Ah yes, another year, another playoff controversy for college football. The Lords of Football issued their edict today, picking Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama and Washington for the college football playoffs. Those are the four top-ranked teams, so it’s not exactly a surprise. But it has left Big 12 champ Oklahoma and B1G champion Penn State out in the cold. There was particular controversy over the exclusion of Penn State, which beat Ohio State earlier this year and took the title in the toughest conference in the nation.
I’m not interested in arguments over whether Penn State is better than Washington or Ohio State. These arguments tend to be circular and pointless. On any given Saturday, any team can beat any other (as three of the four playoff teams found out this year). With 11-12 games a year, you can’t really claim to get that kind of fine-grained detail on the quality of college football teams.
But I do want to address one argument in particular.
One of the solutions proposed for this mess is that the playoff system should be expanded to eight teams. That way, Oklahoma, Penn State, Michigan and, say, Western Michigan, could all get a shot. While this idea has merit — I’ve long advocated an 8-team playoffs — it ignores one fundamental thing:
We already have a playoff round of eight.
We do. Really. It’s called the conference championships. Four of the major conferences — the B1G, the Pac 12, the SEC and the ACC — played conference title games yesterday. All features ranked teams and, in my opinion, all four winners should advance to the the semi-finals.
“But Mike!” you might say, “You’re just saying that because you’re a Penn State fan!” Well, no not really. I have advocated this for a long time:
Here’s how you do a playoff properly. You take eight conference champs — six from the major conference and then two from the other conference (or Notre Dame, if they are rated high enough). You play them off in the Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowls on January 1 maintaing traditional slots rather than seeding (i.e, Rose Bowl is Pac-10 vs. Big 10 no matter what the rankings). You have two more games on January 8, one more on January 15. Net result — one week and two games more than we have now. No controversy but a legitimate champion.
There are two dangers of restricting a college football playoff to conference champions. The first is that it potentially cuts out independents like Notre Dame or BYU. But you could always make an exception for an unbeaten independent (as happened with Notre Dame a few years back).
The other problem is what happens if a a top-ranked team is upset in the conference title game by a lower-ranked or even unranked team. But I also addressed this. The answer is they go to the championship anyway. I advocated this because, among other things, it would stop teams from scheduling cupcakes out of conference and encourage them to schedule real teams, knowing that an out-of-conference loss won’t hurt their title hopes.
The really real way you would improve this, however, is to restrict the BCS to conference champions — with the Big Six conferences guaranteed entries and the remaining slots distributed among mid-major conferences and independents. That way, there is no advantage in beating the shit out of four wussy non-conference teams and no disadvantage to playing tough non-conference teams. If Penn State loses to Georgia, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, it doesn’t hurt their BCS chances as long as they win their conference.
Sticking with conference champions and only conference champions has another big advantage: a lack of ambiguity. Places in the playoffs system would be determined on the field not in a computer or a smoke-filled room. It would suck for a team like Ohio State, who were one blocked field goal away from being the B1G champion and thrashed Oklahoma out of conference. It would also have sucked for Alabama, who wouldn’t have gotten a crack at the 2011 National title because of an overtime field goal. But … that’s how playoffs work. You don’t get second chances.
(Or you could. In an eight-team system, you could give those last two spots to highly-ranked teams that failed to win their conference or to undefeated independents. But we don’t have an eight-team system now … unless you count the conference title games.)
Yesterday, we had what was effectively a playoff round of eight. Four top-ranked teams — Penn State, Washington, Clemson and Alabama — won their conference games over ranked opponents, decisively in Washington and Alabama’s cases. Those should be your playoff teams. And yes, if Florida or Colorado or Virginia Tech had won, I’d be advocating for them (although I would probably put Oklahoma, another conference champ, above them). You shouldn’t be able to win a national title if you can’t win you conference.