Point-Counterpoint: Debating the plus-one

By Bryan Fischer | Blogger

So this is the week. Unless it's not.

With the BCS commissioners meeting in Chicago on Wednesday, there may or may not be progress with regards to college football's postseason. We've seen the haggling and the posturing from just about every corner of the country -- from conference champs to top four only to spins on revenue sharing -- and it seems like we're finally going to see some cards being put on the table ahead of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee meeting on June 27th.

“They'll have options,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott< said last week.

At this point it appears we're down to a four-team playoff (inside or outside the bowls and yes, there's quite a difference between the two) or a 'plus-one' involving a title game after the current BCS games. While it might be some time before details leak out, it makes for a good enough debate that Eye on College Football bloggers Bryan Fischer and Matt Hinton decided to tackle the controversy surrounding the latter option, the plus-one.

Fischer: To be clear, I'm first and foremost in favor of an eight-team playoff and, after that, a four-team playoff involving top three conference champs and one at-large team. However, being at conference meetings and talking to folks, the university presidents are the ones deciding things and when those like Harvey Perlman come out saying they want the status quo, I understand we're in for a fight even if most are leaning toward a four-team playoff in 2014-15.

I am simply going to argue that if it comes down to it, a plus-one isn't a terrible postseason system (and should, at least, be a stop-gap before going to an eight-team playoff down the road).

Hinton: I'd like to point out how strange it is that this debate exists. Arguing against a plus-one format feels like arguing against a proposal to take seat belts out of cars: So blindingly obvious on its face, it's difficult to know where to begin taking it apart. At this time last month, the idea seemed appropriately dead in the water. After months of slow but productive negotiations over an actual, honest-to-god playoff, adopting the plus-one is literally the only way the architects of college football's postseason can screw this up.

And yet, here we are. So let's start with the basics and work from there:

A plus-one is not a playoff, or a compromise on a playoff. Just so there is no confusion. A few years back, SEC commissioner Mike Slive unsuccessfully pushed for a four-team system that he described as a "plus-one," for some reason, and some outlets this time around have depicted a plus-one as just another "playoff" option. That is not the case: All signs in the current discussions point to a proposal that advocates a single 1 vs. 2 pairing based on new rankings following the traditional bowl games.

Fischer: I have nothing to argue on this front. Like I said, I'm all for an NFL-style eight-team playoff but will add that pairing the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country is exactly what the BCS has been tasked with all these years and the plus-one would, in many ways, be an extension of that philosophy that truly pairs the top two teams in the country after a meaningful non-conference game late in the year.

Hinton: Next: A plus-one would entrench the status quo. In fact, it's a conscious rejection of the playoff push, the whole point of which is demand for a system that judges aspiring champions by actually having them compete against one another – you know, the basic premise of the sport, and of competition in general as practiced by virtually every other competitive entity in the world. Plus-one proposals default to what we have now: A random cabal of pollsters, coaches, computer programmers and whoever else they can graft on to anoint contenders by fiat. (Among the proponents of a plus-one, for example, are a couple of Texas businessmen – fans – who have pitched a proprietary plan to BCS honchos on multiple occasions.) Nothing changes except that the music stops in early January instead of early December.

Fischer: I disagree because a plus-one would place emphasis on getting into the BCS bowl games in the first place and playing well throughout the season. That means winning the conference and having a good strength of schedule, the latter being a component most have argued to be included in the future system regardless of the structure. Because losing a game (or two) wouldn't take you out of the running for the national championship game, we would see more LSU-Oregon or Ohio State-Texas matchups. The Chick-fil-A's, ESPN's and Jerry Jones' of the world would be able to get blockbuster games scheduled easier and provide the TV partners with even more meaningful games early in the season. I'm not sure the four-team playoff encourages schools to take the risk like a plus-one does when they have to fight all season long to be in the top four and/or win their conference.

Hinton: A plus-one would only magnify existing problems. The most persistent complaint about the BCS has always been that it's too exclusive: Drawing the line at two teams pretty much guarantees that other deserving outfits are going to be left out. Again, a plus-one does nothing to address this original sin. If anything, it exacerbates it. Why would subjectively isolating the top two teams be any more fair or less controversial after the bowls than it is after the regular season?

Fischer: Let me interject because I don't see it narrowing the field at all. A plus-one would have 10 of the best teams in college football playing each other at the end of the season and from that group, presumably, two of the five winners would be playing for the crystal ball. Think about the last five years and some of the matchups that could have come about in a plus-one if things played out right:

2012: Alabama vs. Oklahoma State

2011: Auburn vs. TCU

2010: Alabama vs. Boise State

2009: Florida vs. Utah

2008: LSU vs. USC

Now that would have been three years in a row a non-BCS AQ team could have played for the championship. The plus-one system would give the smaller schools a chance to wipe away the, "they didn't play anybody" argument at the end of the season because wouldn't you know it, they beat a pretty good team to be in position to play for it all.

Of course, the same top two teams that played for the title each year still could have met each other such as Oregon and Auburn in 2010.

Hinton: I think that last point is an important one, because the elimination of the end-all, 1 vs. 2 championship game in the bowl round will dramatically alter the polls after those games; unlike the current structure, a plus-one would mean No. 1 and No. 2 going into the bowls could still be No. 1 and No. 2 coming out of the bowls. But since when can we count on any assumption in college football "playing out right" ?

A certain degree of chaos has always been the rule at the top of the polls; the BCS' futile attempts to impose order have only emphasized how stubbornly reality resists it. For example: Imagine a scenario in 2011 in which the top three teams going into the postseason, LSU (13-0), Alabama (11-1) and Oklahoma State (11-1), played in three separate bowl games and won them all. LSU remains the only undefeated team in the nation, and remains No. 1 by a decisive margin; the choice between the Cowboys and Crimson Tide is equally intractable. Or imagine a scenario in which all three lost their bowl game. Or in which LSU lost and Alabama and Oklahoma State won – would the plus-one championship pass over the Tigers in favor of 'Bama, despite the former's head-to-head win in the regular season and ownership of the SEC title? Would LSU's lead at the top of the polls be so large that even a bowl loss couldn't overturn it? What if Alabama and LSU had been pitted in a rematch in the bowl game, Alabama won, and they still came out No. 1 and No. 2? Is the plus-one game then Alabama-LSU III? What if No. 4 Stanford (11-1) makes its case by knocking off one of the top three?

Or, now that the Big 12 and SEC have committed to pitting their champions against one another in a new bowl game, imagine a scenario in which that game features the No. 1 and No. 2 teams at the end of the regular season. (That shouldn't be too difficult: Together, the Big 12 and SEC have filled 16 of the 28 slots in the history of the BCS title game and gone head-to-head there three times.) Now the winner of that climactic showdown has to win again to claim the title, against an opponent that got into the plus-one championship by clearing a lower hurdle? What happens when the loser of the "Champions Bowl" is still ranked No. 2 after the bowls? Instant do-over?

Pick a season, any season: After 14 years of perennial confusion, conjuring new chaos theories is shooting fish in a barrel. However the process of isolating only two teams from the pack can be clouded, collapsed or corrupted, it will be. Delaying the question by a month only produces a different set of questions, and does nothing to solve them.

Fischer: Last season's mess seems to be the biggest problem with progress in a postseason system out there. So many times the 'Alabama-LSU' argument is interjected when it shouldn't be. I think the plus-one actually solves the issue and doesn't cloud it up if you're keeping the current BCS rules for picking teams in place. If Alabama and LSU are playing in separate BCS games and everybody still thinks they are the two best teams after winning, I think fewer folks would have had an issue with a rematch. Isolating the two best teams is narrowed down much more often than it is delayed.

Furthermore, if Oklahoma State, Alabama and LSU all won their games, are you not in a better position to pick two of the teams after seeing them play one more time? The more you can watch a team against quality competition, the better the process is -- even if you come out with the same result. We'd have one more look at the Cowboys' defense or a chance to see if everybody is healthy for Nick Saban's squad. While it may be fun to argue and change the past, the decision isn't delayed but made clearer by additional time and results.

Hinton: Of course, it may not look like such a problem from where Jim Delany and Larry Scott are sitting, now that their chief rivals for a seat in any championship format have agreed to a de facto elimination round in the form of the Champions Bowl; from that perspective, a plus-one format may be in the Big Ten and Pac-12's interest, even if it's a setback for the basic concept of settling the championship question on the field. And of course, given enough time, a four-team playoff will spawn virtually identical complaints and calls for further expansion. That's how it goes.

But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. By any measure, a four-team playoff is a giant step in the right direction. Set aside the petty squabbles over how the teams are selected or where the games will be played: The important thing is that a system that finally embraces the concept of deciding a football champion by actually playing football is within reach. That is the change fans – and increasingly coaches and other power brokers at the university and conference levels – have anticipated and advocated for decades. Any playoff format that could realistically exist will be an improvement on an untenable status quo. A plus-one would double down on it.

Fischer: I hope the talk this weekend is regarding the "p-word" as some used to refer to a playoff but I'm not 100% convinced that everybody can dial in and actually come to an agreement. That means a fall back and the plus-one makes more people happy (at least among the high level powerbrokers) then finding the right selection criteria for a four-team playoff. I know this won't be a popular stance but I'm ok with a plus-one if that's the system because it is better than what we have now. It's not the status quo nor is it doubling down on it, it is simply a stop-gap until a new generation of leaders in college athletics can finally see the light and say yes, an eight-team playoff is the best system.

But hey, at least the name "BCS" is going away, and that's something we can both agree on.

I think.

 
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