A Four-Team Playoff: The Simple Solution
By Matt Smith
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The structure of a playoff must keep every Saturday sacred. It’s what has allowed college football to thrive over the past 20 years.
We whined and we moaned. We complained and we groaned. It took the better part of 25 years, but it’s all about to pay off, as major college football is seemingly on the brink of instituting a four-team playoff beginning in the 2014 season. USA Today recently reported four potential options that the BCS is mulling over, none of which address how specifically to select the teams participating in the playoff.
Solving one debate often leads to another debate. In this case, it leads to three debates – When, Where, and Who? The When and the Where are key elements to establishing a viable playoff plan, but those issues are for another day. For the time being, we’re focused on the Who.
Last year’s rematch between SEC champion LSU and Alabama, a team that did not even wins its division, let alone its conference, in the BCS Championship Game fueled the discussion regarding the value placed on conference championships in a playoff system. In 2011, LSU and Oklahoma State were the obvious choices for a four-team playoff. The other two spots were not as clear-cut.
Should Alabama and Stanford, the other two teams ranked in the top four of the BCS Standings, get a chance to play for the title? SEC commissioner Mike Slive (and Nick Saban, who strategically ranked Stanford ahead of Oklahoma State in his final coaches’ poll ballot) would prefer this method. What about Oregon and Wisconsin, who won conference titles in two of the sport’s best conferences? Big Ten czar Jim Delaney has expressed his desire to structure a playoff in this manner.
I have chosen to mix and match. Alabama from the first group, and Oregon from the second group, should have been the two teams to join the Tigers and Cowboys in a potential four-team playoff. While I believe the BCS Standings should have a place in the selection of teams, it should not be the only mechanism.
College football has become fascinated with the term “hybrid”. Alabama’s JACK position, played by Courtney Upshaw the past two seasons, is a hybrid linebacker-defensive end. South Carolina’s defense uses a SPUR position, a cross between a linebacker and safety. Many other teams have at least one player in a hybrid role, usually with a creative name for his position. Even recent offensive stars like Reggie Bush and Percy Harvin have flourished in multi-position roles. I’ll stick with the recent trend and propose a hybrid playoff plan.
Only teams ranked in the top six of the BCS Standings should be eligible for a four-team playoff. In order to pick which four of those six participate, conference champions trump non-conference champions. No. 1 LSU (SEC), No. 3 Oklahoma State (Big 12), and No. 5 Oregon (Pac-12) are in. The fourth spot would normally also go to a conference champion (as it would have from 2006-2010), but with the ACC and Big Ten having disappointing seasons, only three conference winners were ranked in the top six. This opens the door for the highest ranked at-large team. Last year, that was Alabama, ranked No. 2.
Rematches should be avoided at all costs in the semifinal round. Instead of facing No. 5 Oregon, who they had previously defeated, LSU would play No. 3 Oklahoma State. The Ducks would face Alabama in the other semifinal. Yes, the Tigers would have to beat the Alabama-Oregon winner for a second time to win a national title, but a rematch in the final game would be the exception as opposed to the norm.
Conference championships have been the gold star for as long as college football has existed. Until 30 years ago, Big Ten teams couldn’t even go to a bowl unless they won the conference. Placing an emphasis on conference champions must be a focal point of any playoff plan. By having Stanford in a playoff instead of Oregon, you’re basically telling the Ducks that they should have scheduled Montana State instead of LSU in the season opener. The loss to the Bayou Bengals in Dallas was what caused the Ducks to be ranked below Stanford, despite a head-to-head win.
I watched nearly every play of LSU-Oregon. Had Oregon opened with Montana State, I would have checked Twitter to see what color Oregon’s uniforms were, and then paid little attention to the eye-popping offensive statistics Chip Kelly’s team was piling up against the…um…whatever Montana State’s nickname is. Marquee non-conference games are good for the sport, and should be rewarded as such. Oregon belonged in a playoff last year because they were the best team in the Pac-12. They proved that with a 23-point win in Palo Alto against the Cardinal. Sorry Stanford, don’t get blown out on your home field if you want a shot at the national title.
Now, what about Wisconsin? The Badgers finished the season 11-2 and won their conference, just like Oregon. This is where the BCS Standings come in. With Wisconsin at No. 10, the rankings appropriately penalized the Badgers for a weak non-conference schedule and not having any notable road wins. Sorry Bret Bielema, your team is out as well.
From 2006-2010, there would have been no at-large teams under this plan. Each year, at least four conference champions were ranked in the top six of the BCS Standings. Generally, at-large teams don’t need to be in a playoff because they’ve had their opportunity during the regular season and came up short. It also helps keep every Saturday meaningful.
If the loser of the 2006 showdown between No. 2 Michigan and No. 1 Ohio State was reasonably assured of a playoff berth before the game, would it have been as significant? Probably not. Would Tim Tebow’s masterful fourth quarter in the 2008 SEC Championship to defeat Alabama been as memorable if the Crimson Tide had still qualified for a playoff? Not likely.
Let’s look at the proposed matchups from 2006-2010:
2010: (1) Auburn vs. (5) Wisconsin, (2) Oregon vs. (3) TCU
2009: (1) Alabama vs. (4) TCU, (2) Texas vs. (3) Cincinnati
2008: (1) Oklahoma vs. (6) Utah, (2) Florida vs. (5) Southern California
2007: (1) Ohio State vs. (3) Virginia Tech, (2) LSU vs. (4) Oklahoma (LSU played Virginia Tech in the regular season)
2006: (1) Ohio State vs. (6) Louisville, (2) Florida vs. (5) Southern California
The only team who would have had a legitimate gripe was Texas in 2008. However, their gripe should have been (and at the time, was) with the Big 12 divisional tiebreaker, not the playoff selection process. 2010 Stanford lost to Oregon by three touchdowns. 2006 Michigan and 2008 Alabama lost their last games. They had their chances on the field and came up short.
This system is ideal because it allows for teams to schedule one major non-conference game and not suffer irreparable damage from a loss, like Oregon last year. It also ensures that teams will never feel assured of a playoff spot prior to a regular season finale or a conference championship game.
Whether Alabama-Oregon would have taken place in mid-December in Tuscaloosa or on New Year’s Day in Miami is of much lesser importance. Fans will show up, television viewers will watch, and the better team will win regardless of when and where the games are played.
Dates and locations of a playoff will be a money grab with little concern for the fans. I’m not so naïve to think otherwise. However, the structure of a playoff must keep every Saturday sacred. It’s what has allowed college football to thrive over the past 20 years and become the second most popular sport in the nation. In an era of great change in college football, the importance of every game must be maintained. If it’s not, we’ll be whining and moaning all over again.