With the SEC having their spring meetings down in Destin, Florida currently and much of the talk concerning what the future holds for the upcoming College Football Playoff I thought it would be a great day to discuss my thoughts on the playoff system with an article that is featured in this year’s college football preview.
Is it too early to pop the champagne cork? For more than a decade now I have been calling for a system which pits the #1 vs #4 and #2 vs #3 teams in the Jan 1 bowls and the addition of a title game a week or two later which would give us a true National Champ every year. I first wrote the article WAAAAY back in 2000 and have updated the article every year in my magazine. Last year was the 12th year that had me calling for the “Plus One” system or whatever you want to call the #1 vs #4 and #2 vs #3 with the winners playing for the title game. As I write this in May of 2012 it sure appears that this format will take place in 2014. Of course last summer it sure looked like four 16-team super conferences was a “sure thing” but that did not happen. Right now it does indeed appear certain that we will be going to the 4-team playoff format. The only question marks which will be decided in the next couple of months are the seeds, sites that the games will be played and how the 4 teams will be chosen. Is this the perfect system? No, that does not exist. There is no system that would have worked perfectly every year since the BCS was formed in 1998. Is this the BEST system? Yes, I feel it is the best system and by a large margin. I won’t pop the cork yet but the bottle is chilling.
I completely understand why some are hesitant about a 4-team playoff feeling that it will lead to an 8-team playoff then to a 16-team playoff. I could not agree more that an 8 or 16-team playoff would be very harmful and in the end bad for college football. Personally I feel that the only way a “plus one” format should be approved is if they can sign a contract that it can not be extended to 8 or 16 teams for a significant 20 year period in the future. Here are some key reasons why an 8 or 16-team playoff would be harmful.
The one thing I love about college football is of all the other sports, college or pro, the regular season in college football is the one that MEANS THE MOST. You might be able to stay alive in the overall chase if you lose ONE regular season game, but two losses will most likely, and should, eliminate you. That means the games in September, October and November are just as critical as the bowl games if you want to have a shot at the National Title. No other sport with an expanded playoff system can say that. College basketball’s regular season big games really mean ABSOLUTELY nothing, as it only matters what you do in the tournament. If the #1 tm loses in college basketball they would still be in the NCAA Tournament at the end of the year and it only matters what you do in those final 6 games.
I know in college basketball the NCAA tournament is a major success. TV ratings are high and almost everyone in the country participates in their office pools predicting who will be the National Champ. Many have said they would like to see such a tournament for NCAA football as well. I definitely disagree. Here’s the main reason why: If you take a look at the NCAA hoops tournament and who is crowned champion, I think you will find the most dominating team does not always win the championship. How can you say a team like the 1985 Villanova squad, which finished the regular season 16-10, was the best team in the country simply because they won their last 6 games in the NCAA tournament? There were 10 teams during the regular season who were stronger than they were! To say at the end of the year that a team that lost 10 games was the strongest team in the NCAA was a joke and meant the entire regular season was meaningless. 2010 was a perfect example of the college basketball regular season meaning absolutely nothing. None of the Final Four teams were ranked in the top 14 of the final regular season AP poll as Kentucky was #15, UConn #21 while Butler and VCU weren’t even in the top 35! Your Final Four teams consisted of a UConn team that finished 9th in the Big East Conference; Kentucky who did not even win their own conference DIVISION, Butler who tied for the Horizon League crown with two other teams and VCU who finished 4th in the Colonial Conference and many of the basketball experts were strongly against them being included in the 68-team tournament to begin with!
The current FCS 20-team playoff format, which many people want the FBS to eventually go to, has its flaws as well. From ‘06-’10, the THIRD place finisher in the South Division of the Colonial has played in the title game twice. In most years the FCS playoffs turn into a battle of attrition. Many times in the battle thru 4 or 5 extra games on top of the regular season you see many key players get hurt. A couple of times the team I felt was the best team in the FCS got knocked out of the playoffs after injuries had taken their QB or a key player from that team out of the playoffs or had that player significantly hobbled and playing at far less than 100%. The FCS champion in some years is not the best team but the one that stayed the healthiest in the playoffs. Many say that championships should be decided “on the field”. This format does determine their champs on the field but not on the field in the regular season as teams can lose 3 or 4 games and still be eligible so they are determined “on the field in the postseason” with the teams with less attrition generally advancing. I do not feel this method produces a true National Champ every year.
Another reason not to have a 16 team playoff is the bowl system. I love college football and I love the bowls. They produce matchups you normally do not see and each bowl has its own flavor. Getting to a bowl game is a reward for the players and gives their fans a nice destination to travel to in December or January. It provides bragging rights for the conferences when they play each other and allows half of the teams that do make the post season to end their year on an up note with a win! Another reward to getting to a bowl is the additional practices a team has which many times helps develop the younger players. I am old enough to remember when the Big Ten had a rule that only the Big Ten champ could play in the Rose Bowl and none of the other teams went to a bowl game. That is one of the reasons that Big Ten teams do not have as many bowls in their history as conferences such as the SEC. Growing up in Big Ten country was a lot more exciting in 1975 when they lifted that rule. Michigan and Ohio St were in the Orange Bowl those first two years instead of the team not going to the Rose Bowl sitting home for the holidays. In 1969 Ohio St had perhaps the best team in the country and did not play in a bowl. It is my job so naturally I watch every minute of every bowl game but if it were not my job, I would actually still watch every minute of every bowl game! I also like how teams in November that are eliminated from the title chase are playing key games to determine whether they will play their bowl in Florida or perhaps in a colder climate. I do love the bowls and think we need to keep them.
Once again here is my plan to determine the National Champ. It is actually very close to what we have now. I feel it would establish a true National Champ every year. This is the THIRTEENTH straight year I have called for it in my magazine. To determine the National Champ, I feel they should continue with the BCS rankings and include the Top FOUR teams in the BCS chase. I am open to a committee choosing the teams (see next paragraph). The two semifinal games would be played on Jan 1 and rotate as the bowls do now between the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Fiesta. The Top 4 teams in the country, according to the BCS, would be invited. If you look at the last 15 years, this would have included: No. 3 Ohio St in 1998, No. 3 Nebraska in 1999, BOTH Oregon and Colorado in 2001, No. 1 USC in 2003, undefeated SEC Champ Auburn in 2004, Michigan in 2006, Texas and USC in 2008, undefeated Cincinnati and TCU in 2009, undefeated TCU in ‘10 and Oklahoma St who had a legitimate argument last year. In this scenario, the teams decide who is the National Champ on the field. No. 1 would face No. 4 and No. 2 would face No. 3 in the January bowls. After the first round matchups, the Championship game could be played during the bye week before the Super Bowl. This would allow the teams plenty of time for preparation and for fans to make travel arrangements, given the three to four week span and give football fans something to look forward to during the week the NFL is off. It would also prevent a team like Ohio St from playing in a National Title game after not having played for 50+ days which affected their performance in both 2006 and 2007. I am also not opposed to some of the other ways of matching up #1 vs #4 and #2 vs #3. I have an open mind and was intrigued by the proposal that the #1 seed gets to play in its “home” BCS bowl and not having the semifinals at a predetermined spot. The SEC champ for example would be in the Sugar Bowl and the Big Ten or Pac 12 champ would be in the Rose Bowl if those two teams were #1 or #2. That plan makes sense as well.
I am also open to a committee selecting the top 4 but it would have to be a committee comprised of people that follow COLLEGE football full time and not those that cover other sports or just follow one team or conference. It is sort of like the coaches poll. Any head coach worth his salt should be concerned with his own team and then the opponents on his schedule and pour all of his energy into those schools. To think that Nick Saban is breaking down film on last night’s Clemson and Florida St game just to get an idea of who to vote for in the coaches poll would be ridiculous. The second his game is over his focus goes onto the next opponent. Many times the school’s SID ends up selecting the coach’s votes and odds are they were at their own team’s game the previous day and not watching every game from across the country. Many writers I talk to do a fabulous job covering their teams and know their conferences inside and out. Many cover the football and basketball teams and that cuts into their schedules in November. Also, they really focus on their team and conference which is why they know it so well and usually spend Saturday at the team’s game they are covering rather than watching all the games across the nation. It will be interesting to see if a committee is formed, who they will use to choose the teams.
In past years’ articles I have gone in depth year by year and pointed out why the 4 team playoff with one extra game would be a good fit. You can go to any of the past years’ magazines (old issues are available to order on philsteele.com if you lost any of yours) and get all those examples broken down in depth and year by year. I started the article in 2000 because I felt the best team in the country in both 1998 and 1999 did not get to play in the title game. My plan would have worked PERFECTLY in 12 of the 15 years while the BCS’s current plan would have worked in only 4 out of the 15 years. I will say that the folks that clamor for a 16 team playoff probably had the best plan in ONE of those 15 years and that was in the wacky 2007 season when the argument at the end of the year was about who was the best TWO or THREE loss team in the country. Yes, that was a weird year and the ONE year that a larger playoff format would have worked.
Now with the move to a 4 team playoff there will be debate on that #4 spot. That is fine and I know that will happen but that should not raise the need for expanding the playoffs. When you are arguing over the #4 spot this year, keep this question in mind. If this was a two team playoff would this team have a legitimate claim to a #1 or #2 spot? If your answer is no (and most years it is that way) then argue about that #4 spot but realize the system got it right and all the teams that needed to be in the title have their shot. Here is a quick thumbnail sketch of the last 11 years.
2001- One undefeated, two tms with 1 loss. A 2 loss tm is #4.
2002- Two undefeated (Ohio St-Miami). No need for #3 or #4
2003- Three teams with 1 loss (split Nat’l Title). #4 tm 2 losses.
2004- Unbeaten SEC champ Auburn #3. Utah unbeaten.
2005- Two undefeated teams in USC-Texas. GREAT Rose Bowl.
2006- Only debate Michigan or Florida for #3. #4 LSU 2 losses.
2007- Strange year. Could make a case against any team being in.
2008- Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama.
2009- 5 unbeatens but Alabama & Texas only ones that HAD to be in.
2010- Three unbeatens all in. Only debate is best 1 loss.
2011- The 3 legitimate 1 loss tms and undefeated LSU, a clear Top 4.
The only year where the #5 team could make a clear cut case to be included in the Top 2 was that wacky 2007 season. You cannot try to implement a playoff plan based on that one year when 14 of the 15 years the #5 team could not make a case for being in a two team title game. Also in that 2007 season I could make a case that NO team had a legitimate beef for being left out of the title game and no team that deserved to play in a title game was left out. That happened to Ohio St in 1998, Nebraska in 1999, Washington and Miami in 2000, Oregon and Colorado in 2001, USC and LSU (split title) in 2003, unbeaten SEC Champ Auburn in 2004, Michigan fell to #3 without playing in both ‘03 and ‘06 and some could make a case for TCU in ‘10 and Oklahoma St in ‘11.
I do feel that schedule strength must have a huge bearing on the picking of the top 4 teams. This year for example if you took Arkansas (most have 5th best team in the SEC) and put them in the Mountain West, MAC, Big East, CUSA, WAC or the Sun Belt they would be the preseason favorite to win each of those leagues and be favored in every game. By closely looking at schedule strength we may end up getting better non conference matchups in the future. Let’s say two 1 loss teams are tied for that #4 spot and one of them defeated a ranked team and two other BCS foes in non-conf play while the other played 4 teams from non AQ conferences. You can bet that the team with the weaker schedule would be left out. The result would be stronger non-conf games and the college football fan would be the winner.
I feel strongly that it must be #1 vs #4 and #2 vs #3. There has been talk to let the bowls play as they do then pick the 2 teams after the bowls but the debate would be much the same if the top 3 tms were all unbeaten and playing in diff bowls, a deserving team would get left out.
Finally let’s look at the Conf Champion debate. I understand the clamor to only include Conference Champs but I feel Alabama was clearly the best team in the country last year and they would have been left out. They had perhaps the NCAA’s best defense ever, one of the best offensive lines and a Heisman finalist at RB (#3 pick NFL draft). Bama showed in the title game they belonged and their closest win all year was by 17 points. I will use a tightener which would enhance the conference title games and that is this. If a Top 4 team loses a conference title game at a neutral site to another team that is in the Top 4 of the BCS final standings, that team is eliminated. I will call this the Immediate Rematch Clause. Let me clarify the Neutral Site and immediate rematch aspects. In 2006 #2 Michigan travelled to #1 Ohio St for the regular season finale and it was a large home edge for the #1 Buckeyes. Ohio St escaped with a 3 point win. Had the game been at a neutral site perhaps Michigan would have won. They were clearly two of the top 3 teams that year and that loss would not have eliminated Michigan as it was not a conference title game and it was far from a neutral site. I have some clear wording in my rematch clause which does not eliminate a team just because it lost its title game. The clause is to avoid rematches in the final 4 between two teams that just played the previous game. As an example if there was an unbeaten team that was #1 but was upset in its conference title game they would still be eligible as long as the team that upset them was not in the top 4.
I feel if you put a clause in that says you MUST win a conference championship we could have some deserving teams left out. As mentioned last year it would have left the BEST team in college football out of a 4 team playoff and that would make it a bogus system. If the other conferences are concerned about the SEC getting two teams into the mix, they should put their focus on strengthening their teams and not leaving deserving teams out.
I am not ready to pop the cork yet on that bottle of champagne and hopefully the fine tuning stages the next few months don’t ruin it but it appears that my now 13-year appeal for #1 vs #4 and #2 vs #3 is coming to fruition. I believe we will have a true national champ almost every year, the bowls will stay in tact and the college football regular season will remain the most important regular season of any sport college or pro!