Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Perfect Playoff Proposal for College Football

After writing a piece about the extensive failures of the BCS, I was stunned to find several fans willing to defend the system. Or rather they seemed to find deeper fault with a playoff system. The surprising part was not that they disagreed with the article, but rather that they thought a playoff format would create more controversy than it would solve.

To me, that just doesn't make sense.

This year is the perfect illustration because it's pretty much a worst-case-scenario as far as determining who the country's best football program is. There are the three undefeated schools from smaller conferences. There is the cluster-fornication in the Big 12 where A beat B who beat C who beat A and the other opponents of consequence are the same. There is Florida running roughshod over everyone in its path except a good-not-great Ole Miss squad in the Swamp. There is USC doing the same except for Oregon State on the road. Ditto Penn State and Iowa.

It seems reasonable that, if a playoff system would produce more favorable results this year, it would do so in every other year as well. Presumably, they would be clearer pictures with which to begin the task.

So let's see what kind of picture two easy steps would produce. First, the steps:

1. Trim a regular season, non-conference game off the schedule and add a title game to the conferences without one.

Look at the schedules of six representative schools from the BCS conferences (either champs or going to the conference title game). Florida, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech each play four out-of-conference games and 13 total regular season games. West Virginia plays five OOC games and 12 total. Ohio State plays four and 12 while USC plays three and 12.

Neither the Pac-10, the Big 10, nor the Big East have conference title games. Add one to bring their totals up to 13.

Almost everyone on the list plays two weak, nonconference opponents so almost nothing is lost trimming that single game. You could even replace an additional OOC game from the SEC, Big 12, and ACC schedules with another conference one to decrease the chances of an unbalanced schedule creating controversy.

Regardless, the total regular season games played by each school would now be 12.

2. Create an eight team playoff format while keeping the bowl games for those who don't qualify.

The eight schools that qualified for the playoffs would be promised an extra postseason game. The same would be true of all those invited to bowls. Those who played in conference championships would be looking at a 13th game while those who did not would be looking at a 12th.

For the playoff losers and the bowl invitees, that would be the last game while those who fail to qualify for either would finish after their 11th tilt.

Those in the playoff format who advanced to the semifinal round of four would be looking at either a 13th or 14th game. The two schools in the championship would face a 14th or 15th game.

That's it. You wouldn't even have to ditch the polls, just tweak their significance.

You could require a top 10 finish based on some amalgamation of the polls in order to qualify for the playoffs. The rest could be used to determine the bowl match-ups as well as which eight teams should receive playoff seeds.

In an imaginary world, where college football has taken those two steps, we'd have an eight team playoff consisting of Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, USC, Alabama, Penn State, Utah, and Boise State (probably seeded accordingly).

That's a pretty picture, but is it perfect?

First, to the matter of competitive gripes. Both Texas Tech and Ohio State would probably complain the loudest, and with some reason. But Tech got pasted in its only road challenge, barely answered its biggest home challenge, and played nobody outside the Big 12. Meanwhile, Ohio State got scrambled by USC and lost to Penn State. The Buckeyes got two shots at the national scene and blew them both.

In other words, both schools would have very unsympathetic arguments.

Ball State would also complain and rightfully so. But it gets squeezed by circumstance. Such is life.

Yes, the bowl games would lose a ton of revenue. Yes, the vast majority of schools would play one less game a year while a few would see the same workload and two would see an extra game.

But that playoff format would generate quite a bit of extra cash. Spread it around to the schools and sponsors. Allow the elite programs that see the extra games some measure of financial reward, but spread some of that around as well.

I'm sure there are other problems that I'm not considering.

Of course, these costs are cheap when they buy a national champion, crowned beyond a reasonable argument. For opening up the regular season to better nonconference match-ups. For giving the Davids from Utah and Boise State a real chance to slay the Goliaths with the Crystal Football at stake. For removing another reason to run up obscene scores against inferior opponents.

So is it perfect? No. But the title "The As-Perfect-As-Possible Playoff Proposal for College Football" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

And I sincerely believe that's what such a playoff system could be:

As close to perfect as college football is ever going to get.

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