Tuesday, November 27, 2007

College Football Playoffs?

One of the most fun things about college football is complaining about the BCS. Yahoo Sports' Dan Wetzel presents what looks like a very sensible alternative here, essentially a 16-team playoff involving the winners of all eleven major or mid-major football conferences (now called the FBS), plus five at-large bids. The main complaint about the BCS, and before that, just the polls by themselves, is that they determine a national champion by subjective measures*, not through on-the-field competition.

Wetzel's plan certainly fixes that problem, and I think it's intriguing to include the champions of the MAC or Sun Belt Conference alongside the Pac-10 or SEC champions. I still see a couple of issues with this plan, though:

1. Too many games? Wetzel's plan involves teams playing as many as four postseason games in the bracket, plus another if they have a conference championship game. The time is certainly there, as most regular seasons finish up around the end of November, but I don't know if they really want student-athletes to spend all December playing football.

You could fix this by eliminating non-conference games earlier in the season, but I think that would cause problems of its own, making the season less interesting, as well as annoying various concerned interests there. I think that's why I've seen other proposals that only have 8 teams in a tournament. On the other hand, it would only be a small subset of teams playing that many games, so maybe this is not so much a problem.

2. The real sticking point here is that it totally screws up the existing bowl games. I think as many people who might like Wetzel's system on its own merits would be pissed off because the Rose Bowl or Orange Bowl would be left competing for scraps, and a bunch of lesser bowls would fold completely. Not just the bowl promoters, but fans, too. The real problem with "solving" the BCS is not that nobody can think of a plan that sounds decent in a vacuum, but that nobody can think of a plan that doesn't anger too many of the stakeholders.

I think it's very viable to work the existing bowls into a playoff format, though. Even if we stick with Wetzel's plan in all other respects, it would be simple to just replace the top-tier playoff games with bowl games. The exact position of the games could rotate - one of the four BCS bowls could be the final, two would act as the semifinal games, and the other could be a quarterfinal game, alongside three of the lesser bowls. The first round of the playoffs could take place at regular home fields, as in Wetzel's plan, or be distributed among eight lesser bowls.

But the really neat part about this sort of system is that while the tier-level of the bowls would be determined by a rotation, the question of which teams are seeded to play into these bowls could be determined by the traditional matchups. In other words, make sure that the BCS Bowls are positioned in the tree so that their traditional entrants are playing to participate in that bowl game somewhere in the bracket.

For example, let's say for the sake of argument that this year, the Orange Bowl were to be the final, the Rose and Sugar Bowls were semifinal games, and the Fiesta Bowl was to be a quarterfinal. Traditionally, the Rose Bowl pits the Pac-10 and Big Ten champs against each other, while the Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls have the champions of, respectively, the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 playing at-large teams.

Looking at Wetzel's bracket, expected Big 12 champ Missouri is ranked #1, so its first playoff game would be played at home, and assuming it wins, its next game would be the Fiesta Bowl (a week earlier than normal) against the winner of the Oklahoma-USC game. Ohio State (Big Ten) and USC (Pac-10) are on opposite sides of the bracket, so their seeding would have to be adjusted so that they're on the same side, playing in to a semifinal Rose Bowl game. Virginia Tech (ACC) would be playing to get to the Orange Bowl, but since that would be the final this year, everybody would be playing into it and it wouldn't affect the seeding. The semifinal game over on LSU's side of the bracket would be the Sugar Bowl.

So some adjustments in the seedings would have to be made, but it's very doable. This eliminates things like a few years back when USC lost its bid for the national championship game and ended up falling back into "just" the Rose Bowl. This way, for example, Big 12 teams are fighting both to get into the Fiesta Bowl and also to win the national championship. It also requires tweaking the dates of some of the games, but I think that should not be as big of a problem, either.

Otherwise, my adjustments still have the main advantage of a playoff system, namely, that a team's fortunes are made on the field, and teams like Boise State last year, or Hawaii this year aren't excluded from playing for the championship because they're in the WAC, but they would have to prove themselves against the big teams to do so.

On the other hand, some people just like things the way they are, because the subjective rankings have "mystique." His comments about the 17th-ranked team complaining that they wouldn't be given a shot at the championship are a load of crap... if you're ranked that low, you're not one of the very best teams in the country, and if you manage to squeak in to the tournament, you should be thankful for that. On the other hand, he has a good point about not releasing polls for the first three weeks of the season. The polling should reflect how well the teams play, not how good they looked on paper.

*Yes, the computer rankings are subjective, as they objectively apply subjectively-chosen formulas. If they truly "objectively" measured a team's strength, they wouldn't all disagree. It's like the old saying about how a man with two watches never really knows what time it is.

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