm

teams have won their conferences

Does anybody ever win at a conference? Only ones I’ve attended ended up being gabfests. Nuthin’ much was accomplished other than to schedule another conference for a later date, at which time…

yammer, yammer, yammer.

I know…off-topic…different kinda conference.

Douglas

June 5th, 2012
5:54 pm

”I think the best 6 teams should go regardless.

And you can determine this in 10 games? LOL”

Top 6 in BCS points ——- What’s so funny about that?

229 more days

June 5th, 2012
5:59 pm

I vote for either the 6 or 8 team system, but who is going to pick them?

Hillbilly D

June 5th, 2012
6:00 pm

Does anybody ever win at a conference?

Some of the best fights I ever saw were at Saturday Night Conference. (Most folks won’t get that but the ones who do will know exactly what I’m talking about. (IWH)

getalife

June 5th, 2012
6:02 pm

Looks like this is a birther blog not a college football blog.

Anyhoo, LSU 1. bama 1.

Needed another Championship game to break the tie.

Kyle Wingfield

June 5th, 2012
6:04 pm

Actually, LonghornGuy, I pretty much agree with what you said. I just don’t know how you take human input out altogether if we get into at-large teams — and while I would emphasize and reward conference champs, I wouldn’t exclude at-large teams, for the reasons explained in the OP. Even if we did, we’d have to rank them somehow to get seedings.

In my view, the BCS formula is as close as we’ve gotten to objective, though it is of course imperfect. (It’s gotten better over time.) The worst thing about it is that both human polls have been revealed to be jokes. Then again, I have a hard time believing Kansas State was the fourth-best team in the country at the end of the 2011 regular season, which is how the computer rankings’ average had it. So, you’re going to have to strike a balance there. A selection committee, however, would be the worst of all options imo.

LonghornGuy

June 5th, 2012
6:06 pm

Oh, and why is it sooo important to have the “best” 2 teams (or 4, or 6, or 8) teams on the field. There is not a single sport, where everybody’s opinion of who is the “best” team, wins the championship, or even plays for it, every season. This idea of picking the “best” is ridiculous. Let’s look at last season. Using the BCS, Stanford was rated ahead of Oregon, even though Oregon beat them on the field, and won the conference. Alabama didn’t even play for their conference title. So how were they more deserving than a team that won it’s conference? They weren’t. They had no business in that title game. But this is what “opinions” get you.

@@

June 5th, 2012
6:16 pm

Hillbilly:

(Most folks won’t get that but the ones who do will know exactly what I’m talking about. (IWH)

Then I’m the hostess with the mostess.

@@

June 5th, 2012
6:20 pm

…giving into the whims of mens.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it?

schnirt

LonghornGuy

June 5th, 2012
6:29 pm

I don’t think you should exclude at large teams either, if you are doing a 6 or 8 team playoff. I prefer an 8 team playoff. The NFL seeding rules to choose wildcard teams are:
If the tied clubs are from the same division, apply division tie breaker.
If the tied clubs are from different divisions, apply the following steps.
Two Clubs

Head-to-head, if applicable.
Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
Strength of victory.
Strength of schedule.
Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
Best net points in conference games.
Best net points in all games.
Best net touchdowns in all games.
Coin toss.
With a little tweaking this system could easily be used to seed 8 college football teams.

Skip

June 5th, 2012
6:38 pm

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

June 5th, 2012
6:51 pm

I don’t think Georgia has to worry about it any time soon.

@@

June 5th, 2012
6:59 pm

What’s Bill up to?

WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton says broad tax cuts that expire in January should be temporarily extended, including for the wealthiest Americans, to give lawmakers time to reach a deal on long-term tax reductions that he says should exclude the rich.

Clinton’s comments Tuesday were in contrast to President Barack Obama, whose re-election he Clinton is supporting. Obama has opposed renewing the tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 a year.

I guess Bill will be getting another phone call from the Obama team. He can’t be going around disagreeing with the president like that. Send forth the drones!

@@

June 5th, 2012
7:14 pm

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

June 5th, 2012
7:25 pm

Sure enough, rumpus giganticus Michelle throws down with Doomberg-

Michelle O Applauds NYC Soda Ban!

I told ya so.

@@

June 5th, 2012
8:12 pm

This is a revealing poll.

Early exits: Are recall elections appropriate?

Looks like Wisconsin voters favor the Republican view. Only in cases of misconduct.

<a href="http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Elections/Governors/2012/0605/Wisconsin-recall-election-Why-voters-can-t-wait-for-it-to-end"?Many voters who supported Walker Tuesday said their decision was not necessarily because they fully support his budget reforms, which included curbing collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions, or because they believe he is untarnished as a candidate. Instead, they said Walker got their vote because they feel a need to send a message about the inherent unfairness of the recall process itself.

Cheeseheads are suffering embarrassment due to the union mold.

@@

June 5th, 2012
8:13 pm

Oops! Just cut & paste.

@@

June 5th, 2012
8:19 pm

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

June 5th, 2012
8:31 pm

A Madison City Clerk has told a Wisconsin radio host that turnout for the area is expected at over 100%, up to 119%.

They expect the dead to vote?

bu2

June 5th, 2012
8:47 pm

In my one person opinion poll there should be 8 with the top 5 champions of conferences. Except for 1 or 2 years when a minor conference team was unbeaten you would never have had any legitimate complaints from #9.

If you do it all champs in a 4 or 6, you still have to have the human element. Like in 2008 when the BCS points picked Oklahoma over Texas for the Big 12 South title in a 3 way tie, despite the Longhorns beating OU by 10 on a neutral field.

@@

June 5th, 2012
8:52 pm

on a neutral field.

Would that be one where alot of lime is applied?

bu2

June 5th, 2012
9:00 pm

No that would be like France and Germany debating the solution to the Eurozone crisis in Switzerland.

@@

June 5th, 2012
9:09 pm

Dusty

June 5th, 2012
9:30 pm

FOOTBALL! When the Braves are playing and the score is seven to nothing in their favor?

What is going on? I’m taking my cookies and going home! There aint no justice here.