For the second consecutive year the Big Ten staged a championship game where the winner didn’t win much. Neither Penn State last year nor Ohio State this season advanced to the College Football Playoff. It was the same with USC in the Pac-12. A year ago, Alabama could have lost the SEC title game and still made the playoff. This year the Tide didn’t even have to play and they got in.
Bitterness overwhelmed the sport on Sunday, as the selection committee pegged Alabama for the playoff’s fourth seed rather than Ohio State, USC or even unbeaten Central Florida. The Tide will play No. 1 seed Clemson in New Orleans on Jan. 1. Georgia and Oklahoma will meet in Pasadena, California, the same day.
The debate over who should be in and who should be out can’t ever really be solved. Nor, perhaps, should it be. The committee did the best it could when faced with an impossible situation. The playoff, even at just four teams, is a significant improvement over the old BCS – that double header on New Year’s Day is proof of that.
It could be better, though, and not so much by expanding, as being overhauled and modernized. It starts by eliminating the conference championship games which were born as a money grab but are now inefficient, too often meaningless and actually stand in the way of a bigger money grab of a bigger playoff. By doing so, the number of games played wouldn’t be increased, a nod to player safety. Actually, fewer teams would play an extra game.
Yet more games would matter. And they would matter more.
It’s true. While it may sound like an eight-team playoff devalues the season compared to a four-team playoff, if you’re eliminating the conference title game round, that isn’t the case.
Here’s the simple framework:
The first weekend of December is no longer reserved for conference championship games. They are the first round of an eight-team playoff, where the higher-seeded team gets to host. The champions of the five major conferences would be granted automatic bids. If you win your league, you are in.
How each conference determines that is up to them. The Big 12 already plays a round robin so the conference title game is useless. The other leagues could base it on league record with various tie breakers. This would wisely lead to the end of the division system which makes neither competitive, nor intellectual, sense. A more balanced scheduling system would improve the entire season. So would knowing that playing (and losing) tough non-conference games won’t kill you (as it did to USC) because you can still win your league.
There would be three at-large bids allowed, with one twist. If a non-Power Five club goes unbeaten and the committee ranks it in say, the top 10 or 15 (some number) then that team gets in automatically. Is UCF one of the eight best teams? We don’t really know, but it’s close and allowing an underdog into the tournament is good for the sport. Playoffs are businesses and a Cinderella is good for ratings and interest. Besides, if UCF proves to be a weak No. 8 seed, that is just a benefit the No. 1 seed earned. This year, Clemson’s reward is Alabama on a neutral field that is closer to Alabama. Gee, thanks.
Would expanding the playoff water down the regular season?
No. First off, it would make every Power Five conference race matter (or even, this year, the American Athletic Conference title game, where the country would have been riveted to see whether UCF would go unbeaten and steal a bid from a power program). Instead, each year at least one major conference comes up empty. This year it was two. The Pac-12 season was essentially valueless for the last month of the season once teams hit a second regular-season loss. How about all those games that would now count for something?
Second, not winning your conference still would be incredibly risky. UCF grabbing a bid may have meant that, say, Miami would have been out based on its loss to Pitt (depending on how the ACC picked its champion). So the regular season would have meant more because Miami wouldn’t have been bailed out with a ACC title game appearance. Meanwhile, Ohio State would have known it was eliminated at the end of the regular season instead of going through Saturday’s title game without realizing it had been eliminated at the end of the regular season.
Here’s what this year’s playoff would look like (using committee rankings from Nov. 28, pre-conference title games) and giving UCF the No. 8 spot.
No. 8 UCF at No. 1 Clemson
No. 7 USC at No. 2 Auburn
No. 6 Georgia at No. 3 Oklahoma
No. 5 Alabama at No. 4 Wisconsin
Five of the top six teams played last weekend anyway in elimination games. So no change for them. Alabama was essentially given a bye into the semifinals under the current system, which is absurd. This way the Tide has to earn it. USC and UCF both played for conference titles, but this way both teams would have been in meaningful playoff games.
And consider Oklahoma. Why have the Sooners play a postseason game against No. 11 TCU, which it already defeated, when it could instead host No. 6 Georgia? No one would ever conceive such a system, let alone choose it. This is far more logical.
And, yes, OU would’ve hosted Georgia last weekend. Like, in Norman. The reason the playoff is at four and not eight is because the bowl lobby was able to control the creation process. It’s dumb and operates on the border of cronyism and corruption. This way at least round one will be played on the great campuses and stadiums of college football. It’s one of the best parts of the game, yet the sport abandons its roots for its most important contests. No fan has ever watched kickoff in Bryant-Denny or the Horseshoe or Death Valley and said, “Man, I wish this was being played in whatever-they-call-that-orange-stadium-the-Dolphins-play-in-these-days.” The bowls can still have the semifinals, although they should lose that, too.
This way the economic engine of a postseason is enjoyed by campus communities rather than big NFL cities and stadiums. Travel would be easier for home fans. Gaining a top-four seed is a huge advantage that would further strengthen the regular season.
It would also be awesome. Seriously, Alabama in Camp Randall?
Four playoff games should generate far more television money than the current crop of conference title games. There would be better access, yet little to no loss of regular-season urgency. The system would flow better and make sense. There would be no additional games for players. And we’d get campus venues.
It’s not playoff expansion. It’s postseason reform. And it’s better.
Or you can keep staging the Big Ten title game and pretending it matters. If you’re into that kind of thing.
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