Alas, a four-team college football playoff will be no panacea

Nick Saban advocates the plumb-bob method of determining a national champion. (AJC photo by Bob Andres)

Nick Saban advocates the time-honored plumb-bob method of determining a national champion. (AJC photo by Bob Andres)

Knock me over with a feather. The coaches who work in the league that just filled both slots in the BCS title game have queued up to say they don’t want a new four-team playoff to include only conference champs. From Nick Saban of Alabama, who told reporters: “It’s just like politics and self-interest. Somebody wants to create a circumstance that’s going to help their situation or conference. That’s not in the best interest of college football.”

This from the coach whose team won the national championship without winning its division. (No self-interest there!)

I don’t blame the SEC coaches. Their league plays the best football. There’s a chance a four-team playoff, if seeded according to merit, might include not two but three SEC teams. Which might not be fair to the other conferences, but who said even a four-team playoff will be fair?

The Big Ten, never a shrinking violet when it comes to self-interest, is lobbying for a champs-only playoff. Just for the record, the Big Ten hasn’t dispatched a team to the BCS title game since January 2008. Just for the record, league commissioner Jim Delany has grumbling constituents to placate.

Counterpoint from Florida coach Will Muschamp, speaking at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla.: “”I don’t think [the impending] playoff needs to be the conference champions because in our league we might have four of the best teams in the country.”

Here we come to the nub of the issue. If college football is to remain the sport where — invoking the official BCS slogan — Every Game Counts, wouldn’t it look odd to have a four-team tournament that includes two or more non-champions? (New slogan: Every Game Counts Except Those That Don’t.) On the other hand, wouldn’t it look even odder if a four-team playoff is rendered the SEC Invitational?

College football has forever been the sport that makes the least sense. The long-sought playoff is an attempt to remedy that, but the drive for a playoff is less a considered course of action than a knee-jerk response to what just happened. What just happened was that the BCS title game became an SEC rematch that pleased no one except SEC loyalists. The playoff is supposed to spread the wealth. It might not spread it beyond Mike Slive’s football fiefdom.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the 2012 season works thusly: Alabama beats LSU 9-6 in overtime; Alabama finishes the regular season 12-0; LSU finishes 11-1 and runs second in the West; Georgia goes 11-1 and wins the SEC East and upsets Alabama in the conference title game.

Let’s also say that Southern Cal finishes unbeaten in the Pac-12 but the champs of the Big 12, the Big Ten and the ACC all have at least one loss. Let’s say you’ve got three once-beaten teams from the SEC ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in the human polls. Were there an open-to-non-champs four-team playoff in place — there won’t be by this fall, but we’re pretending — wouldn’t it be difficult not to select Georgia, Alabama and LSU? (Didn’t we learn from the 2011 BCS standings that a once-beaten SEC non-champ trumps a once-beaten Big 12 titlist?)

Understand: I’m not opposed to a playoff. What I fear is that a four-team playoff won’t be much different from the 1-versus-2 BCS “system” we all despised. Somebody (or somebody’s computer) will have to choose four teams, and the outcry from those not selected could be even louder than before.

With a four-team playoff, the expectation from non-SEC leagues is that their champs will be better positioned than in 1-versus-2. They might not be. Such is the cachet of the SEC that it figures to have at least two teams in the discussion every season unless there’s a champs-only stipulation included, but wouldn’t the whole thing lose credibility if there is? (Possible half-baked compromise: No more than two of the four teams can come from a single league.)

The trouble with a four-team playoff is that it isn’t quite a tournament. Eight would be far better. (Steve Spurrier prefers that format, FYI.) With an eight-team field, you could accommodate the five BCS league champs — let’s agree to drop the Big East from the discussion — and still have room for worthy runners-up and the occasional Boise State. An eight-team grid would offer both the appearance and the reality of inclusion. The only reason not to have an eight-team tournament is because it would mess up the bowls, which is no reason at all.

I know, I know. After going so long without a real playoff, we should be grateful for small favors. But college football, as is its wont, is trying to have it both ways: Grafting a playoff patch on to a postseason already bloated by who-cares bowls. Even as I hope for the best, honesty compels me to confess that I expect rather less.

By Mark Bradley

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May 30th, 2012
11:21 am











May 30th, 2012
11:24 am

Frank Lane

May 30th, 2012
11:24 am

You are correct. Only an 8 team playoff begins to make sense.

Frank Lane

May 30th, 2012
11:26 am

I would support Harold’s suggestion above. 16 teams. Based on results of 10 or 11 game season.

Chi Town

May 30th, 2012
11:27 am

Respect, Saban.

Dawgdad (The Original)

May 30th, 2012
11:35 am

I agree MB, just changing the argument, not eliminating it.


May 30th, 2012
11:36 am

Plumb-bob method, now thats funny Mark.


May 30th, 2012
11:37 am

A four game playoff is better than what we currently have as long as it is the four best teams. Hopefully after the four game playoff is establish it can be expanded to an eight game playoff.

follow the money

May 30th, 2012
11:38 am

This is a start. You have to crawl before you can walk. We move to a 4 team playoff, as evidenced by the new Champions bowl, and the bowls lose a little power and influence. When we revisit this discussion in a few years, it becomes much easier to go to 8 teams…

I don’t believe you will ever see the schedule shortened to 10 or 11 games unless the TV revenue is so great as to compensate for all the revenue the extra game generates.

follow the money

May 30th, 2012
11:40 am

in determining a champ, it is much easier to accept the champion if we are arguing over 4/5 or eventually 8/9 rather than who is 1/2/3 prior to the big game.


May 30th, 2012
11:47 am

I agree an eight team playoff works better, but I don’t agree with the top part of the article. All games do matter in this system. You describe a scenario with some one loss SEC teams, but the other conferences also have “at least one loss.”. At this point, it isn’t which league gets a shot … It should be who are the four teams in the land? They get the shot at it.

Every game still counts as it helps all consideration filters determine where that team falls in the rankings. If Georgia is 11-1 and lost to LSU and Ohio State is 11-1 and lost to a 6-5 Northwestern team, well, both those games matter in deciding which team is ‘better’ and where they are ranked. If both still rank 1 through 4 then great, both get a shot.

Let’s actually say all games matter and not all conferences matter. I want to see the four best teams in the land playing for the title.


May 30th, 2012
11:48 am

I think a good compromise would be say no more than two teams from one conference in a four team playoff . As far as an 8 team playoff , we all know it won’t happen .


May 30th, 2012
11:50 am

I would like a sixteen team playoff but that’s not going to happen so here goes my second best idea. Lets go eight teams. With the winners of the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, ACC, and Big East. This gives room for two at large teams which could include a conference runners up, Independents or a deserving lesser conference champion. Now lets play

jay h

May 30th, 2012
11:53 am

Wow, Mark, even YOU usually wait for something to fail – or at least for the final parameters to be determined – before declaring something a failure.

I suppose as Larry said, “New league record…ANOTHER new league record….”


May 30th, 2012
11:55 am

This is a great blog Mark. It really shows how much of a joke the playoff system will be if we allow more then one team from a conference in. In some ways I think it would be worse then the current BCS system.


May 30th, 2012
11:59 am

Mark, eight teams sounds just about right. Why do I get the feeling this makes too much sense for the powers to be?


May 30th, 2012
12:02 pm

If its only going to be a 4-team playoff, then I think only conf champions and MAYBE one at-large invite makes the most sense. WIN YOUR CONFERENCE


May 30th, 2012
12:05 pm

I don’t think we’ll see the seasons of 100+ “other” teams truncated for the benefit of 4 or 8 ’special’ teams. There is too much money, and too much fun, to be lost. Watch out, or the egos of the 6 or 8 men running college football will ruin it. (DeLoss Dodds, what are you up to today?)

Tide Rising

May 30th, 2012
12:13 pm

“This from the coach whose team won the national championship without winning its division. (No self-interest there!)”

So. You think this will be the first time that the 2 best teams in the nation both happen to play in the same division?

“What I fear is that four-team playoff won’t be much different from the 1-versus-2 BCS “system” we all despised.’

Sorry Mark but go back and look at history. The BCS usually got it right in pairing the top 2 teams. There were a few exceptions where a really strong 3rd party team got left out such as AU in 04. Other years where a 3rd team like Ok. state last year or Georgia in 07 felt like they were left out. And the big 10 can’t complain because years back when OSU-Mich were #1 and #2 and played and they talked about a rematch well Michigan would have been in the top 4 and gotten into a 4 team playoff so this doesn’t just work for the SEC.

If you keep the BCS intact you will always get that 3rd best team or 4th best team in the playoff. The team that finishes ranked 5th will whine and moan but you have to have a cutoff somewhere and after the 3rd and especially the 4th teams you really start to lose a serious claim as to whether or not you deserve a title shot.

If you go to the ridiculous champion only concept than a lot of middling teams like 2 loss and # 8 ranked Oregon would have gotten in and Wisconsin last year which I think was ranked #10 would have gotten in. Who the hell wants to see 2 loss conference champions ranked no. 8 through 10 in a 4 team playoff over a team that finished ranked 2nd whose only loss was in OT to the no. 1 ranked team? That’s just plain dumb.

suwanee dawg

May 30th, 2012
12:13 pm

Keep BSC rankings in tact. Have seven BCS bowls. First four are 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, etc. Have these four over the new years period. Week two the four winners play in bows five and six. Two winners meet in NC game two weeks later (bowl 7). Keep all other conference championships and bowl tie ins outside of the 8 BCS team play in tact. This would allow most if not all games to matter and build an excitement on pairings.

Brave Hokie

May 30th, 2012
12:16 pm

I appreciate how disappointing it might be for SEC fans if the 4 team playoff doesn’t inlcude at least 3/4 SEC teams… but this might be the compromise needed to get all conferences to agree on a playoff. Then, perhaps the playoff grows to include at large teams.

As rolling as the SEC is right now, remember they would have benefited from “conference winners only” just 9/10 years ago…

If you calling for a larger playoff pool {than 4} ~ please save your energy ~ go back to playing PlayStation or whatever. This will not happen out of the box…

Tide Rising

May 30th, 2012
12:18 pm

Who wants to see 2 loss conference champions ranked something like #8 or #10 like Oregon or Wisconsin in a 4 team playoff? Why would that team deserve to be in a playoff over say AU in 04 or UGA in 07 or Michigan which was ranked #3 in 07 after losing to Ohio state in the “game of the century” when they were ranked 1-2.

Stick with the BCS its almost always got it right and in years where it didn’t and a 3rd team got left out that 3rd team would be included in a 4 team playoff. Go with the top 4 ranked teams at the end of the year. The cutoff has to be somewhere and if you can’t get in the top 4 then you probably don’t have much of an argument for being in the playoff anyway.

Tide Rising

May 30th, 2012
12:23 pm

Get it out of your heads. Its not just the SEC. Remember when no. 1 Ohio State and no. 2 Michigan played to a 3 pt game in 06? And afterwards a lot of big 10 fans were clamoring for a rematch for the national title. If you went with just the top 4 ranked teams then Michigan would have gotten in, been promptly destroyed, but at least the top 4 ranked teams including the the perceived top 2 who happened to be from the same conference would have gotten into the playoff. Last year wasn’t the first year where the top 2 or 2 of the top 3-4 teams just happened to reside in the same conference. And it won’t be the last.


May 30th, 2012
12:33 pm

8 team playoff. Teams determined by selection committee and slotted into “Bowls”. No polls allowed. The major bowls are used for the 6 quarterfinal and semifinal games. Championship game can be a non-bowl game like it is today. Start the playoffs 2 weeks after the championship games. That would put the Championship game on or around the 12th of January. Not all that different from the current system. Use the other bowls for the other teams to have their pointless end-of-season scrimmage. Again, not that different from today’s system – the majority of the bowls are already meaningless.


May 30th, 2012
12:34 pm

Stick with the BCS its almost always got it right

This is completely subjective. I could easily argue that the BCS has never once gotten it right. As long as champions, or playoff teams are picked by old men who don’t watch even one third of the games then we will never know if it is right or not. Let teams decide it on the field like every other sport ever played.

George Stein

May 30th, 2012
12:37 pm

The issue, I think, is that all records are not created equally. Further, the SEC should think a bit more strategically because strength isn’t static. Just because they have been successful recently does not mean they always will.

George Stein

May 30th, 2012
12:39 pm

The other issue the SEC has is that they only get one vote. If other conferences want conference champions only, then the SEC faces the decision to either go along with that or not participate. Good luck.

Sissy Dawg

May 30th, 2012
12:45 pm

Why not just declare the SEC champion the Nation Champion and eliminate all the BS.

I dropped my fried twinkie

May 30th, 2012
12:47 pm

JUST drop the affiliation with colleges and just make it Semi-Pro and sure 16 team playoff makes sense.
These are STUDENTS first and need to get a VALUABLE EDUCATION so when they don’t go PRO or have their careers ended playing 16 or 17 games a year they can at least get a job.
IF you go to a 16 or 17 game season you will hear more CRIES for PAYING the players.
YOU better PAY the Players and provide Health Coverage for LIFE if you want them to play that many games.


May 30th, 2012
12:52 pm

College football will never make much sense. The lack of a real playoff system is just one of many reasons why I look forward more to Sunday’s in the fall…


May 30th, 2012
12:53 pm

“If you go to the ridiculous champion only concept than a lot of middling teams like 2 loss and # 8 ranked Oregon would have gotten in and Wisconsin last year which I think was ranked #10 would have gotten in. Who the hell wants to see 2 loss conference champions ranked no. 8 through 10 in a 4 team playoff over a team that finished ranked 2nd whose only loss was in OT to the no. 1 ranked team? That’s just plain dumb.”

… then let’s get rid of Conferences all-together and just play regular season games based on rankings. As long as we’re all divided up into Conferences, becoming Conference Champion should be a vital step towards a National Title IN ADDITION TO rankings. It should be equivalent to winning your Division before advancing to the League Playoffs. So some conferences are much harder to win because, year after year, they have more ranked teams within them? TOO BAD


May 30th, 2012
12:53 pm

the article is 100% right – 4 teams do not make a playoff. 8 or even 16 can be done even today.
1-each of the 5 big conferences (ACC, SEC, PAC, BIG 10, BIG 12) select 3 teams with 1 slot open for a wild card
2-first round games are thanksgiving weekend
3-quarters are the weekend after(current conf champ games)
4-semis are the weekend after that (current army-navy)
5-chanp game is played on new years day. all the bowls are free to do what they still do.

Boise Dawg

May 30th, 2012
12:53 pm

I have very mixed feelings about this as I would not have wanted to see a 4-team playoff last year that included Arkansas, Alabama and LSU…. on the other hand I would still like to see the 4 best teams even if by chance one of those teams did not win their conference. The diffculty is that so few teams play tough out of confernce games, so it is hard to know for sure if a team like Arkansas was really better than an Oklahoma State or an Oregon… I would rather see the top team from the SEC play other top teams from other conferences vs. a rematch with an conference foe they already beat. It would make the regular season more meanginful by limiting to conference champions.

Old Dawg

May 30th, 2012
12:57 pm

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, the only solution is a 16-team play-off. That way conference champs and Top 10 teams that don’t win a conference title.

Check it out:
D-III has 199 teams and plays a 16-team format
D-III has 148 teams and plays a 16-team format
1-AA has 124 teams and plays a 16-team format
D-I has 120 teams and no play-off

You can argue that the season is too long, but under the current D-I format, they’re playing 13 games, if you include a bowl game. Teams that play in a conference title game are playing 14 game, one less than 1-AA’s 11-game schedule and four games for the teams that make the finals.

Paying football players will never work … thanks to Title IX, if you pay athletes in one sport you have to pay them all, and many school’s athletic budgets are already bleeding red!

Get it done!

I dropped my fried twinkie

May 30th, 2012
12:58 pm

Soon it will be cheaper for an Alcoholic Smoker to health insurance than it will be for a Kid that played 4 or 5 years of College Football.

Hell yes lets add more games and REFUSE to Play the players.

I dropped my fried twinkie

May 30th, 2012
1:02 pm

OLD DAWG not so! It has been said only Students that get FULL SCHOLARSHIPS will get paid………..I am sure the WOMEN will SUE, but Only Full Ride Scholarship Players will be paid.


May 30th, 2012
1:05 pm

The best solution is to have an eight team playoff with the eight highest ranked teams going. The highest ranked Big -10 team last year was ranked 11 in the nation and would not deserve to be included in any playoff , so to make sure that doesn’t happen, Conference Champions can never be the choice of selecting who go’s to the playoff. If you go to an eight team playoff you have more of a chance of every part of the country getting involved.
As much as I love the SEC I would rather see other parts of the country play in a playoff than to just have an SEC Championship replayed. But if our Conference is so strong that we have 3 teams in the top eight then it wouldn’t be fair if all three teams were not included in a playoff and thus the best format of making as many college fans happy as possible would be to have an eight team playoff.


May 30th, 2012
1:07 pm

What about notre dame? They should get special treament like they have in the past, perhaps and automatic bid or just name them champions anyway cause they are so much better than everyone else :-)

Hurt Kurbstreit

May 30th, 2012
1:11 pm

Whichever way you go there are problems with an expanded playoff system. I don’t think a 16 team playoff is going to happen. That’s too many games for college players to play on the way to the championship game. If you decide to eliminate one game from the regular season to cut back on games – that’s not gonna fly either. That’s a big revenue loss for the teams that don’t make it into the playoff rounds. Me, I don’t know what the answer is for a fair and representative system.

Father of 5

May 30th, 2012
1:16 pm

D2 playoffs had 16 with no problems — but it would mean hosting the first round on campus (which makes sense). 8 is possible, but still has problems. 4 won’t last long before it implodes from farcical situations like last year. You cannot rely on polls UNLESS the polls have criteria. Require them to follow head to head, or an objective strength of schedule component. Polls that follow the ice skating method of voting for the prettiest team will always remain a joke.

Paul in NH

May 30th, 2012
1:23 pm

I wonder if Slive understands how a cartel works. You have to get your co-conspirators (Delany, Swofford, Scott and Neinas) to agree with you. I mean – isn’t the goal to keep all of the opportunity and $ to the big conferences and freeze out the rest of NCAA Div 1?


May 30th, 2012
1:27 pm

Yeah, great idea. This kids don’t need to take finals anyways. Dude, we don’t even have a playoff yet, and people are already screaming for 8-16 team playoff.


May 30th, 2012
1:29 pm

The key is deciding the national champion on the field. So any scenario that gets put on the table, just ask yourself….would this allow the national champion to be determined on the actual playing field? (like every other team sport in the world) If the answer is NO, well then we need to keep looking until we get there or it will always be politics and money and good looks instead of actual head to head competition.

You can tweak the bowls and the BCS all you want but it will never truly be determined on the field if that’s your starting point. The lower college football divisions have figured this out and the sun still came up the next day….jeez


May 30th, 2012
1:30 pm

A 16 team playoff would be the fairest. Two each from the five conferences or six conferences (conference champion and runner-up) plus the 4 or 6 highest ranked teams not included via conference slection.


May 30th, 2012
1:48 pm

Well, finally the idiot casual sports fan and the weekend warrior fantasy league guru have gotten their way and there will be some sort of stupid playoff. Nevermind that college football has been doing just fine without this crap. Nevermind that over the past few years there hasn’t really been any disagreement (well, at least realistic disagreement) over who should have been named the National Champ at the end of the year. . . .

So let’s have a 4 team playoff! yeah! only problem is, if people have been arguing over who should be #1, there’s going to be a helluva lot more arguing over who should be in the top 4. Think about the number of teams that will have a legitimate chance of being named in the top 4. . . so you just leave #5 out?? Leave out #6? No, let’s have a 16 team tourney. Right. . nevermind that actual number of games you’ve got college kids playing in one season. a 16 team tourney at the end of the season saps college football of the thing that has made it great: The fact that every game in a college football season matters. Every conference game is HUGE. If you subscribe to the 16 game or 8 game set up, you’re doing away with that part of college football.

This 4 team playoff this is a joke. It won’t be perfect. It’s trying to fix some imaginary problem. “I want to see a playoff!” . . . then go watch the NFL. College football has been doing just fine without it.


May 30th, 2012
1:51 pm

Why must we continue to include Polls (BCS or otherwise) in this discussion? Polls are subjective, biased, and basically meaningless. They should do as Basketball does and have a selection committee. That way, someone is responsible for who’s included and who’s not. Seems perfectly fair to me.


May 30th, 2012
1:51 pm

You will end up with 4 super conferences shortly, let each division winner from that conference play the conference title game( essentially a national quarterfinal) then each conference champion is invited to play in the Final Four. People will cry about getting left out in any scenario. If you set the criteria in advance and stick with it no one can complain or moan!!!!!!

Ptc dawg

May 30th, 2012
1:52 pm

Top 8, get it on.