All of the key players (conference commissioners, bowls, TV) seem now to agree that some kind of four-team playoff is coming to college football. The challenge now turns to exactly how the four participants will be selected.
Three main options have emerged: 1) Polls; 2) A Selection Committee; or 3) Autobids for the four best conference champions. I'd like to explore the pros and cons of these options and suggest the likely outcome.
There are also hybrid options, which I'll get into below.
Polls would be the most straightforward extension of the system we have now: instead of the top two qualifying, the top four would qualify. This is not to say that the BCS standings would be computed as they are today, only that some combination of computer and human polls would determine who gets in.
A Selection Committee would be a system similar to basketball, where a small group of experts would weigh the candidates and choose the best four.
Autobids would take the decision almost entirely out of human hands: the four best conference champions would qualify for the playoff. Of course, you'd still need polls to decide the four best, but the influence of the polls would be greatly minimized. For instance, last season the rankings of the six BCS league champions were 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, and unranked. I doubt that any rational observer would have had a serious argument with that order.
A few Hybrid proposals have been widely circulated. For instance, Jim Delany has suggested autobids for conference champions, but only if they're ranked at least sixth. This system would enhance the value of winning your conference, but would eliminate weak champions from playoff consideration. (Last year, UCLA had a shot at winning the Pac-12 with a 6-6 regular-season record.)
The pure "Autobid" option seems to me highly unlikely to be selected, because it would allow weak conference champions into the playoff. One could argue the relative merits of Oklahoma State and Alabama last year. But in a system where four teams qualify, could anyone but a Wisconsin fan really claim that the Badgers, despite winning the Big Ten in a down year, had a better season than the Crimson Tide? Seriously?
A playoff that fails to select the four best teams is not credible. Conference champions aren't necessarily the best, except perhaps in their own league (and sometimes not even there). And in any event, the SEC would never agree to that—and no proposal will be adopted that the SEC doesn't support. That's the political reality.
Another political reality is that you need a system that accommodates Notre Dame. Irish-haters may say, "Let 'em join a league." But no one with any actual authority in the matter is trying to freeze the Irish out: ND Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick is a full voting member in the BCS negotiations. And the various interested parties (bowls, television) won't accept a system in which the Irish can't qualify. Whatever you think of them, the Irish are a big draw. So there needs to be a system that accommodates highly-ranked teams that didn't win a conference.
The pure "Polls" option is the easiest to understand: reach the top four, and you're in. But it can lead to some anomalies. Last year, for instance, Stanford was #4 in the BCS standings, but the Pac-10 champion Oregon Ducks, who beat Stanford in the regular season, were #5. The Delany proposal, which gives priority to conference champs, as long as they're in the top six, would correct for that. So would a rule that allows conference runners-up only if the conference champion also qualifies.
Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez favors a selection comittee, which he feels is more transparent: if you don't like the result, you'd know exactly who was responsible. This differs from the current BCS standings, where most people don't even know what algorithms the computers are relying on.
But where would you find a committee of manageable size, whose loyalties wouldn't be in question. Alvarez is apparently unaware of the irony, when he suggests Kirk Herbstreit as an ideal member of the committee, saying the former Buckeye "is neutral, is on top of it, [and] talks to coaches around the country."
Can you imagine the uproar if there's a close call between #4 and #5, and Ohio State is one of the two teams? Or if it's Michigan? No one would believe that Herbstreit was neutral in that transaction. And of course, as ESPN's #1 booth analyst, he'd be helping to decide the participants in the very game he was going to broadcast. It's hard to imagine a more obvious conflict of interest.
This is not to single out Herbstreit. I can't imagine who you could put on that committee, who would be accepted as truly neutral. There is hardly anyone in college football who doesn't have some allegiance (real or perceived) to a particular school or conference.
I do realize that the NCAA has a selection committee for basketball, but it's a completely different situation. The lowest seed ever to win the tournament was #8 Villanova in 1985. The lowest seed ever to reach a Final Four was #11 (which has happened twice). So none of the teams that get left out, the so-called bubble teams, have any realistic shot at winning it. Narrowly missing the tourney is no doubt frustrating to the fans of those particular schools, but the rest of the country doesn't care.
In a four-team football playoff, the difference between #4 and #5 is immense. You might not like the BCS standings (Barry Alvarez clearly doesn't), but there are so many inputs to them that there is no one person you can blame if you don't like where your team is ranked. On any committee, there invariably would be a backlash in close cases.
That doesn't mean the BCS formula is perfect. For instance, the coaches' poll ought to be dropped: it's a clear conflict of interest. And the computer rankings that participate today are not the best ones. But the basic idea of a ranking based on some combination of computers and human polling is the right way to go.
There's a lot of talk in college football about "honoring" the regular season. It's a bunch of hooey. Under any of the suggested formats, your team will have to have a very good regular season to qualify for the playoff. Either you'll have to win your conference, or be ranked in the top four to six, or some combination of the two.
In short, what I think we'll wind up with is some kind of hybrid qualification model, which will favor conference champions, but with a provision for wild cards, and/or a requirement that conference champs be rated at least sixth. And I think the rating mechanism is more likely to be a combination of polls and computers, not a committee.