The last time I addressed this topic, I laid out the problem at the core of the current system and showed why there is a definite need for some kind of playoff. Now it’s time to take it a step farther. Why does the proposed playoff actually feed into the potential movement toward a Super Conference atmosphere?
Before I delve into the next chapter in this novel argument, I must offer a heartfelt apology. I have taken far too long in coming back with this article – or any article for that matter. There’s no good excuse for it. I’ve simply allowed life to get in the way of my writing and for that I’m sorry. Writing is a huge part of my life and I’ve neglected it.
Anyway, on with the argument.
What we know of the playoff coming at the end of the 2014 season is as follows:
1. It will contain four teams in a single-elimination, tournament style format.
2. The teams will be chosen by committee, though it has not yet been decided who will comprise the selection committee or what the criteria will be for the selection process.
3. The “semi-final round” will be hosted by current BCS bowls on a rotating basis.
Admittedly, some of the following arguments may be answered once we know a little more about the selection process, but they’re still strong concerns and may only be exacerbated by the pending system as it’s fleshed out.
It should be noted that four isn’t an arbitrary number. The BCS didn’t come to that number by accident and they didn’t draw straws to determine how many teams would be allowed to compete for the title. There are reasons for it, but those same reasons also don’t fix the problems I outlined in my last article.
Avoid “the basketball problem” and protect the regular season.
I like March Madness as much as the next person. Each year, I fill out at least two or three brackets and promote my prognostication prowess in office pools and online challenges. I hold my own. That’s about all I can say about it.
However, I can honestly say that I’ve watched two regular season basketball games in the last 10 years. Why so few? It lacks the drama.
At the end of the regular season there are conference tournaments. When they’re finished, 65 teams get invited to play in the NCAA tournament to crown a national champion.
Western Kentucky worked their way in with a 16-18 record. Yes, a team with a losing record had a shot at the biggest prize of the entire sport. Vermont – a fellow No.16 seed – fared a little better with a 24-11 record (.686). No.14 seed St. Bonaventure got in with a 20-11 record (.645).
In basketball, the tournaments are the show and you don’t necessarily have to be all that great to get a shot at great glory. Did anyone really think Vermont was going to win the tournament? No. Has a No.16 ever won the tournament? No.
But No.15 seed Lehigh can knock off No.2 seed Duke and throw the whole tournament into turmoil and it’s all great fun. It’s the Cinderella story that makes us believe in underdogs and ignites water cooler debates the likes of which haven’t been seen since Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear.
Was there that much debate when Lehigh lost to Holy Cross in January? Not likely.
That’s the point and that’s what football wants to avoid.
The regular season really doesn’t matter. Sure, it sets the seeding for the big tournament, but that’s about it. Western Kentucky was third in their division of the Sun Belt, but because they won the conference tournament, they got an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
They lost in the first round to Kentucky 81-66, much like everyone predicted. No surprise. They shouldn’t have been within sniffing distance of that tournament, but that’s what can happen when you render the regular season irrelevant and place all your eggs in a tournament basket or two.
Why watch from the months of November through February? You can just tune in at the end of the season and see who gets to play thief, stealing away the glory some other team rightfully earned by playing superior ball all season long.
College football is unique in that way and it’s the one area I absolutely agree with the BCS. For the most part, every game really does count. One loss can derail any chance of playing for the national title, depending on who that loss is to and how other teams are faring.
There’s reason to tune in every single week. There are upsets, just like any other sport. However, in college football, overlooking an opponent can cost you nearly everything. The Appalachian States of the world can sneak up on anyone, in any week, but in college football that means something. Mediocre teams need not apply and you’d better be on your best every single time you hit the field.
There are good teams that put together decent records and go to good bowl games. The differences in records don’t mean a larger separation in some monstrous tournament; they mean the difference in bowl destinations, or whether there’s a bowl destination at all.
The difference between 10-2 and 9-3 can be the difference between a BCS bowl and a “second-tier” January bowl. The difference between 9-3 and 8-4 can mean playing in December rather than January and the difference between 8-4 and 7-5 is playing in a prime time bowl versus playing in a mid-afternoon game while everyone is at work, cramming for the New Year’s holiday.
Each step is a level of prestige and exposure, and each step is earned through the complete body of work put together over an entire season. The very last thing any good football fan wants is to see all of that thrown away just so we can settle this national championship nonsense. No one wants to see the months of September through November become irrelevant in the bigger picture.
Keeping the number as low as four helps secure the sanctity of the regular season.
It’s not perfect, mind you. In the last five years, there has been just one year that saw enough undefeated teams to fill a four-team bracket (2009). Unfortunately, that same year had five undefeated teams, meaning there still would have been some heartburn over the team that got left out.
Most of the rest of the time, there were only a couple of undefeated teams, only one, or none at all. Following the 2008 season, LSU won the championship with two losses on their record. That was a rough year for the BCS, and would be under virtually any playoff format.
However, by strictly limiting the number of teams allowed in the playoff, the regular season remains relevant. It’s still a big race to the finish and any misstep along the way can derail the ultimate dreams of a program hoping for the greatest gridiron glory.
The big problem still is…
We’ll have all the old arguments with new names and numbers.
We don’t yet know exactly what the criteria would be for inclusion into this new playoff format. However, I struggle to believe we will enter an era sans polls. As long as there are polls, there will be heartache and hard feelings.
Suppose that this new formula takes into account a ranking system comparable (if not exactly the same) to the current BCS standings. The top four in the standings get invited into the tournament.
What about No.5? What if their record is equal to No.4? Worse, what if the computers say they played a tougher schedule than No.4, but the human portions of the standings elevated No.4 over No.5?
Cue the pitchforks and fire-waving posse.
Expand the tournament to eight teams. That should encompass everyone who has any claim to a legitimate shot at winning the title, right?
Maybe so, but it won’t stop the madness. At some point, it stops being about who can actually win the thing and starts becoming a ludicrous nitpick over why this team got to participate and that team didn’t. No.9 has a better record than No.8, even though they played a weaker overall schedule. No.13 beat so-and-so, who creamed No.12 earlier in the season. No.37 had more road wins than No.36 and played more ranked opponents.
On and on and on and…(sigh)
There’s no good cutoff point that won’t leave fans arguing over why the last team to get inclusion deserves it any more than the team right behind them who was left out. Polls are flawed, even the computer portions of them. They’re all subjective and are based on a measure of perception that may or may not be absolutely true.
Imagine this scenario, because it will likely happen at some point:
The regular season ends with a round of exciting conference title games and the final rankings come out. The committee makes their selections and the announcement is made to the media, who frantically scramble to get the word out, along with a reflexive “here’s what you need to know/feel” assessment.
The top two teams in the rankings are invited into the playoff. Everyone is satisfied. However, the other two teams to garner invites are No.4 and No.6. The committee surmises that the computers were more accurate than the humans in the case of No.4 over No.3 and go on to state that three of the top five came from the SEC and it would be in college football’s best interest to have some diversity in the playoffs.
ESPN goes on the war path, screaming that conference affiliation should play no part in the process. SEC fans agree (of course) and a multitude of other talking heads jump on the bandwagon, crying that “it should be about the best, not the best outside of the SEC!” The SEC goes on to win yet another national championship and ESPN looks vindicated. The playoffs are tainted.
Imagine that, instead of playing the diversity card, the committee actually does select three SEC teams (or pick any conference) and only one outside team. Incidentally, that team loses in the semi-final round and it’s an all-SEC championship game…again.
Now you have fans all across the country screaming about an SEC bias and ESPN (among other outlets) plays the role of apologist for the system saying “but the best ball is being played in the SEC right now.” And the playoffs are perceived as rigged by the disenfranchised masses living outside of SEC country.
So you don’t buy the SEC argument? That’s fine, there will still be plenty to get upset about.
There will be something to get upset about. Maybe the top four in the final standings get the nod. Then there will still be arguments over the final standings. Why wasn’t No.5 ranked higher? How did No.3 get rated so highly when their schedule was clearly inferior to No.4 and No.5?
Heck, maybe there’s a team ranked clear down at No.7 that beat more ranked opponents than half of the selected teams and hold a comparable record to the last team selected. Why were they slighted so badly in the polls?
Several teams get screwed…twice.
What if polls have nothing to do with the selection at all. Then what’s the criteria?
Whatever it is, there’s bound to be a lot of people out there that will make solid arguments as to why the process failed this team or that and will poetically conclude that it’s the fans who ultimately get the shaft. There won’t be enough microscopic violins to fill the symphony waiting to wail their blues.
You can’t satisfy everyone, but in the case of a sport that encompasses so many rabid fans from such disparate regions, and when you’re trying to enshrine a single “best” team out of over 120 teams, playing vastly dissimilar schedules; it’s difficult to even satisfy the majority of them.
Conference champions will ultimately have to be part of the formula.
There’s really only one way to effectively set a standard that’s absolute; the selected participants will have to be conference champions before they can become national champions.
Michael Felder, operator of In The Bleachers blog and podcast and former UNC player disagreed with me on Twitter about this notion.
Michael’s got a point that I’m sure is shared by many. Who wants to see East Carolina win the C-USA title and get a spot in the tournament while LSU takes a consolation prize? Who thinks it’s a good idea to have Rutgers or Cincinnati out of the Big East get an opportunity while Oregon or USC watch jealously on?
I have to believe two things:
1. The committee responsible for deciding the participants would choose the four toughest champions with the strength of their schedule in mind.
2. By the time it gets to this, there will only be four conferences worthy of the honor anyway. Oh yeah, and they won’t be “midgets”.
Of course, if the landscape still looks like it does today, all of my previous arguments would still be valid, as would Michael’s, even with conference champions as the sole participants in the tournament. What if Cincinnati looks really, really good but are passed over because the Big East is perceived to be so weak? What if Boise State runs the table and still get left out because their schedule just isn’t strong enough?
There will still be heartache. It will all just be a big rehash of the same complaints levied the last decade or so.
I don’t think college football will look the same by this time, though. I don’t think we’re even remotely done doing the Realignment Shuffle and when the dust finally does settle on this grotesque Hokie Pokie, there will only be a few left standing that can be considered true contenders.
At any rate, even if it were to come to that – even if the BCS were to decide to extend the tournament to six teams and include the champions of the six BCS Automatic Qualifying conferences – there’s still something to be said to those teams that fail to make the cut. If you want to prove you deserve to be national champions, you have to first be champions of your own conference.
It’s really as simple as that, and I truly believe that fans can live with that.
Most of my brethren here at Gridiron Grit are big NFL fans. I don’t often like to compare college football with the NFL because they are so completely different entities. However, there is something I do enjoy about the NFL and something I do think college football should emulate to one degree or another.
I like the playoffs.
Does anyone believe that the New York Giants were absolutely the best team in the NFL last year? Maybe Giants fans, but not many others.
It doesn’t matter; they’re Super Bowl Champions and that’s the beauty of it. Every team starts the season with a shot at the title. The cream rises to the top, but only so many teams get invited into the playoffs and sometimes very good teams get left out. Whoever rises to the occasion gets the honor of being called “Champion.”
There’s no pretense. There’s no illusion. Champions win when it counts and they’re not always the best. They’re the best when it matters the most.
College football could do the same thing, only limiting it even further by not allowing all of the Wild Cards. You either win your conference or you don’t get to play for the BCS Title (or whatever it’s called under the new system). You want to whine that your team was better than so-and-so? Your team should have won the conference title, then they could prove it on the field.
It would eliminate the blame game bandied about. The BCS is evil. The BCS is greedy. The BCS, the BCS, the BCS! Take the power away from the BCS, take it away from the coaches (the polling ones that is) and take it away from the media. Put the power squarely in the hands of the teams themselves. Win and you’re in. Lose and you have no one to blame but yourself.
It keeps the sanctity of at least the conference schedule and should actually make the out-of-conference portion better. There’s no more need to pad the early games with cupcakes to keep the record in tact before conference play puts it all in jeopardy. It would be more beneficial to play stiff opposition early to prepare the team for the rigors of the conference slate.
So, how does this feed into the idea of Super Conferences?
From 2014 through the 2020 season, the four-team playoff is what we’ll have. It won’t revert to anything we have now or have had in the past before the conclusion of the 2020 bowl games. That’s six years of four-team tournament play.
Over the last six years, the movement of teams have been pushing toward five major conferences. The Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12, SEC and Big 12 have all added new members in just the last few years. Actually, the Big 12 also lost some members, but they’ve used great on-field play to help gain some new blood and retain relevance.
Over the next eight years, you’ll likely see most of these conferences getting the greatest amount of attention. As the playoffs kick off, these are the conferences most likely to have representatives involved.
However, how many of them will consistently be involved?
Barring a massive shift in power, the SEC is a shoe-in to have at least one team in the mix. The Pac-12, as long as Oregon, USC and Stanford stay strong, will also typically have a team in the mix. The Big 12 will be in the discussion as long as Texas and Oklahoma are on board and as long as teams like Kansas State and Baylor keep putting together teams that can challenge.
The ACC and the Big Ten are big question marks. Both conferences have teams with rich and deep histories. Both conferences have former National Champions among their rosters. Both also have the potential to rise back to that former glory.
Both are also considerably weaker than what their histories might indicate they should be. They’re both having a “down streak.” The last time the ACC won a national title was when Maimi won in 2001 and they were still part of the Big East then. The last time the Big Ten won it all was in 2002 when Ohio State won.
In recent years, both conferences have fielded some very good teams. However, the ACC hasn’t been within sniffing distance of the national title and the Big Ten has been embarrassed in nearly all of its major bowl games.
Teams have been fleeing the Big East as though it were the plague. They’ll be lucky if they can remain a football conference at all over the next eight years.
How many times will we see one conference or another get two representatives while three “major” conferences get left out of the mix before another shift starts to take place? I would argue that some programs have been thinking about movement for a while now, but haven’t found the opportunity to make their move or perhaps haven’t found the right home to move to yet.
Teams that feel they’re good enough to compete in conferences that routinely get invited into the tournament will want the opportunity to make that leap. Those conferences that are getting the invites will likely be eager to listen to the arguments as well. Why not strengthen your conference? Why not increase the likelihood that you can put a team in the tournament capable of winning the whole thing?
Why not increase your fan base and TV marketability?
The Big Ten isn’t going anywhere. The ACC might not either, though there have been rumors of certain defections for a while that could undermine their overall strength. That is to say, don’t take anything at all at face value until it comes to pass. We’ve heard plenty of stories of teams being happy where they are, right up until they announce that they’re joining a different conference.
Don’t kid yourself that it’s only about football and only about winning national titles. It is and it isn’t.
As certain conferences grab the greatest attention for playoff berths, TV coverage will follow. That’s marketing opportunities for schools not only trying to promote their sports programs, but also their academic services. That opportunity to reach the eyes of greater potential students and professors.
They don’t have to win the conference and play in the tournament. They just have to be competitive in a conference likely to produce such teams.
And yes, it’s more money – money that helps pay for non-revenue generating sports, research equipment and other academic supplies that help their students get the best education the schools can provide. Money that helps build more sophisticated labs, funds digs in remote locations and helps students and faculty literally reach for the stars.
The tighter and more exclusive the race for the title gets, the more those on the outside will look for ways to open the door. The fewer the entities under consideration, the more attractive those entities are to those on the outside looking in.
Conferences haven’t publicly stated they’re looking to grow to 16 teams and I believe them. There are certain problems that come along with getting that big. On the other hand, they’re not saying that they absolutely oppose the idea either, and well they shouldn’t. Growth means opportunity and opportunity can mean more growth.
Next time, I’ll lay out how the recent movement is heading toward Super Conferences and how more movement is on the horizon. Until then, Happy Bowl Hunting!