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