Thursday, January 15, 2009

Practical Playoffs


1. The potential for an undefeated BCS-conference team to be denied the opportunity to earn a national championship is an injustice that outweighs all other considerations concerning a playoff.*

I cannot possibly say this with as much emphasis as it deserves:

The only reason any given college football fan does not support the dissolution of the current system for selecting a national champion is because their team has not gone undefeated and been given no opportunity to become that champion.

A team that wins all of its games against a schedule roughly as difficult as any other team's schedule--that accomplishes as much as it is possible for them to accomplish, for any team to accomplish--should not have to accept seeing another team chosen as the winner of a championship without having any opportunity to change that choice. It is not a problem. It is not an issue. It is injustice, a slap in the face to the notion of fairness and equality and sportsmanship and the players involved. (It is my firm belief that if Auburn 2004 had been Florida 2004 or Michigan 2004 or Ohio St. 2004, if Texas, USC, and Penn St. had all finished undefeated this season, the outcry would have been such that this would hardly even be a debate any longer. A part of me desperately wants to see Georgia go undefeated and finish outside the BCS top two, just to see what our anti-playoff Dawg friends would say.)

There are two ways to resolve this injustice: either devalue the national championship to the point where an undefeated BCS-conference team** will have no grievance over being denied it, or increase the number of teams given the chance to play for it--a number currently set at 2--to the point that no undefeated BCS-conference team would realistically be shut out. The former is impossible: that genie is well out of the bottle and is not going back, as much fun as the restoration of the old Rose-Sugar-Orange-with-accompanying-conference-champions axis and the post-bowl voting free-for-all might be. College football and its fans have long since chosen--all the way back to the Bowl Coalition in 1992--to declare a single national champion. There is no going back on that end.

So we must find a way to increase the number of teams allowed to play for the national championship. We must have some form of playoff. All other considerations--the value of the regular season, bowl tradition, logistical difficulties, the continuation of debate over which teams gain access to the playoff--are not injustice. They are not fairness. Those must be the primary concerns. All others are secondary. However:

2. Because of the importance of resolving this injustice, the best playoff proposal is the one most likely to be put into practice.

In the beautiful realm of theory, with the chance to see any playoff proposal on the board put in the action, I would support something akin to Brian Cook's six-team bracket or maybe even an eight-team version. The excitement of seeing, say, Texas and Penn St. square off in Happy Valley for the right to take on Florida would be so mind-blowingly tremendous I don't think we'd care for long what it did to the regular season--and, of course, it would actually make many regular season games (like Penn St.'s season finale against Michigan St., which meant nothing to the neutral fan save which lamb would be slaughtered at USC's altar) substantially more important.

But these kinds of proposals have no prayer of becoming reality. There are far, far too many hurdles--bowls, presidents, logistics--to overcome. There will have to be compromises. Like so:

3. A playoff proposal should involve as few teams as possible (above 2).

Fewer athletes involved means fewer academic complaints. Fewer rounds means less logistical headaches. Fewer teams involved preserves the traditional value of the regular season as much as possible. All of which makes the proposal's passage more likely.

4. A playoff proposal should leave the bowl season as intact as possible.

We can't pretend bowl games are not part of the fabric of college football, and asking a bowl to play host to a national semifinal or any kind of "stepping stone" game is to ask it to no longer become a bowl game. Bowl games signal the end of the season for the teams participating, a celebration of the work already done as well as the opportunity to put that work into practice on the field one final time. Their finality is why they matter. Bowls--or at the very least, the ones we care about for this discussion--will not accept becoming a permanent "plus-one" footnote to other, later bowls or games, and a workable playoff proposal will not ask them to.

5. A playoff proposal should choose its teams using the current BCS rankings system, with the current conference quotas/restrictions for BCS teams intact.

Trying to shoehorn in a new method of selecting the teams involved in the playoff would only give opponents one more excuse to reject it. Again: is it not important that a proposal be perfect. It is important that it get passed, and committees and new polls and computer tweaking--as much I might endorse these ideas, particularly on the computer end--will not help it pass.

Likewise, as tempting as it will be for many people to allow only conference champions into the playoffs--myself included, as I think it would go a long way towards preserving the regular season--there are so many legitimate scenarios in which a conference runner-up would be deserving of a chance to win the national title that I don't believe it worth risking the debate. Adopt the current standards and move on.

6. A playoff proposal should make the logistics for all involved as simple as possible.

The national championship game should not come only a week after the participants for the game are chosen, nor should large brackets require hopping from city to city for consecutive weeks. This complicates matters unnecessarily for fans, students, players, media, etc., and again would give opponents of the playoff ammunition with which to reject the proposal. Ample time should be allotted for each stage of the playoff process.

Therefore, a playoff proposal should consist of the following:

1. The bowls themselves, BCS through Gator through, are played as currently scheduled with no changes, additional games, or breaks in the title game rotation. I'd prefer to get rid of the unnecessary fifth BCS game and go back to six conference champions and two at-large teams for four bowls with the title game rotating, but it's not a demand.

2. The initial bowl selection process changes as follows:
At the conclusion of the regular season, championship games included, the (10 or 8) teams that will take part in the BCS are announced, although they are not assigned to bowl games. All other bowls proceed with the remaining teams as always.

3. The BCS bowl selection process changes as follows: At the conclusion of the regular season, championship games included, the top four teams in the BCS rankings are seeded 1 through 4 and assigned to play two national championship semifinal games. These games are to be played on the Saturday two weeks following the semifinal announcement. The winners of the two semifinals advance to the national championship game. The following Sunday, the two semifinal losers and the other 6 (or 4) BCS teams are assigned to their respective bowls if they have not done so already (for instance, if the Pac-10 and Big 10 champions each failed to make the semifinals, they could go ahead and agree to play in the Rose Bowl without waiting for the conclusion of the semifinals).

4. The national championship semifinals will be played at the home of the two higher-seeded teams. This means several things: only two teams will be forced to deal with the difficulties of travel; the facilities will be readily available; unlike proposals that include bowls as part of a bracketing system, Big 10 and other cold-weather teams will not be placed at a home-field disadvantage. (They'd have to face it in the next round, of course, but again, the more people we keep happy the better.)

5. The length of the regular season, championship games included, is reduced to 14 weeks. This will allow for an extra week of preparation time following the semifinals and between the bowls in most years. The reduction would have no bearing on the Big 10, which already plays a 14-week schedule. Pac-10 and Big East teams would have their by weeks reduced from three to two, though many teams in both conferences already finish their season in 14 weeks. The biggest change would come in conferences with championship games, which in most years play 12 regular season games in 14 weeks. That would be reduced to 12 in 13 and 13 in 14 for the championship game participants. (That likely seems a little harsh, but a) that's already the schedule in place for 2009 b) the Big 10 already does this yearly, just without the championship game that only affects two teams in each conference c) the annual match-ups against I-AA teams are already de facto bye weeks anyway d) Alabama high school champions play 15 games in 15 weeks. It'll work.)

5. The Army/Navy game is the only college football game played the Saturday between the conclusion of the regular season and the national semifinals. Because it deserves that kind of spotlight.

That's it.

Conclusions: In 2008, the logistics would have worked out like so: start of season Aug. 30, end of regular season Nov. 29, Army/Navy Dec. 5, semifinals Dec. 12. That would still leave a full 20 days between BCS bowl assignments and New Year's Day. I think that's doable, especially since some teams would already know where they'd be headed beforehand. 2009 would be tighter because of the Sep. 5 start***--the semifinals would be played Dec. 19, leaving only 13 days. But even that doesn't strike me as the end of the world--it's still almost two full weeks--and if you move the regular season start back to the last Saturday in August, as is the case most years, it's not an issue.

Obviously there would be some complaining about the No. 1 and No. 2 teams getting home-field when

To address the two most frequent complaints against four-team playoffs: first, it would be extremely difficult for this bracket to be expanded beyond four teams. The logistics would require a major overhaul of the college football scheduling system: fewer games, or a mid-August start date, or bowls pushed even further into January. This system's scheduling is workable, but it's already cramped. Any expansion would face some formidable logistical barriers--and critics of this kind of plan need to explain how expansion would overcome them.

Second, yes, this system would only shift the source of the "we got screwed" gripes from the No. 3 and 4 teams to the No. 5 and 6 teams, not eliminate the gripes completely. And, yes, other than providing the excitement of the semifinals (not an inconsiderable plus in its favor, but not overwhelming, either) it would not have fared any better than the BCS in a year like this one, where Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, USC, Penn St., and Utah (and maybe even Texas Tech and Alabama) all had virtually equal claims to one of the four spots.

But there is no system that will eliminate the gripes completely, unless, again, you expect college football to go back to not caring about national titles. And I would much rather have a system that the addresses Miami 1998, Oregon 2001, Utah 2004, etc.--to borrow a term from Phil Steele, the teams that need to be in--than one that creates just as much griping and gnashing of teeth while still risking the injustice of Auburn 2004.

Anything, anything would be better than the Jekyll-and-Hyde half-traditional,half-playoff system we have right now. But this proposal, or something very much like it, seems to me the be the best chance we have of actually, truly, not-hypothetically convincing those in charge of our to get rid of the current two-team morass.

*For our purposes, a "playoff" is indicative of some form of bracketed single-elimination tournament in opposition to the current BCS system or the old bowls system. The BCS can be accurately described as a two-team playoff--this is what it is--but writing "playoff of four teams or more" every time I mean "playoff" would be annoying and confusing as hell.

**Sorry, but I cannot simply write "undefeated team" when members of conferences like the WAC, C-USA, etc. have to be handled on a case-by-case basis; 2006 Boise would deserve a place in this playoff, but 2008 Boise would not. I was sorely tempted to write "BCS- or Mountain West conference team," but even the MWC in a down year could produce a champion that would not deserve a place in this playoff. When your conference includes San Diego St., Wyoming, and UNLV, them's the breaks. I realize the exact same argument could probably be made about the Big East in the wake of West Virginia and Louisville's collapses, but it's so much simpler to draw the line where I've drawn it, I have to stand by it. Besides: even if the reasoning behind the playoff is for the benefit of BCS teams, the practical side of it does nothing but help mid-majors, who would have seen 2004 Utah and 2006 Boise get the shot they so richly deserved.

***Why doesn't this year start on Aug. 29? I read some reason somewhere and forgot it. Someone help me out in the comments.


jd said...

Because you touch yourself at night.


WarDamnAdam said...

Good point about not having the current bowls lose any of their meaning which would kind of happen in my playoff scenario i came up with. My idea for a playoff: Keep all the current bowls as they are. Let the four BCS bowls serve as a quarterfinal round where the top eight teams go head to head. The winners play in a semifinal round, the winners of which would then play in the BCS national championship game. Of course, there would be an issue with the scheduling, the championship game would have to be pushed back a week if the current bowl schedule is to remain intact. Obviously this isn't as well thought out as your scenario, but it's just something i came up with as an easy way to create a playoff while maintaining all the current bowls.

Senator Blutarsky said...

"A part of me desperately wants to see Georgia go undefeated and finish outside the BCS top two, just to see what our anti-playoff Dawg friends would say."

Given that would mean at a minimum that the Dawgs would have beaten South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn, Georgia Tech and the SEC West champ in the same season,I'd like to see that, too.

Amorak said...

This is well thought out and certainly appealing in a lot of ways.

A problem with Dec. 19 semifinals is that the week before Dec. 19 is final exam week for pretty much every school in the nation.

I know, I know. Academics, right? And I know it's only four teams. But still. That would require a pretty blatant disregard for the "college" part of "college football."

Amorak said...

Also, although I see your point about the most important thing being a plan with a snowball's chance of being enacted, I still crave eight teams in that playoff system somehow, some way.

I don't feel all that badly about the No. 9 team's griping about being left out (unless, of course, it's Auburn) because honestly, I'm pretty sure the ninth team in the BCS will never win three games in a row against the top eight (even, alas, if it's Auburn). But in a season like this one, when all those teams have a solid claim that they deserve a shot at the title, the No. 5 team and the No. 3team, say, are practically indistinguishable.

But yeah, you're right. Too many barriers.

jrsuicide said...

I care nothing for protecting the bowls. There aee far too many anyways. I favor an 8 team (at the least) but would prefer 16 team (every conference champ plus 5 at large teams) format. With the higher seeds hosting each round and neutral site title game. It would be beautiful and make the NFL playoffs seem boring in comparison but like all great ideas it will never happen. 4 teams just isn't good enough.

Anonymous said...

Any Playoff System should only include Conference Champions, if youre not even the best team in your conference, no way you can claim to be #1...Otherwhise just change it to a 64 teams like that March Madness BS, oh yeah, its 65 teams, sorry, and the fans of #66 still cry like little bee-otchs.

Anonymous said...

My system would use the current bowls (all 34) as a playoff between the top 35 teams. This would reduce the number of teams in bowls from 68 down to 35.

The problem is not scheduling (although mine would reduce the it by at least one week if you didn't change any current season lengths), academics (players are already away from school enough for the bowls), or number of teams. The problem is money. How would all the conferences get money from a playoff. With the current BCS and Bowl system. All conferences are involved and get money from the bowls they go to. Simply making an equal distribution of funds from all bowls to all conferences in my playoff system would not only give more money to the lesser schools but would make more money overall when each game can be so important.

Anyway that is how I feel. But one last thing to note: The Championship game needs to be played (BCS or playoff) on New Years Day. I want the importance of that day back from the old Bowl ways.

Doophy said...

I had an interesting thought about the BCS and a playoff. Around the time of the BCS championship game (it's not a national championship in my mind), Utah's Attorney General was talking about anti-trust litigation against the BCS and the conferences involved. My thought was for the non-BCS conferences to form a playoff bracket with the NCAA. Exclude the BCS entirely.

Essentially, we're stuck with the BCS until the contract isn't renewed. Most of the presidents of the BCS schools don't want a playoff. Unless enough of those presidents are replaced by ones who do, we're stuck with no playoff.

As for the money aspect of a playoff, it's absolute BS. Completely. The argument basically says D1 college football can't make money in a format where college basketball and all professional sports thrive - the post-season. So what if your bowl isn't the championship bowl - it helps decide the championship. Much better than what we have now where all but 1 BCS bowl mean absolutely nothing in the championship picture.

At its essence, the BCS has little to do with declaring a D1 *national* champion. It's simply a scheme hashed out by the most powerful conferences through which they make much more money that they used to in the old bowl system. The BCS == Big $$$, and as long as it does, little to nothing will change.

Ben said...

I have been advocating a system like this for a long, long time and getting nowhere. I love the idea of the playoff losers getting to end their seasons in bowl games -- That's the only way the top bowls can continue to mean anything.

What this proposal does is keep the current arrangement, EXCEPT that the two teams in the title game earn their way in instead of being chosen.

I would also like to see the awful conference championship games go away. Yes, this year's SEC game was good, but most years you get stinkers like this season's Big-XII title game. An added benefit of this move with respect to a playoff is that it would free up an additional week (the NCAA would also have to mandate that the Pac-10 and other non-championship-game-playing conferences move their last reg. seasons games up a week).

Jams said...

i'm confused... how does this playoff system let in any of the previous "BCS Busters?"

2004 Utah: final reg. season rank: 6
2006 Boise State: 8
2008 Utah: 6

none were top 4, so none would be in this playoff, if i am understanding it correctly. that is, 2004 Utah and 2006 Boise State wouldn't actually get the shot that they "so richly deserved." also, for the record, what team did either of those teams beat during the regular season to indicate that they were a better team than, say, Georgia or Auburn?

not that i necessarily think this is a good or bad thing, i just don't see how these teams would be included in such a 4-team playoff, unless there is some sort of stipulation beyond just being in the top 4 of the BCS (i.e. undefeated or conference champion or something).

Morgan Wick said...

Jams is right. You're looking in hindsight at those teams' performance in their respective BCS bowls.

"Why doesn't this year start on Aug. 29? I read some reason somewhere and forgot it. Someone help me out in the comments."

Short answer: Labor Day Weekend. Fell on Sept. 1 last year, Sept. 7 this year.