Playoff Precedents: College football has its bracket, but is it going to work?
Applying the failures of the BCS to the new four-team playoff.
Resolved: After more than a decade of dedicated, principled hating on the Bowl Championship Series, I hereby refrain from complaints about the four-team playoff system that has just been approved to replace it in 2014. I wanted it. I expended many thousands of words lobbying for it. It's here. I embrace it. I am down with The Man.
Well… for a while, anyway. The simple fact that a playoff has arrived, in any form – that the championship of the sport is one more step removed from subjective opinion polls and computer rankings – is enough of a step forward to earn the format and the men that finally enacted it a reprieve. This new thing that is better than the thing that currently exists. But even among the powers-that-be, there is a broad consensus that a four-team playoff is only a bridge to a six-team playoff, or eight teams, and that whatever comes next is likely to be a bridge to twelve teams, or sixteen. (And beyond: The I-AA/FCS tournament, which began with four teams in 1978, is up to twenty-four.) They've been through this before. Fifteen years ago, the BCS was greeted as a major innovation over the old, pell mell bowl system. Within five years, its all-too-obvious shortcomings had turned it into a running punchline. Almost as soon as a group of university presidents made the playoff official Tuesday night, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was bracing for the inevitability of bracket creep:
"There will always be people who want more but sometimes less is more. We thought two worked for a while, 14 years, and I'm sure this will work for at least 12."
That's the life cycle: Twelve years. In the twelve years preceding the BCS, the individual conference wrested control of television from the NCAA and underwent a round of cataclysmic realignment (RIP SWC) over its distribution; meanwhile, the mythical championship was split or seriously disputed five times. Over the last 12 years, the conferences have vastly expanded their revenue streams – mostly through assorted TV contracts – and are in the midst of a cataclysmic realignment (RIP WAC) over its distribution; meanwhile, at least one half of the BCS Championship Game has been in significant dispute nine times. It's hardly a great leap to imagine a landscape that, by the early 2020s, will be lurching toward the next phase of evolution. Whatever happens between now and then will make that all-too-obvious, too.
So how long does the honeymoon last? I think the answer is the same as it was with the BCS: For as long as the system appears to work as intended. In the BCS' case, that was only about three years: By the end of the 2000 season, it was clear that the algorithm that lifted 10-1 Florida State into the championship game over a 10-1 Miami outfit that beat FSU head-to-head – not to mention a 10-1 Washington Huskies outfit the beat Miami head-to-head – was in serious need of reform. By the end of the following year, 2001, the basic concept of restricting the question to just two teams was beginning to look a little ridiculous.
For longtime playoff advocates like me, a four-team playoff will fare better simply by virtue of being a playoff. But that is honeymoon naiveté: To get any real sense of how the system is going to play out – and how long it can fend off calls for reform – we have to apply it to the same real-life tangles that slowly undermined its predecessor. Here, I've plugged the last six years into the new format in order to judge it accordingly.
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Note: Proposed game sites in these scenarios are purely hypothetical. The plan announced Tuesday calls for the semifinals to be held at six current bowl sites on a rotating basis, and for the championship game to be bid out annually, a la the Super Bowl or Final Four. But the neither six participating bowls nor the order of rotation has been confirmed; ditto any future site of the championship game. I'm just guessing. (Sorry, Gator Bowl fans.) The plan also calls for a selection committee of unknown composition; here, that committee is played by me, based on how I gather a committee of mainstream football minds would decide. Wherever possible, priority is given to rewarding conference champions, but there are no set requirements.
Under the Old BCS Format: No. 1 Ohio State outlasts No. 2 Michigan by three points, 42-39, in a winner-take-all Armageddon of a game in Columbus, thereby clinching the Big Ten title, a perfect regular season and a seat in the first BCS Championship Game for the Ohio State Buckeyes . Two weeks later, all hell breaks loose when No. 2 USC goes down in flames against UCLA Bruins , ending the Southern California Trojans ' bid for a third consecutive title. SEC champ Florida is propelled into the championship game instead by a razor-thin margin over the rematch-seeking Michigan Wolverines .
Under the New Playoff Format: Ohio State is the undisputed top seed; with one loss apiece, Florida and Michigan are now allowed to render Gary Danielson's opinion irrelevant by actually facing one another head-to-head. The sound and fury now falls to the debate over No. 4: Based on the traditional Associated Press/Coaches' polls, LSU (10-2) has just passed USC (10-2) on the heels of the Trojans' flop at UCLA, which stands as a stinging rebuke to SC's claim in and of itself. Still, given the selection committee's stated bias in favor of conference champions, and LSU's runner-up status in its own division, the final invitation is reluctantly extended to the reigning Pac-10 overlord, USC.
Valid Complaints. At the time, probably none aside from LSU, whose case was doomed by the conference standings. The three teams immediately behind the Missouri Tigers and Trojans in the BCS standings, Louisville Cardinals (11-1), Wisconsin Badgers (11-1) and Boise State (12-0) combined for a single win over a ranked team in the regular season. Boise may have had an argument after its epic upset over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, but not before. If anything, the scramble among the "Have" conferences to lock down bowl arrangements outsideof the playoff is likely to keep "Have Not" teams like Boise from playing up in any context.
Under the Old BCS Format: After weekly chaos at the top of the polls throughout October and November, the final Saturday of the regular season arrives with zero undefeated teams and 11-1 Ohio State – as uninspiring a frontrunner as there has ever been after Thanksgiving – having already secured a return trip to the championship game by default. Their presumptive opponent there is either No. 1 Missouri or, if the Tigers fail to get past Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, No. 3 West Virginia. When both the Tigers and West Virginia Mountaineers go down at the eleventh hour, the second golden ticket falls instead to the SEC champ, LSU, despite a resumé full of skin-of-the-teeth escapes and a pair of overtime losses to unranked teams.
Under the New Playoff Format: Chaos notwithstanding, the draw is relatively clear-cut: After Ohio State at No. 1, the next six teams in the final BCS standings all finished with two losses; of those six, the top three – No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Virginia Tech Hokies and No. 4 Oklahoma – also boasted conference championships. No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs and No. 6 Missouri did not. Under any plausible scenario, the top four are the same.
Valid Complaints. None compelling enough to take seriously. Georgia (10-2) finished on an impressive tear over the second half of the season, but still lost a tiebreaker to Tennessee Volunteers atop the SEC East; the Pac-10 champ, USC, opened the season No. 1 and might have finished there if not for an inexplicable loss to Stanford that instantly rendered the Trojans' championship credentials null and void. Undefeated Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (12-0) didn't face anyone of any note; Kansas (11-1) shocked everyone against a deceptively cushy schedule in the Big 12 North, but lost the only game it played against a ranked team (Missouri) in the regular season finale, costing the Kansas Jayhawks a division title in the process.
Under the Old BCS Format: Thanks to a quirk in the Big 12 bylaws that defers the question to the final BCS standings, No. 1 Oklahoma (11-1) is lifted into the Big 12 Championship Game over No. 3 Texas (11-1) despite the Texas Longhorns ' head-to-head win over OU in October. From there, the Oklahoma Sooners ' prolific offense easily dispatches Missouri for a slot in the BCS title game. The other championship seat is filled by the newly crowned SEC champ, Florida (12-1), winner of a de facto "semifinal" over undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide .
Under the New Playoff Format: 2008 is the opposite of 2007: Too many viable contenders to choose from. Seven of the top nine teams in the final regular season polls have just one loss, and the other two, Boise State and Utah, are both undefeated. If Oklahoma is in, Texas must be, too; Florida is a no-brainer out of the SEC. And though my personal instinct is to reward the Utah's perfect season in the Mountain West with the fourth ticket, the reality is that a combination of brand recognition, ferocious defense and yet another Pac-10 championship will probably reserve the final seat for USC.
Valid Complaints. This was a year of torches and pitchforks under the BCS, and would have been under anything short of at least a six-team field; really, you can make a compelling argument here for at least eight teams, maybe nine. There is no tidy, fair or convincing way to solve that kind of logjam with a four-team bracket.
Even ignoring the causes of Boise State (12-0) and Penn State Nittany Lions (11-1), both champions of their respective conferences, and of Texas Tech Red Raiders (11-1), which shared the Big 12 South crown with Oklahoma and Texas, we're left with two undeniably deserving outfits in Utah and Alabama. The Utah Utes , in particular, took out three ranked teams to get to 12-0, not including an opening day win over Michigan in Ann Arbor; as it happened in real life, they finished the drill by ambushing 'Bama in the Sugar Bowl and picked up a 25-percent share of first-place votes in the final AP poll. But their presence in a four-team field could come only at the expense of another outfit that had proven itself equally deserving.
Under the Old BCS Format: Florida, Alabama and Texas spent virtually the entire season ranked 1-2-3, in no particular order, and all three carry perfect records into the final Saturday. From there, 'Bama cruised into the BCS title game by thumping the Florida Gators in an SEC Championship grudge match; the Longhorns take a slightly more harrowing route out of the Big 12, barely escaping an upset bid from Nebraska Cornhuskers at (literally) the last second. With undefeated champions from the most respected conferences, no other applications will be accepted.
Under the New Playoff Format: Alabama and Texas are the obvious frontrunners, but they've got plenty of company from three other teams entering the postseason without a loss. Among the less familiar faces, 12-0 Cincinnati Bearcats (Big East champ) and 12-0 TCU Horned Frogs (Mountain West champ) are rewarded for arguably the best seasons in both schools' histories with the final two seats in the playoff. (This year also marks Notre Dame Fighting Irish 's one and only entrance in the playoff discussion, as the Irish are forced to either wait on their first choice to replace fired head coach Charlie Weis, Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, or go in another direction.)
Valid Complaints. Stacked as the 2009 Gators were, Florida has no claim on a top-four slot after being convincingly bounced by Alabama. Boise State, on the other hand, has just run the table in the regular season for the third time in four years – including an opening-night win over the eventual Pac-10 champ, Oregon – and still cannot break through. In real life, the Broncos would go on to close the deal by beating TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, leaving them with their best ever finish in the AP poll. But even with generally increased access for the Have Nots, a four-team system offers no more solace to Boise than the current, two-team system.
Under the Old BCS Format: In a season that began with no true favorite, Auburn and Oregon slowly emerged from the pack behind explosive, up-tempo offenses that made their runs to the top of the polls interesting, at least, even if the final scores often were not. (Though Auburn certainly delivered its share of drama en route to 13-0, Cam Newton Affair notwithstanding.) Again, with the Tigers and Oregon Ducks both running the table, there are no further questions.
Under the New Playoff Format: Behind Auburn and Oregon, TCU is back to rep the little guy after escaping the regular season without a blemish for the second year in a row. The debate over the final ticket, between 11-1 Wisconsin (co-champion in the Big Ten) and 11-1 Stanford (runner-up in the Pac-10), defers to the conference championship rule: Wisconsin gets the nod.
Valid Complaints. None, really. Stanford failed to win its conference, or any notable games outside of it; the next team on the list, Ohio State (also 11-1), lost head-to-head at Wisconsin. (The Buckeyes would soon vacate the entire 2010 season, anyway.) If there is a beef, it probably belongs to the third wheel in the Big Ten championship race, Michigan State (also 11-1), which dealt Wisconsin its only loss of the regular season and didn't play Ohio State. But the Spartans finished a distant ninth in the final BCS standings, behind a pair of two-loss teams, Arkansas Razorbacks and Oklahoma, much too far down the list to generate any serious controversy.
Under the Old BCS Format: No. 1 LSU overwhelms Georgia in the SEC Championship Game to clinch the only perfect regular season in the nation, a truly impressive run that included three wins over top-ten opponents and five more over teams ranked at the time. Elsewhere – infuriating everyone outside the deep South – Alabama is granted a mulligan for its only loss following November flubs by Oklahoma, Oklahoma State Cowboys and Oregon, setting up an all-SEC/no-touchdown grudge match for the BCS crown.
Under the New Playoff Format: LSU is perhaps the most No. 1 seed of any No. 1 in the brief history of the format. The impasse over No. 2 is irrelevant as Alabama's defense and Oklahoma State's offense can settle the question on the field. As for No. 4, the Pac-12 has already made its position perfectly clear: Though Stanford (11-1) technically finished ahead of Oregon (11-2) in the final BCS standings, the Ducks' head-to-head win over the Stanford Cardinal and subsequent run to the conference championship are enough to clinch the final seat for Oregon.
Valid Complaints. Again, none to speak of. Among the highest-ranking snubs, Arkansas finished third in its own division, Boise State lost the tiebreaker for the Mountain West crown to TCU, and even Stanford's own conference would not have endorsed Stanford. The Big Ten champ, Wisconsin, can complain at 11-2, but it's not going to get very far.
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In a six-year sample, there is only one year – 2008 – that clearly undermines the basic premise of a four-team format. There's also the perennial snub of Boise State, most problematic in 2009. But in a system that is clear about its preference for rewarding conference champions, the tough questions on the fringes – LSU vs. USC in 2006, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma vs. Georgia and Missouri in 2007, Wisconsin vs. Stanford in 2010, Oregon vs. Stanford in 2011 – can be resolved relatively consistently and painlessly. It's going to take quite a few 2008s and probably an unprecedented quagmire or two to get the blood boiling.
Then again, if it turns out to be the smashing success everyone expects with only four teams, just imagine how smashing it will be with eight teams. Whatever happens from here on, be it for love or money, justice or conquest, it is only the beginning.
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