There were cheers all-round as the clock ran out on the 2014 BCS Championship game. The cheers were not just because the contest between Florida State and Auburn turned out to be an instant classic, but because the much maligned, imperfect BCS system was finally a footnote in NCAA football history.
Already the sports media and especially college football fans are eagerly anticipating the first season where the championship will finally be determined with a playoff. The BCS was such a flawed concept the excitement over a four-team playoff scheme is understandable. But the elephant in the room that no one is talking about yet, but likely will be by the end of next season is that the four-team format does not go nearly far enough.
Never mind that many college football pundits are already saying with a wink and a nod that an expansion to an eight-team playoff is already a forgone conclusion. It will just take a few years.
The point is that a four-team playoff is really not much of an improvement over the BCS scheme, the demise of which is being toasted throughout the land. Not only that, but even if the expansion to eight teams materializes that isn’t good enough either.
The new College Football Playoff system, as it now stands is like taking the NCAA Basketball tournament, tossing out March Madness altogether, letting the selection committee choose who it determines are the four best teams and then starting the tournament with the Final Four. No Sweet 16, no Elite Eight, just the Final Four and the championship game.
Continuing the comparison of the new College Football Playoff system with the NCAA Basketball Tournament, with basketball there are clear criteria for selecting the teams invited to play. For the men as an example, 68 teams go to the tournament – 31 conference champions as automatic qualifiers and 37 at-large teams.
In comparison, the College Football Playoff system has no such clear criteria. Instead, as published on the official website, “selection committee members for the new playoff will have flexibility to examine whatever data they believe is relevant to inform their decisions. Among the many factors the committee will consider are win-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and conference championships won.”
The most important thing to note about the ambiguous criteria for the football playoffs is that the selection committee members “have the flexibility to examine whatever they believe is relevant.” There are no guidelines for which conference champions will be included in the playoffs and which will be excluded.
Keeping the regular season meaningful is one of the excuses that the powers to be in college football have always used to resist a playoff system. How will the regular season be meaningful if less than half at most of the college football conference champions get a chance to play in the playoffs? It sounds like a sweet deal for the power conferences like the SEC but not so much for those like Conference USA or Mountain West.
Regardless of preconceived notions about which conferences deserve a shot as the championship games, any playoff system that does not have all the conference champions involved is just as flawed as the BCS.
Using the 2013 season for example, in the final rankings before the bowls the top four teams in order were Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and Michigan State. While polls alone may not drive the selection committee member’s choices, it is difficult to imagine any rational reason to believe that had the playoff system been effect for 2013-14 that those four teams wouldn’t have been selected for the playoffs.
Had that occurred conference champions from seven conferences would not have been selected. Alabama who did not win the SEC championship would have likely got the nod over seven conference champions because the team had been regarded as the best in the nation for the entire season until losing their final regular season game to Auburn. Alabama went on to lose quite convincingly in the Sugar Bowl to a two-loss Oklahoma team that finished second in the Big 12. Oklahoma, ranked 11th at the time, almost certainly would not have been considered for the playoffs.
With regard to how the 2014 bowls played out hindsight is 20/20 of course, but it is easy to imagine how deserving teams will be left out of the playoff picture under the new system just as they were under the BCS. In fact, chances are probably even slimmer that teams who are not members of conferences that sports media and coaches consider the premiere conferences will ever get into a playoff game.
The only fair and equitable playoff system, as things stand now with regard to number of conferences would have at minimum a 16-team format. That would result in all ten conference champions being included and invitations to six at-large teams to allow for major college independents and to fill out the brackets.
A 16-team format would require those meeting in the championship to play four post-season games but regular schedules could be shortened to accommodate that if it was deemed that collegiate student-athletes shouldn’t play more than the 14 total games many universities are playing now. Many teams already schedule games against “cupcake” competition because the BCS placed a premium on undefeated seasons. Those types of meaningless games could easily be eliminated to allow for a potentially longer post-season.
The NFL has long had a legitimate playoff system proving that a playoff system heightens rather than detracts from the importance of regular season games. The same would be true at the college level.
Whether a four-team format or eight-team format, major college football will continue to crown a “mythical” champion each year until there is a true playoff system. College football has passed a Rubicon by entering the realm of playoffs so now is the time to take the next step and install an authentic, equitable playoff system.