The Darwinian Evolution of College Football: Nature's Path to a Playoff System
"Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.”—Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1859.
If you take a good look at this quote from one of the foremost minds of the 19th century you could almost imagine that Darwin was doing his best to explain to the college football world that the path to a true playoff system will be long and potentially very frustrating.
Darwin never had the displeasure of seeing his favorite college football team lose out on a chance to play for the national championship but the guy hit the nail on the head when he said that some things, interject the NCAA here, could never take a sudden leap in progress but must advance by slow steps.
As much as I would like to see us scrap the BCS for a well organized and fair playoff system—in one fell swoop—I have this nagging feeling that the path to a playoff will be long, messy, and angst ridden.
If that’s the case, and I am pretty sure it is, then how do we get from where we are now to what most of us want in the future?
Students get out your notepads and pencils...today’s lecture will cover evolution—college football style!
Many of us can remember just how simple things were back in the day. We had our teams, our conferences, our traditional bowl relationships, and the polls. Top teams won their conferences, took part in traditional bowl match-ups against other top conference winners, and waited for the end-of-year polls to crown the champion. This system was simple (and did a nice job of placing emphasis on conference championships) and for the most part we embraced it.
However, there were flaws...there were national champion controversies, there were whispers of biases toward traditional powerhouse teams, there were bowl locks that “excluded” deserving teams, there were revenue issues, there was player hoarding, etc., etc.
By the 80’s the air was ripe for change. But what kind of change?
Most of us wanted a better way to crown a national champion. Some of us just wanted a chance to play in a major post season game. Some of us wanted a fairer post season “balance of power” with regards to conferences. And some schools were looking at ways to make more money.
But as ideas were discussed to find ways to funnel top teams into key post season match-ups several obstacles cropped up...the power of traditional bowl alliances, the lack of a good formula to introduce top teams from lesser conferences into higher profile bowls, the constant disputes over profit sharing, and how to deal with Notre Dame.
But change did take place. Baby steps to be sure—but change none the less.
In 1992 the Bowl Coalition was born. Ugly and controversial—this will be remembered as the first hammer blow to fall on traditional bowl relationships.
1991/1992 also saw the birth of division play within some major conferences. The resulting conference championship game was the first step in creating a post season match-up outside of bowl play. (Some argue that this will be seen as the first real step toward creating a true playoff system.)
In 1995 the Bowl Alliance was created to expand, and attempt to correct, the Bowl Coalition. Still ugly and flawed, but seen as the second major blow to bowl tradition.
In 1998 the BCS was born. It was the perfect compromise—everybody was equally dissatisfied! The system to end championship controversies ended up creating even more of them! The real positive was that every major bowl was now trumped by the BCS Championship Game AND most fans, at one time or another, felt upset enough to support some sort of playoff system.
And that’s where we are today.
That’s how Division 1 (I still have to call it that) football has evolved.
So what lies ahead? What might be the Darwinian path to a college playoff? If the Darwinian mantra is “slow and steady” then this is how it might play out...
The First Evolution Phase—Continued Conference expansion and shuffling:
The PAC 10 and Big Ten expand and start division play—and they will do so probably at the expense of the WAC, Mountain West, and Big East.
Once these two conferences expand to at least 12 teams and begin division play a host of moves will be made, by the MAC, WAC, Mountain West, C-USA, Sunbelt, and Big East conferences to create more attractive, and competitive, college football offerings.
This shuffling will result in the creation of larger 16 team conferences. The Big East will merge with the better teams from the C-USA; the Mountain West will reunite with members of the WAC; and the MAC and Sunbelt will solidify.
Conference division play will be the norm with the first weekend being dubbed “Conference Championship Weekend”.
Lesser teams will consolidate—there will be a “do or die” mentality regarding conference membership.
Army and Navy may go the conference way but the Irish will remain independent...for now.
The Second Evolution Phase—The NCAA makes a significant change and the return of the Rose Bowl:
The success of divisional play within the PAC 10 (now PAC 12) and the Big Ten (now Big Ten plus Two) preoccupies the college football world for a few years. The nation watches in wonder as USC, Ohio State, and Michigan attempt to navigate the perils of division play and conference championship games!
But in reality, this arrangement only intensifies the argument for a playoff. The SEC, Big 12, ACC, PAC 12, and Big Ten plus Two, now conference structure equals, all regress to lobbying for BCS championship berths...In an ironic turn of events, the pollsters are back in the seat of power they occupied in the past.
Seeing the logjam—the PAC 12 and the Big Ten plus Two propose a scenario where conference champions play each other BEFORE the start of the regular bowl season. This move, created to place the winner of the game squarely in the driver’s seat for a BCS Championship Game seat gains momentum when revenue agreements are signed off by each conference.
Played in the second weekend in December, the inaugural PAC 12 / Big Ten plus Two game brings in huge ratings and revenue forecasts are destroyed. The agreement states that each conference may select the venue every other year. In a throwback to nostalgia, Rose Bowl officials plea for the PAC 12 venue/name rights and get them! Fans are partying in the streets now that The Rose Bowl is significant once again.
The Third Evolution Phase—The Clash of Conference Champions, Super Championships, and the Cry of the Lost:
With the huge success of the PAC 12-Big Ten plus Two championship game, other conferences will follow suit. These conference match-ups are dubbed “Super Championships.” Battles and bidding wars ensue between conferences, networks, and venues. In the end, the SEC and the Big 12 agree to participate in a conference championship game. The ACC and Big East agree as well with other conferences following suit.
In the end, 10 conferences partner and fans enjoy five Super Championship games. The BCS goes nuts at the impact these games have on revenue and the rankings. The impact on the selection of BCS Championship Game participants is significant.
However, highly ranked teams that missed out on conference championship games are screaming in the night... Controversy lingers as powerful teams still get left behind.
Within four years the shine on this arrangement begins to tarnish. The Super Championships are entertaining but not the solution desired.
Frustrated by a lack of post season success Notre Dame begins to contemplate a conference move.
The Fourth Evolution Phase—An eight-team playoff and a 17 game season:
With the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, and other major bowls now hosting Super Championship games the NCAA finds itself in a position to expand the season even further by allowing an 8 team playoff. Rankings compiled at the completion of the Super Championship games provide the groundwork for selecting the top eight ranked teams with the traditional hi/lo pairing used.
Four regions will be created with each hosting one playoff game and a revolving formula used to host the semi-final games. The championship game will continue to use the revolving venue currently used by the BCS.
Revenue forecasters are drooling... Fans are happy too... Pollsters still control the process...
Darwin is laughing in his grave.
Hey, evolution may be inevitable but nobody said it had to actually improve anything!
Maybe the chaos theory should be examined...
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