My (Hopefully) Final College Football Playoff Proposal: Four Team Bowl Event with a Flex Wild Card

Posted by    |    April 27th, 2012 at 5:30 am

Change is here: the BCS commissioners have announced that they are recommending a 4-team college football playoff to the university presidents.  While the details of how that 4-team playoff is going to be structured is still up in the air (along with how the revenue is split among the conferences and schools), we’re in the midst of what will arguably end up being the most important college football story of our lives.

With that in mind, I’m submitting what will hopefully be my last college football playoff proposal.  As always, I try to be realistic balancing the real world financial and political interests of the various entities that have leverage (as opposed to simply throwing out a plan just because I like it).  There’s no ambiguity that there are going to be 4 teams playing into eliminations games.  The real debate right now is about how those 4 teams are chosen.  For the purposes this discussion, I’m going to assume that there will be some type of publicized BCS-type ranking system as opposed to a selection committee*.  Maybe the inputs for that ranking will be different than what the BCS formula uses today, but that’s another discussion for another day.

(* Personally, I don’t believe that a selection committee is going to provide any value beyond a BCS-type ranking system or even just using a largely objective poll similar to the AP.  (Note that I agree with those that believe that the coaches’ poll is garbage as the voters have a direct self-interest in the outcome of the poll.)  A selection committee is beneficial for the NCAA Tournament since they’re tasked with culling through midmajor squads and even power conference teams that haven’t received much media attention to determine team #68 that gets in and #69 that doesn’t get in.  By comparison, we’re only looking at a 4-team playoff for college football, and as stupid as many voters might be, there’s going to be fairly high public awareness of the top 4 to 6 teams.  That’s the type of situation where the “wisdom of crowds” approach is more effective as opposed to having only a handful of committee members making a decision where the impact of an outlier is far too great.

There are also a couple of practical considerations to using a BCS-type ranking as opposed to a selection committee.  First, the general public wants to be able to follow a ranking from week-to-week.  Part of the very essence of the regular season is following who is #1 (or #4) and having a reasonable idea as to who needs to win or lose in a given week in order to change that ranking.  I think asking the general public to hold its breath and wait until the first weekend in December to find out who is really in the top 4 according to the criteria established by the decision-makers isn’t going to work.  Once again, this is NOT the NCAA Tournament where the decisions are really about seeding and the worst that the committee can do is make a mistake with team #69 that doesn’t have a legitimate shot at winning the national championship, anyway.

Second, any committee member is going to have to invest in a closet-full of Kevlar vests.  Do you want to be the one of 10 people whose names are publicized that tells an Alabama fan base whose team has been ranked #2 in the polls all year that the Crimson Tide isn’t going to a 4-team playoff?  I’m not joking – those committee members are going to need round-the-clock security outside of their homes.  At least if there’s some type of poll combined with some computer rankings, any negative ire is directed toward a faceless system instead of specific individuals.  Some type of ranking that you can follow from week-to-week where everyone knows where they stand at any given time greatly disperses the haterade (even if it can’t ever be completely eliminated).)

The main debate about selecting the 4 participants in a playoff revolves around whether only conference champions should be allowed.  On the other side is simply using the top 4 teams in whatever ranking is used regardless of conference affiliation.  In the middle is a proposal to use the 3 highest-ranked conference champions plus 1 wild card team that would be the highest-ranked team outside of those 3 league champs (so it could be a conference champ, non-conference champ, or an independent such as Notre Dame).

My personal view on this issue is very practical: if we finally get a college football playoff and still end up with a split national championship with the final AP poll, then that’s a massive fail.  I understand the argument that limiting the participants to only conference champions provides some emphasis on “earning it on the field”, yet the practical reality is the general public and, more importantly, the TV networks paying for a playoff aren’t going to accept a system where the #2 team in the country would not be participating yet the #10 team would be involved (which is what would have happened in 2011).  I believe a lot of hardcore college football fans that support a conference champs-only have been mistakenly mixing their disdain for Alabama being chosen over Oklahoma State for a #1 vs. #2 national championship game last year (where I completely agree with the furor) with an argument that Alabama should not even be in a 4-team playoff (which I can’t justify if the purpose of a playoff is to figure out who the best team in the country is).  I’m one of the biggest Big Ten guys out there, yet I’m in agreement with SEC commissioner Mike Slive in principle on this issue: there’s no real way that I can support a system that would have allowed #10 Wisconsin in over #2 Alabama last year.

With that backdrop, here is one last college football playoff proposal for your consideration, which is what I call the “Four Team Bowl Event with a Flex Wild Card”.

FOUR TEAM BOWL EVENT WITH A FLEX WILD CARD

A. TEAM SELECTION CRITERIA

1. Top 3 teams in the new ranking system (whatever it might be) are automatically in the playoff regardless of conference affiliation.

2. The #4 team in the rankings is automatically in the playoff it is a conference champion or independent.

3. If the #4 team in the rankings is not a conference champion or independent, then:

a. The #5 team is in the playoff if it is a conference champion;

b. The #6 team is in the playoff if it is a conference champion and the #5 team is not a conference champion;

c. The #4 team is in the playoff if neither the #5 team nor #6 team are conference champions.

Rationale: Originally, I liked the 3 conference champions with 1 wild card slot proposal as compromise between the desire to reward conference champions with the need to ensure a legitimately elite conference runner-up doesn’t get shut out by a pedestrian conference champ.  However, I saw some of the commenters on this blog discuss some hypothetical formats where the top 3 teams without regard to conference affiliation would be guaranteed access to a playoff and started to think that this would be the best way to go.  Once again, I’m trying to be practical here.  When I think back to what has been the single most common complaint about the BCS system over the years, it has been an argument over who should be in the national championship game between the #2 team and the #3 team.  It hasn’t happened every year during the BCS era, but when it has happened, that’s where we have seen the most angst and heartburn among fans.  If much of the impetus behind finally instituting a playoff (besides cashing in on a pile of TV money) is to provide clarity and answers that the public has been craving for years, then having a #2 vs. #3 semifinal specifically is critical.  In that sense, ensuring the #3 team is in the playoff whether it’s a conference champ or not is just as important as having the #2 team there.

It’s the fourth spot in the playoffs, which is what I call the “Flex Wild Card”, that I believed needs to have some provisions granting some preferences to a conference champions (but not so much that it would prop up a low-ranked conference champ).  As the last team in, it’s more expendable than the top 3 teams – the public isn’t as bothered by seeing a #1 vs. #5 game in a playoff (compared to not seeing a #2 vs. #3 game) if there’s reasonable justification.  So, if the #4 team is a conference champion or an independent, then there’s no issue and it’s automatically in the playoff.  However, I can see being bothered if a conference runner-up is at #4 while a conference champion is sitting right behind it at #5 or #6.  The prime example of this is last year’s rankings, where Stanford was #4 in the final BCS rankings and Oregon was #5 despite the fact that Oregon had beaten Stanford and was the Pac-12 champion.  In that scenario, it would seem that Oregon’s achievement of being a conference champ should usurp Stanford’s ranking.

However, if the public is going to take the system seriously, a playoff participant can’t be too far down in the rankings.  That’s why I limited this Flex Wild Card spot to only swapping out a non-conference champion (as long as it’s not an independent) at #4 if there’s a conference champion at #5 or #6.  My eyeball review of past BCS rankings indicates that there’s typically a drop-off after the top 6 teams in most years and my feeling is that a #1 vs. #6 matchup doesn’t seem that far removed from a #1 vs. #4 matchup, whereas once we get to a #1 vs. #7 or below matchup, that starts looking out of place in a playoff.

Note that I treat an independent (AKA Notre Dame) as the same as a conference champion if it is in the top 4, but it is not treated as such if it is a #5 or #6 team for the Flex Wild Card spot.  My approach to Notre Dame is that it should be “football Switzerland” – it shouldn’t receive any advantage for not being a member of a conference (which is what a lot of non-Irish fans focus upon), but it also shouldn’t receive any disadvantage for not being a member of a conference (which is what a lot of non-Irish fans freely ignore).  A new college football playoff should not be a vehicle to structurally force Notre Dame into a conference (and note that any rule providing a disadvantage to independents will also apply to Army and, until it joins the Big East, Navy, which won’t be looked at too kindly by the people in Washington that would rather hitch on the always popular bandwagon of bashing the BCS than dealing with a stagnant economy, rampant unemployment and massive deficits).  Now, the only way that you can truly treat Notre Dame neutrally is if you take the top 4 teams in a ranking straight up with no conference restrictions.  If a system is anything other than that, then the goal should be to mitigate any advantages or disadvantages to independence.

There’s also another practical aspect regarding Notre Dame, which is as much as non-Domers might claim that they’re not relevant any more, there’s not going to be any TV executive anywhere that is going to be happy paying for a 4-team playoff where a top 4 Notre Dame team isn’t involved, and those TV people are the ones making this playoff possible in the first place by throwing so much money on the table.  I get asked pretty frequently why Notre Dame has its own seat at the BCS table and my response is always that it’s very simple: Notre Dame brings money into the system while rarely taking a BCS spot, so it’s the best of both worlds.  That’s why the power conferences are more than happy to deal with the Irish in a pragmatic fashion.  In contrast, the current non-AQ conferences don’t bring much money into the system at all while frequently taking a BCS spot, which is the worst of both worlds.  So, it’s those non-power conferences that truly stick in the craw of Jim Delany and Mike Slive.  Notre Dame is a complete red herring for college football fans.

To summarize: this playoff proposal would take the top 3 teams regardless of whether they are conference champs, while a #5 or #6 conference champion can jump a #4 team that’s not a conference champion or an independent.

Now that we’ve got the team selection covered, let’s move onto where the semifinals will be played.

B. SEMIFINALS USING THE BCS BOWLS WITH TIE-IN PREFERENCES

Beyond the 4-team playoff recommendation, there were a couple of other key stories that came out of the BCS meetings.  First, Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com wrote this with respect to the Rose Bowl:

Tuesday will be known as the day the Rose Bowl gave in. Maybe just as little. And not officially. But it was the day when Delany, the biggest public defender of the Rose, sounded a lot like the stuffy ol’ Granddaddy was joining the party.

“I would say there is an expectation there will be significant change,” Delany said of the postseason in general.

What he’s saying without saying it is that the Rose/Pac-12/Big Ten won’t bust that playoff party. At least that’s the way it looks. They’re in. All the way. Get used to it. That’s what the last 10 years have been about. Five times since January 2002 “foreign” teams have played in Pasadena. In the previous 55 years it was only the Big Ten and Pac-8/10

Then, Brett McMurphy of CBSSports.com reported this regarding playoff format possibilities:

Sources also told CBSSports.com that one of the many formats the BCS is considering is a model that would allow the bowl games the flexibility to host a semifinal game — if it’s not scheduled — if its anchor team qualifies for the playoff. In other words, if the Rose Bowl is not scheduled to host a semifinal game, but the Big Ten or Pac-12 champion qualifies for a four-team playoff, then the Rose Bowl could host a semifinal. This also would be the case for an SEC champion and the Sugar Bowl or a Big 12 team and the Fiesta Bowl.

What this means is that (1) the Rose Bowl is willing to become a semifinal game, which means giving up the traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 on a frequent basis on paper but (2) there is a proposal to allow the bowls to use their traditional tie-ins to slot the semifinal games, which could allow the Rose Bowl to get back one or both of its traditional conference partners with national championship implications.

As soon as I read McMurphy’s flexible BCS bowl/semifinal proposal, it instantly jumped out at me as the direction that I believe the overall system will head toward.  If Jim Delany and Larry Scott are serious about protecting the Rose Bowl while keeping their respective conferences’ relationships with Pasadena as strong as possible even with participating in a 4-team playoff, then this seems to be the way to go.  To expand upon this:

1. A BCS bowl gets to host a semifinal if it has a tie-in that’s a playoff participant.

2. When there are more than 2 BCS bowls that have tie-ins with semifinalists, the higher-ranked teams get bowl placement priority (e.g. if #1 LSU plays #5 Oregon in a semifinal, the Sugar Bowl gets the game instead of the Rose Bowl because the SEC tie-in is ranked higher).

3. If two or more teams from the same conference are semifinalists, then the highest ranked team from that conference gets the traditional bowl tie-in.  The lower ranked team(s) could be placed at bowls that have tie-ins with other semifinalists (e.g. #1 LSU would have gone to the Sugar Bowl last year, while #2 Alabama would have played #3 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl because that’s the Big 12 tie-in).

4.  Notwithstanding the foregoing, in the event that both the Big Ten and Pac-12 have semifinalists, they will play in the Rose Bowl regardless of ranking.

5.  One or two BCS bowls per year are designated as semifinal sites on a rotational basis in the off-chance that one or more semifinal matchups does not have any teams with any bowl tie-ins.

6.  The BCS bowls that are not hosting semifinals are free to choose any team that it wants outside of its contractual tie-ins.

Reasoning: This system appears to be the best that the traditionalists can do in terms of protecting the prestige of the Rose Bowl without completely throwing away the Big Ten/Pac-12 tie-ins.  Most proposals seemed to go one way (making the Rose Bowl a semifinal or championship locale without regard to the Big Ten and Pac-12) or the other (removing the Rose Bowl completely from the semifinal rotation).  The system here meets those two extremes in the middle, and as you’ll see below in applying this system to previous years, it’s really a net benefit to the quality of the Rose Bowl matchup and the Big Ten/Pac-12 pairing would not have been lost any more frequently than it has been usurped in the current BCS system.

C. HOW THE SYSTEM WOULD HAVE WORKED HISTORICALLY

Using the BCS rankings from prior years, here’s how the semifinals and BCS bowls would have looked from 2005 to 2011 (semifinals in bold):

2011
Rose Bowl: #10 Wisconsin vs. #4 Stanford
Sugar Bowl: #1 LSU vs. #5 Oregon
Orange Bowl: #15 Clemson vs. #6 Arkansas
Fiesta Bowl: #3 Oklahoma State vs. #2 Alabama

2010
Rose Bowl: #5 Wisconsin vs. #2 Oregon
Sugar Bowl: #1 Auburn vs. #3 TCU
Orange Bowl: #13 Virginia Tech vs. #6 Ohio State
Fiesta Bowl: #7 Oklahoma vs. #4 Stanford

2009
Rose Bowl: #8 Ohio State vs. #7 Oregon
Sugar Bowl: #1 Alabama vs. #4 TCU
Orange Bowl: #9 Georgia Tech vs. #5 Florida
Fiesta Bowl: #2 Texas vs. #3 Cincinnati

2008
Rose Bowl: #8 Penn State vs. #17 Oregon
Sugar Bowl: #2 Florida vs. #3 Texas
Orange Bowl: #19 Virginia Tech vs. #4 Alabama
Fiesta Bowl: #1 Oklahoma vs. #5 USC

2007
Rose Bowl: #1 Ohio State vs. #4 Oklahoma
Sugar Bowl: #2 LSU vs. #3 Virginia Tech
Orange Bowl: #5 Georgia vs. #8 Kansas
Fiesta Bowl: #6 Missouri vs. #7 USC

2006
Rose Bowl: #1 Ohio State vs. #5 USC
Sugar Bowl: #2 Florida vs. #3 Michigan
Orange Bowl: #14 Wake Forest vs. #4 LSU
Fiesta Bowl: #10 Oklahoma vs. #7 Wisconsin

2005
Rose Bowl: #3 Penn State vs. #1 USC
Sugar Bowl: #7 Georgia vs. #8 Miami
Orange Bowl: #22 Florida State vs. #6 Notre Dame
Fiesta Bowl: #2 Texas vs. #4 Ohio State

Out of the last 7 seasons, the Rose Bowl would have hosted 4 semifinal games, including 3 that would have been traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchups.  Overall, the Rose Bowl would have only had a non-Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup once under this system (compared to twice in real life under the current BCS system).  The Sugar Bowl is the obvious beneficiary with the recent SEC dominance allowing it to host semfinals for the past 6 years, while the Orange Bowl wouldn’t have hosted any semifinals at all during this time period.  The Fiesta Bowl would have hosted the semifinals 4 times.

The upshot for me: this is about as good as the Rose Bowl is going to get in terms of preserving both its prestige and relevance when faced with the reality that we’re going to have a 4-team playoff.  Let’s see if the Big Ten and Pac-12 end up getting behind a proposal to this effect.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from USA Today)