College football playoff plan
Oregon and Auburn will play for the BCS title five weeks from now. It is, undoubtedly, an intriguing and potentially excellent game every fan should want to see. Unfortunately it’s part of a system that robs college football of the excitement, opportunity and drama that a playoff would create.
TCU finished its second consecutive undefeated regular season and never stood a chance. Neither did Boise State – so please forgive kicker Kyle Brotzman, all he cost the Broncos was the right to complain the BCS had screwed them.
Freezing those schools out is only a small part of the problem though. The bigger one is the lack of excitement to end the season and then the inexplicable 37 day layoff before a mid-January conclusion.
Rather than get weeks of intriguing, high-stakes playoff games played in raucous on campus stadiums, we get one-off bowl games in rarely sold-out municipal stadiums with curious matchups based on ticket sales, potential TV ratings and all sorts of other things that don’t involve actual on-field accomplishment.
We miss Wisconsin barreling along as a matchup nightmare. Or TCU having to prove itself. Or the excitement of LSU at Oklahoma, the winner to visit Oregon. Or Andrew Luck, Terrelle Pryor and Ryan Mallett shining on a national stage. We miss out on endless subplots, storylines and upsets. We get a sport where it isn’t proven on the field.
It’s part of the reason why in an ESPN the Magazine poll last summer, 62.2 percent of players said they wanted a playoff.
Instead college football continues to outsource its postseason. No other team sport, and really no other business, would let someone else run their most important and profitable product. And they would really, truly never hand it over to people who readily admit are motivated by something other than what’s best for the sport. That’s what college football does with bowl games.
Bowl games are businesses and, understandably, they do what’s best for their bottom line. That isn’t the same as what’s best for college football.
Here is what would be – the annual edition of my proposed 16-team playoff solution. Many playoff plans – six, eight, 12 teams – would be superior to the current system. This just happens to be my favorite.
A seeded 16-team field
Just like the wildly popular and profitable NCAA men’s basketball tournament, champions of all 11 conferences earn an automatic bid to the playoff.
Yes, all 11, even the lousy conferences. While no one would argue that the Sun Belt champ is one of the top 16 teams in the country, its presence is paramount to maintaining the integrity and relevancy of the regular season. Teams that put together exceptional season deserve to be rewarded. If you just take the top eight or 16 teams and match them up on a neutral field then there is no advantage to being No. 1 rather than No. 16.
The way to reward the best teams is two-fold. First is providing home-field advantage to the higher-seeded team until the title game (more on this later).
The second is by giving an easier first-round opponent – in this case No. 1 seed Auburn would play No. 16 Florida International. Earning a top two or three seed most years would present a school a de facto bye into the second round. FIU isn’t in the tournament to win the title – they won’t – but to make the regular season matter more. By winning the SEC championship game Saturday, Auburn gets FIU and home field to the title game. Had it lost and dropped to, say fifth, they’d have gotten 12-1 Nevada and then a likely road game in round two. It’s a big difference.
Many wonder why bother with a de facto bye when you can just give the real thing. Leave the Sun Belt and the others out, hold a 12-team playoff and offer the top four teams a week off? That’s certainly a simple – and acceptable – alternative. I’m not opposed to it and see the value in fewer games. I’ve just never seen the harm and allowing the smaller teams a moment of glory.
The FIU’s of the world are harmless. And besides, maybe one of these teams – say 10-3 Central Florida, which isn’t so bad – springs a first-round upset, adding the power of Cinderella to football.
Major conference championships would matter more also. Saturday night’s Big 12, SEC and ACC title games held minimal national importance. They would now. They’d be knock-out games for the playoff – adding intensity and importance, making more games matter more and generating real drama, such as when UConn nailed a brilliant, title-winning, 52-yard field goal.
It’s why nearly every television executive and marketing expert will tell you a playoff wouldn’t hurt the regular season – no matter the BCS talking points. Instead it would dramatically increase interest, ratings and attention especially in November and early December.
In addition to the 11 automatic bids, there would be five at-large selections made by a basketball-like selection committee, i.e. a group of highly engaged people using common criteria to pick and set the field. (For the attached bracket we used the BCS standings to set and seed the field. We also chose Nevada as the WAC representative of a three-way tie).
No more flawed opinion polls where brand name, empty resumes and running up the score can count. No more computer formulas that have been deemed mathematically unsound by actual mathematicians. No more having teams punished for a lack of past success or major media markets. Michigan State gets in the playoff because it went 11-1 this year. It’s not held out because it went 6-7 last year.
This is where independents, such as Notre Dame, would have access to the tournament if they were good enough. Most years, all six bids would come from the power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC). When divvying up the revenue, the major schools would still receive the lion’s share (76.6 percent if seeds held this year) of an expanded revenue.
While the selection process would still draw complaints from the teams left out, those schools often would have two losses or significant flaws. In this year’s case, the debate would come down to 10-2 LSU and 11-1 Boise State. Only one would go. Both could point to their failures. It isn’t the same as leaving out an unbeaten squad or a one-loss major conference team that played an aggressive schedule getting edged out by a shiny, but hollow, unbeaten record.
There’s no need to dignify the BCS ridiculous assertion that the argument would be more heated than multiple unbeatens vying for two title game spots.
Meanwhile, the standard to get in would still be incredibly high. One loss and you still risk it all. Just 16.6 percent of major conference teams (ND included) would have access to the tournament. The NFL lets 37.5 percent of teams in. The NCAA basketball tournament has room for 54.8 percent of major conference teams.
Ignore outdated bowls
I happen to like watching bowl games – or any game. Bowls are great experiences for players and fans. Outside of nostalgia a few games provide, they offer no value to a playoff system though. They began as fun exhibition games played after the final polls determined a mythical national champion. Over the last couple of decades, however, they have seized control of the postseason and became the tail wagging the dog.
Eliminating the middle man – bowls cut themselves in on 50-60 percent of gross revenue – will make the sport tens of millions of dollars even before you count in the additional revenue from higher television contracts, tickets sold for on campus stadiums, etc. that a playoff would generate.
The bowl lobby is a powerful one though, which is why just about every idea you’ll hear or read will use these bowls for the quarterfinals and these for the semifinals and so on. The bowls’ sole concern is keeping their grip on the system when reform inevitably comes.
A neutral site, bowl-based playoff would create ridiculous travel demands on teams and fans and devalue the regular season. A playoff that includes bowls is a poor idea.
The solution, however, is simple – ignore the bowls.
This isn’t the same as eliminating them. The 35 bowl games can continue to operate outside of the playoff, just like any non-affiliated business. All the non-playoff teams can compete in them. The Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day afternoon? It should be played forever. Notre Dame-Miami in the Sun Bowl? Who doesn’t like that? Let it go on. Under the BCS, only one game matters now. Little changes.
A playoff would not kill off all the bowl games. Bowl games are good business, which is why they keep adding them. Smaller games will survive as long as two things continue. First, people keep watching football on TV. Second, colleges continue to subsidize the bowl system by paying all team expenses and guaranteeing (often at a loss) ticket and marketing revenue. Since the sport will be awash in cash to spend with a playoff, bowls may wind up healthier than ever.
If a lack of 6-6 teams caused the eight smallest bowls – most of which are owned by ESPN – to go under, how many fans would really care? The same number of teams would still reach the postseason.
Higher seeds get home games early
The playoff would stage the first three rounds at the home field of the higher-seeded team before shifting to a neutral site, a la the Super Bowl. As a nod to history, it could be a rotation of famed stadiums such as the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl. Or the Rose Bowl every year. This doesn’t matter to me.
This allows the playoff to capitalize on perhaps college football’s greatest asset – the pageantry, excitement and history of its legendary campus stadiums. There is nothing like a college game day and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Columbus or Eugene or Madison or Baton Rouge. Each one is thrilling and adds tremendous value to the product.
So why does college football stage its postseason in antiseptic pro and municipal stadiums?
Hosting games would be a boon to the schools. College and universities could keep all the postseason money in-house.
Home games would pump up local economies too. It’s not the job of Oklahomans to drop their disposable income in Arizona; they might consider doing it right at home. The entire “economic impact” theory for bowl games makes no sense on a national scale (which this is) because it’s just displaced spending. On a national scale, money spent at the Glendale Applebee’s is no different than money spent at the Norman Applebee’s.
Most importantly it would also reward the higher seeds (again placing value on the regular season) by providing the distinct advantage of playing at home. (The visiting team would get the same small ticket allotment it currently gets). Unlike with the bowls, all games would be sold out.
This would also placate complaints from northern teams who are seemingly always playing bowl games near the campus of their opponent. The Big Ten’s been getting slaughtered of late in bowl games. Well, let’s see Florida or LSU slide around in the snow of Happy Valley some time.
The BCS has all but killed intersectional games (there’s no reward to playing a tough schedule), but the idea of them returning each December and January, famous jerseys in famous faraway stadiums (Oklahoma in Autzen; Virginia Tech in the Horseshoe and then the Buckeyes visiting TCU’s little band box) can warm any college fan’s heart.
While the former Division I-AA plays all four rounds before Christmas – football’s top division might be better served staging its entire playoff over holiday break. An entire four-week playoff could be held from the Saturday before Christmas to the date of the current BCS title game – Jan. 10 this year.
It allows time for rest and academics, even if “the academic effect, it’s just not a credible argument,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said.
While the season would be lengthened for some teams, many high school state champions play 16-game seasons. The NFL plays longer years with just 53-man rosters. And college football could always move to lessen the number of actual plays in a college game (often 12 percent more than a NFL game) by switching to the professional clock that runs more freely.
This playoff plan is fairly simple. It was generated by following some of the principles of the other divisions of college football and by discussing it, through the years, with scores of coaches, players, athletic directors, conference commissioners, television executives and even bowl directors.
The combination of money and common sense is why the playoff continues to be inevitable. Just last month, no less than Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said on the Dan Patrick Show that progress is coming. “Within five years we will be in position for a playoff of sorts,” Tressel said.
Sounds good. The sooner the better.