Tuesday, January 06, 2009

How to have a college football playoff system in four easy steps

The infrequent blawgger returns to post about college football? Yeah - it's my blog. Deal.

As it currently stands, and I am intentionally oversimplifying here, the college football championship is currently decided by consensus. The BCS is a system that is supposed to pit the two best teams against each other in a single championship game. Using a complex formula that takes the average of two human polls and six computer rankings, the BCS puts their top two teams on the field against each other.

Except when it doesn't work. In 2003, USC was ranked number one in the AP poll, which doesn't participate in the BCS system. This is not insignificant – the AP poll is historically the most significant football poll, and before the BCS was the most influential poll in the game; to end the season ranked atop the AP poll meant a championship. It is still the poll that rules the roost in the regular season; if the AP and coaches polls split on the number one spot, most media (at least the ones who don't have a stake in the BCS system) use the AP poll as the definitive rank.

When the bowl season came around, USC remained atop the AP poll but was number three in the BCS – meaning that Southern Cal was shut out of the national championship game. USC handled Michigan in the Rose Bowl, a 10-2 team and ranked number four in all polls and who had beaten five ranked teams, to remain number one in the AP poll. However, because USC was not invited to the BCS national championship game the BCS title went to LSU, who beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

While this season will not produce a split championship, the system again showed its flaws. The so-called power conferences produced six one-loss teams. Utah finished an undefeated season out of the supposedly second-tier Mountain West Conference.

I intentionally used words like "so-called" and "supposedly" to demostrate that a lot of the BCS still depends on perception. The perception was that this year the Pac-10 was soft; therefore 11-1 USC got shut out of the national champisonship again. The perception was that Utah's 12-0 regular season should be discounted, because the Mountain West isn't at the same caliber as the SEC or the Big 12. Perception has its place – consider the alchemy that NCAA basketball tournament selection committee must do to determine which schools make the cut, and whether to seed a particular team as a two or a three.

Perception shouldn't be the overriding factor, however. The overriding factor should be how good the team plays on the field. This year, both USC and Utah played very well, Penn State and Alabama respectively (both 11-1 teams from "power" conferences). Determining a championship should depend solely on the play on the field.

In other words, we need a playoff.

How to have a college football playoff in four easy steps: The current system has survived because of parties that are deeply committed to the status quo: the conferences, the media, the bowl committees, the sponsors. Creating a playoff would require taking on (and taking down) these purveyors of stasis. Here's how to do it.

Step One: Form a Committee. That's it, that's all. Just call yourself the National Championship Committee and incorporate. What many people don't unsderstand about the bowl system is that the bowl games have no official connection to the rest of the college sports establishment. The NCAA doesn't actually award the championship in its highest profile sport. Instead, the completely private and utterly secretive bowl committees do it.

Step Two: Get $300 Million.
Okay, that step may not be so easy, but the current system throws money around like a sailor on liberty. The BCS pays the five power conferences $18.5 million per year, and the five "lesser" conferences $9.5 million a year. That's $140 million to the conferences alone. To get the conferences into a playoff system, you're simply going to have to outbid the existing system. Sure, the SEC may love to talk about history and tradition on the football field, but when push comes to shove it's about the Benjamins.

Step Three: Spend the Money. Dangle $20 million in front of all eleven conferences. The conferences lacking an automatic bid to the BCS will jump at the substantial increase in their money. The other conferences, which do very well under the current system, will not see an additional $1.5 million as much of an inducement, and the BCS could easily match it for the power conferences, who hold a good number of the cards.

So move out to the second tier – the BCS currently pays any conference that places multiple schools in the BCS an additional $4.5 million per team. This year, the SEC, Big 12, and Big 10 all placed two teams. Under a sixteen team playoff system, with automatic bids to the eleven conference champs, five at-large spots are available. Here is where the Playoff Committee can separate itself – pony up $10 million per additional school. Since four conference champs this year finished out of the BCS top 16 – Virginia Tech (ACC), Troy (Sun Belt), East Carolina (C-USA), and Buffalo (MAC) – that leaves space for the five highest ranked non-champs: Texas (Big 12), Alabama (SEC), Texas Tech (Big 12), Ohio State (Big 10), and Texas Christian (Mountain West). Under my proposal, the SEC, Big 10 and Mountain West would get $30 million each, the Big 12 $40 million.

This is big money and would greatly encourage the conferences to maintain high quality from top to bottom. It would also undo the inherent unfairness in the current situation – the Big East, for example, has an automatic bid into the BCS, even though they haven't had a BCS quality squad since Miami left to join the ACC.

Step Four: Seed the Teams and Watch the Game Become Relevant Again. This is the fun part, what all this talk is all about. It's the reason the basketball tourney is so enjoyable for the fans. Lots of games, all meaningful. Do you think people would tune in to watch #1 Oklahoma take on #16 Troy? Well, do people watch the 1-vs-16 games in March? Damn right we do! Take a look at what some potential first round matchups would have been this year:

  • #3 Texas vs. #14 Virginia Tech
  • #7 TCU vs. #10 Ohio St.
  • #8 Penn St. vs. #9 Boise St.
  • #4 Alabama vs. #13 Cinncinnatti
Those would have been some really good games, particularly when you consider just how badly some of the so-called power schools folded in the bowls. Win or go home, then do it again. That's how champions do it.