Mike Lantry, 1972
Turn on ESPN, or look at basically any media outlet that covers college football, and you'll find someone railing against the current BCS system. And with good reason. Brian has his well-reasoned alternative here. Today, Andy Staples informed us that the athletic directors of the Big 12 conference, fresh off Oklahoma State's BCS snub in favor of a regional contest between teams that already played each other, have tentatively backed the idea of a seeded 4-team tournament:
Monday, Big 12 athletic directors voted in a straw poll to get behind the idea of a plus-one format that would allow four teams to compete for the national title. Such a format would have allowed USC to play for the national title in 2003, Auburn to play for it in 2004, Texas to play for it in 2008 and Oklahoma State -- which finished behind No. 2 Alabama by the slimmest of margins in the BCS standings -- to play for the title this season. If the league's presidents choose to agree with their athletic directors, the Big 12's support would be a huge step forward. The Big 12 was one of several leagues that blocked SEC commissioner Mike Slive's 2008 proposal for a four-team, seeded tournament. The ACC was the only conference that supported the plan.
Then he goes on to say that the Big 10 is the lone holdout:
From their standpoint, that is the sensible position. That's why the Big Ten will likely offer the most resistance to any plus-one plan if it gets proposed prior to the next BCS annual meeting in April. Commissioner Jim Delany is a master at getting his colleagues to agree to do what is best for the Big Ten, and the Big Ten is better off without a playoff. Because the league contains huge schools with passionate fan bases, the old bowl system actually is the most advantageous for the Big Ten.
Then there's a bunch of "well we don't really know how it would work" stuff that demonstrates how far off this idea still is from becoming reality.
The problems at hand:
The sticking points are, according to Staples:
1. Resistance from the Big 10 ADs and from school presidents generally, who don't want to extend the season further into January and who like the bowl-system
2. Resistance from TV networks, who like the bowl-system
This is only part of the problem. Other issues he doesn't bring up include:
3. A tendency in American sports to keep expanding and expanding tournament brackets. Look at the NBA, NFL, MLB and even NCAAB. Anyone who thinks that this would end at 4, or even at 6, is kidding themselves. Once the cat's out of the bag, it's only a matter of time before it becomes 8, then 16, then 32.
4. NCAA football is unique in the sense that every single game matters absolutely. The more postseason play you have, the more watered down this becomes. This, in turn, could reduce interest in regular-season play, a la March Madness.*
These are, in my opinion, the underlying reasons why school presidents and ADs are opposed to a playoff. Unlike basketball or baseball, football is extremely physically taxing, and requires massive hours of practice, conditioning and preparation. It causes lots of injuries, and takes a lot of time away from schooling just to get ready for a single game. But the ADs and presidents were all okay with adding a 12th game, you say? Yes that's true, and it's a bit hypocritical. But that's where we are with the people pulling the trigger on this thing.
What an alternative to the BCS would have to look like:
Any viable alternative to the BCS, and by viable I mean palatable to ADs and school presidents, needs to do the following things:
1. Preserve the bowl system
2. Not extend the season far beyond its already extended point
3. Not threaten to engulf the regular season by morphing into an actual tournament
So what are the alternatives?
1. A "+1"
Go back to the old way of picking bowl participants (thus satisfying the Big 10 and Pac 12), and then have a game at the end pitting #1 against #2.
LIKELIHOOD: Low. This appeals to me, as someone who's always liked the ideosyncracies and old traditions of college football. But there's a lot of path dependency going on here, and I don't know if the NCAA would ditch the BCS selection process entirely at this point.
2. A pseudo "+1"
Keep the BCS, but instead of having a #1 vs. #2 game, have the BCS bowls all pick by lots, then schedule #1 vs. #2
LIKELIHOOD: High. I don't think this completely solves the selection issue, but it does sidestep the potential tournament problems that seem to be a sticking point. This would, at least, give the NCAA a decade of breathing space before the pitchforks and torches get too numerous to ignore...just like the BCS did.
3. A 4-team tournament
Have two bowls choose the top 4 teams, seeded, and then have the +1
LIKELIHOOD: Fair. This does solve the selection problem, but opens the door to more expansion, which I believe to be the ultimate fear of the ADs and school presidents who are backing the BCS. Still, it's not impossible given this year's BCS catastrophe.
4. A 6+ team tournament.
At least 6 seeded teams playing each other.
LIKEIHOOD: Low. Brian's suggestion is sensible and would make for good drama, but it potentially suggests 2+ games to the end of the season. The only way this becomes reality in the short-term is if ADs and school presidents agree to shorten the regular season, which ain't gonna happen.
5. Keep the current crappy system with some new window dressing to make it look, to its architects if to no one else, as if something has changed.
All Hail the BCS and its Opaque and Frustrating Selection Process.
LIKELIHOOD: Very High. Institutions are incredibly conservative things, and college football is, at base, a collection of autonomous institutions bound together by a host of decentralized institutions (conferences) loosely bound under an umbrella association with only limited authority and decision-making power (the NCAA). The NFL it ain't. This makes the most conservative solution the most likely, and keeping things mostly as they are = the most conservative solution. Don't believe me? Just wait and see...
As per previous diaries, I've just outlined some scenarios and argued why I think they are likely or unlikely. I'd like to ask all of you the following questions in your comments:
1. Which scenarios do you think are the most and least likely? Why or why not? Are there any I missed?
2. What system would actually be best for the sport, and for the student athletes who play it while enrolled full-time in college?
*March Madness has its own uniquely endearing qualities to it: IMO it's the best tournament in American sports. Not a diss here, but just because it works in one sport doesn't mean it's appropriate or feasible for another.
Story from the Petoskey News-Review recapping the "Lunch with Lloyd" in northern Michigan (the reporter is a friend of mine). While most of the article is about his work with the hospital and talking up Brady Hoke, the most interesting tidbit is at the very end. When asked about a potential BCS playoff format, Carr said:
"I was in New York a month ago for the College Football Hall of Fame and I talked to some important people that said in the next 10 years or so, there could be a group of prominent schools with large budgets and stadiums that could break away from the NCAA and play their own schedule. There could be anywhere from 60-65 teams that would break away and play their own schedule and then have a playoff."
While I would be completely shocked if this ever happened, the fact that it's coming from Lloyd and the "important people" he's talked with and not random Joe Blogger throwing out some wishful thinking idea gives the concept a lot more credibility. Thoughts?
Not sure if anyone saw Will Forte's song about the BCS last night on SNL. It was fantastic. The opening line?
"I like stepping in dog crap. I love it when children get sick. I love papercuts on my cornea, and I love the BCS."
Here's a link:
The song is about a minute into the video but it's worth the wait.
I agree with the WLA post on money keeping the BCS in place, but don't think a viable alternative would really be that hard to figure out. In an 8 team playoff, there would be 7 games, 4 quarterfinals, 2 semi's, and a championship game. with 6 major conferences and a whole bunch of schools we can group as "other" it gives us a total of 7 different groups we must appease.
Now, when you start the playoff, you start a rotation of games. You have games 1-7 numbered and drawn out of a hat, with 1 being the title, 2-3 being the sems, and 4-7 being the quarters. Each conference, including other, gets to choose a site among its schools to host their game at this year. The tv rights for that game would be sold to that conference and they would then sell them to a network. By doing this the conference can rake in ad revenue and ticket sales from each game. Obviously games would try to be matched regionally in the quarters so as to increase draw.
Each year the conferences rotate, going up one number, or, if they are number 7, going down to 1. This is necessary because obviously some games will make more money than others. You also would keep the current non bcs bowl structure for teams that do not make it into the playoff system, yet still get 6 wins, as sort of a huge nit.
As Sgt. Wolverine noted (as have others), a playoff only crowns a playoff champion, not a true National Champion. That's why, instead of trying to shoehorn some logic into the BCS or crying out for a 6, 8, or 12, or 16-team playoff, college football might as well just go back to its earlier pre-1998 system and just accept the "Mythical" before the NC and give the power back to the human polls.
Now hear me out. I look at sports at the elite level the same way I view entering an elite university, the gaggle of beautiful people trying to enter a trendy club, or obtaining a great job. At this level, when everyone/everything has virtually the same resume and skills, people are left trying to distill out the slimmest of stratification to justify why one team is better than another, and by default people believe that head-to-head somehow "proves" who is better. Yet, as we've seen numerous times, there is a myriad of variables that can greatly affect even the outcomes of these head-to-head match ups, let alone a full playoff. First off, when you play an opponent can have at least as much of an effect as who you play. We all remember 2006, when OSU and UM were two of the best three teams in America, played each other in a solid game, and then had to wait 50+ days to take on Florida and USC. Rust, overconfidence, over-scheming, etc. can all set in over that time, and what you get are two blowouts that I severely doubt would have happened if the games were played a week after the Big 10 finale. Conversely, look at Texas this year - they played 4 ranked teams on consecutive weekends, and then finally lost on a last-second touchdown grab. Teams get hot, teams get tired, players get hurt, etc., and when the talent is approximately equal, all a playoff shows is who was able to get hot, avoid injuries, and find a favorable draw for 3-4 weeks. So not only does a playoff only crown a playoff champion, but it now also crowns a playoff champion for the past month.
I still remember the kerfuffle that Colorado made a few years ago when they got red-hot at the end of the season, destroyed Nebraska (the fighting Eric Crouches) and beat Texas for the Big-12 title, and complained they were shut out of a chance at the NC even though they were playing the best football in the country at the time (of course, they then were destroyed by Mr. JJ Harrington and Oregon, yet more proof that "when" is a big deal). Of course, this same team had already lost to Fresno State and rather convincingly to Texas earlier in the season. This team wasn't the best team in America that season, but match them against Miami that year, one week after beating Texas, and who knows how that game plays out.
And the benefit of a favorable draw also plays into the inherit weakness of a playoff in CFB because it all falls on who you play. Look at the participants/scores in last year's BCS games:
Rose - USC/Ill (49-17)
Sugar - Georgia/Hawaii (41-10)
Fiesta - WVU/OU (48-28)
Orange - Kansas/VT (24-21)
NC - LSU/OSU (38-24)
I see a slew of blowouts plus one game (KU/VT) that neither team really seemed to want to win. So does that mean USC, Georgia, WVU, KU, and LSU were the best 5 teams last year, and LSU was the clear champion? Of course not. In fact, I would hazard to guess that if you flipped LSU with Georgia, that NC game turns out differently. Or flip WVU and KU, and maybe OU doesn't get obliterated and the world is deprived of the Bill Stewart Face. And yet, because these lineups were defined by a combination of tie-ins and expected ratings, people somehow believe that they provide an "objective" metric for how good each team was. That just doesn't make sense to me. These match ups never aligned the best teams against each other no more than the traditional bowl tie-ins created the best match ups for determining a true NC. All you have are a bunch of somewhat-arbitrary match ups that may place a superior team in the crosshares of some insanely-hot team, or a team that just lost its best player for some reason (remember Cinci back when Kenyon Martin played - that team was a legitimate NC contender in basketball until Martin injured himself right before the tourney).
Well, the same thing would happen with a playoff. How do you decide who is "better" when the BCS and the polls have yet to show an ounce of consistency in determining who the best 2 or 3 teams are a given week? Sure, SOS, conference strength, head-to-head match ups, etc. provide a component, but ultimately you are just left with more distractions and after-the-fact justifications, not a true barometer of what teams truly are the "best".
For example, take this season. Provided Alabama loses this weekend to Florida, why should Florida be a #1 seed and Oklahoma a #2, or vice-versa? How about Texas, Utah, Alabama, and PSU battling over the #3-6 spots? Depending on which slot each of these teams fall into, their chances of winning or losing vary wildly. Presuming Boise St. and Ball St. round out this 8-team playoff, Texas would play a weak Ball St. team while Alabama and PSU would hammer away on each other for the opportunity to then play Oklahoma or Florida in the next round. One week earlier, Alabama is the #1 team in America, and now you have them fighting for their life against another team that was one missed field goal away from a perfect season. That's the second inconsistency of a playoff - you may only be as good as the team you match up with that weekend, yet everyone somehow presumes that all the other teams that lost either contemporaneously or earlier are somehow worse. So not only do you only crown a playoff champion for the past month, but you now only crown a playoff champion who played that particular configuration of opponents.
And yes, a round-robin works in theory, but there is no way you can expect college football teams to play into February, even with a shortened regular season. The games are too nuanced and too physical - the reason it works in March Madness is because players and coaches generally can gameplan and recover for another opponent in a few days, while in football the players would be walking corpses after late December.
Finally, the third factor that people tend to forget about a playoff series is that certain teams enjoy the benefit of home field advantage even when it was not necessarily intended. Since I presume the only way a playoff will work is with the consent of the bowl alliance, most of these playoff games would need to be played on "neutral" fields sponsored by the various bowls. True, you should reward teams with "better" records with home field, but you'll inevitably have the problem we've seen over the past few years with certain warm-weather schools (looking at you, LSU and USC) playing meaningful games virtually at home because of these relationships. Heck, USC virtually never has to leave Southern California during bowl season, and I still believe that LSU playing in the Superdome last year helped them immensely against OSU. Sure, the traditional bowl games were not anything better (USC still has the Rose Bowl, LSU the Superdome, Florida/FSU/Miami the Orange Bowl, etc.), but at least there you could argue bowl tie-ins were at work and every team kind of understood the worst-case scenario at the beginning of the season. Admittedly this is the weakest of my arguments, and that is why I left it until the end. That said, now you are left crowing not just a playoff champion who played a particular configuration of opponents over a shortened time frame, but also a playoff champion who played those games at particular fields.
If you have made it this far, then congrats, and you are almost done. I used to be a huge fan of playoffs in football, believing that it somehow crowned a truer champion than the USA Today/Coaches poll or the BCS title game. Yet, the more I thought about it, I don't see it doing anything more than slapping a different coat of paint on the same broken-down car. Implementing a playoff would, ultimately, appease some fans for a short period of time until its flaws would begin to show, probably when a team like BYU runs the table or a 3-loss SEC team gets insanely hot and wins the NC. Personally, the only thing I dislike more than the uncertainty the polls created is the faux-certainty and legitimacy that the BCS gave to each season's MNC. At least with the polls, early-season struggles were at least partially remembered, and getting hot at the right time wasn't necessarily rewarded with any more or less outrageousness than in a playoff. And for those concerned that the polls would overlook worthy teams like Utah or Boise St., I'm all for a rule that would allow a mid-major ranked in the top-10 to knock out a lower-ranked opponent with a tie-in from one of the "big" bowls. Sure, that might cause the occasional outrage and isn't perfect, but then at least you give these teams a chance to showcase their abilities against a top-flight opponent. Best-case scenario, a top-flight team like Utah goes undefeated and miraculously bypasses all of the 1-loss teams and is named the MNC; worst-case scenario is they go undefeated and are still passed over by a 1-loss power team, which is the exact same result we've seen since the beginning of the BCS/time. I am all for abolishing the BCS; I just don't think we need to replace it with some convoluted playoff system.