College football is closing in on an expanded playoff, as the conference continue deliberation for some type of “plus-one” setup, where an additional game would be added after the completion of the bowls. One of the first debates was whether the new format would have two bowls serve as national semi-finals in a four-team playoff or if conferences would go to their traditional tie-ins and then select the top two teams when the dust had settled. By all accounts, advocates of the four-team playoff have won this first level of debate. I believe that is a mistake.
I term this new proposal an “expanded playoff”, because contrary to popular view, we already do have a playoff. We guarantee that 1 vs. 2 will play at the end of the season and the winner will be the national champion. It might not be an NCAA-sanctioned bracket like the basketball or baseball tournaments are, and if the AP really wanted to, they could vote a different team as their national champ. But in the eyes of the college football world the BCS National Championship Game is the title game.
That semantical debate aside, I believe college football is strengthened, not weakened, by the concept of a conference having one bowl game that serves as the prize for its members, regardless of whether they are national title contenders. Having grown up in the Midwest, the pride the Big Ten took in the Rose Bowl was obvious and the Pac-10 felt the same way. There was tradition with the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. The potential for the new Big 12 to develop that same feeling to the Fiesta Bowl was real, as was the case with the ACC and the Orange (in years past, the old Big Eight went to the Orange and the ACC was non-aligned).
I liked the old alignments enough to write a book, The Last New Year’s, celebrating not just the bowl tie-ins, but the whole concept of playing all the season’s biggest games on January 1 and turning it into a college football feast. We still have the glut of games, but the impact is gone. But the controversies were enough that I also believe the sport badly needed a true championship game, something to give a real finish to the season.
If we play the national title game after a traditional bowl schedule, we make it possible that as many as three, four, and in the wildest circumstances, even five games can matter in the race for the national championship. If we play all these bowl games on January 1, we give the sport an all-day feast enjoyed nowhere else in sports. It’s the best of both worlds—while maintaining and developing the tradition each conference feels for its bowl game, we create a more exciting national championship process.
Furthermore, this proposal—rather than a 4-team playoff—is most likely to give justice to the non-BCS teams that were given short shrift in the days of old and still are today. Critics of Boise State say their schedule isn’t good enough to merit being in the top two—do you really think they’re going to have a sudden change of heart and put them in the top four? To do so last year would have required that you bounce one of the following: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State or Oregon. There’s no way any of the first three are being left out, unless we have a rule on prohibiting non-conference champs. Although even then, Wisconsin probably substitutes for ‘Bama. While Boise would get more people willing to give them a shot over Oregon/Wisconsin, the computer rankings aren’t going to like the Broncos’ schedule any more than they do now, and elitist observers aren’t going to suddenly go all populist.
But if you have a traditional bowl structure, you can put Boise to the test before committing to them. Last year’s matchups would have had LSU tied to the Sugar, Oklahoma State in the Fiesta and Wisconsin-Oregon in the Rose. For the sake of discussion let’s Boise had finished unbeaten rather than missing a late field goal against TCU. If that’s the case, send them to the Sugar to play LSU. If the Broncos win that game, no one’s going to argue they don’t deserve to play for the whole thing. If they lose it, no one can say they didn’t get a fair crack. And from an entertainment standpoint, we can watch them play on New Year’s Day in a major bowl rather than go up against 6-6 Arizona State like they did a year ago. Once again, it’s the best of all worlds.
Finally, the system I propose gives college football a perfect three-tiered postseason. We start on the first Saturday of December with all the conference championship games. Then we move up to January 1 and the bowl games. If you look at the scenario I outlined above, that would be two games with direct implications on the national championship chase, with Wisconsin-Oregon hoping for a chance to argue their case over non-conference champ Alabama if the Tide beat Oklahoma State (We’ll save the arguments over league champs vs. runner-ups for next week). Then throw in two more appetizer games—the Orange and one other bowl that we’d elevate to top-tier status to get 10 teams on January 1. When it all sorted out, we’d move to the off-week just prior to the Super Bowl and play the national championship game. In an ideal world, college football could even play it at the same site as the Super Bowl and turn one city into the football mecca of the world.
Or what we could do is have a four-team playoff where no one watches anything but two bowls, and have three of the four teams be from the SEC. I’m sure that’s what SEC commissioner Mike Slive wants and what conference fans are angling for. Rumor has it Slive also insists that baseball only televise the Yankees-Red Sox games, that college basketball center on North Carolina-Duke and that Kobe & LeBron be the only NBA players to get screen time. Yes, by all means let’s go that route. Opening things up with a cutting edge mix of traditionalist bowls with a modern championship game would be too much fun for the entire country.