College Football Playoff: 5 Changes to Level Playing Field for Qualification

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistMay 16, 2012

College Football Playoff: 5 Changes to Level Playing Field for Qualification

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    The talk about a college football playoff for the FBS is heating up, and it looks as if it's possible we might have some sort of preliminary agreement before the 2012 season kicks off.

    The current BCS contract runs through 2013, so any changes agreed upon will be in place for the 2014 season. Before we get to that point, you can rest assured that anyone and everyone will have their say about any playoff proposals.

    So where do we stand, and what changes are needed to level the playing field?

Where We Are Now

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    It looks as if the powers that be in college football are settling in around a four-team playoff system (via CBS Sports).

    One proposal has the system tied into the current BCS bowls (Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Orange), with two of those games serving as semifinals and one serving as the championship game.

    Another has the same semifinal idea with the title game held at a non-bowl event, similar to today's BCS National Championship Game (a game separate from the four BCS bowls).

    Then there are proposals for the semifinal games to be held on campus with the final at a neutral site, or all three games held a neutral sites.

    But no matter how you get there, we're still looking at four teams playing a Final Four-style playoff.

    The general plan for who qualifies is the top four conference champions that finish in the top six. If there aren't four conference champs in the top six, then those spots are filled by “at large” non-champions that finished in the top six, starting from the highest-ranked team and moving down.

Requiring Conference Championship

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    One of the big strikes against the BCS has been that teams that fail to win their own conference championship are somehow invited to play for a national championship.

    In lieu of a true playoff system, BCS supporters have become fond of saying that the regular season is the real playoff, and college football has the most meaningful regular season of any sport.

    If that's true, why do teams that can't even win their own conference end up playing for national championships?

    In the history of the BCS, three conference non-champions have played for the national title (Nebraska after the 2001 season, Oklahoma after the 2003 season and Alabama after the 2011 season), and Alabama was the only one of those three to win the championship game.

    By mandating that a team wins a conference championship, the BCS would not only increase the value of conference championships (and, in particular, conference championship games), but would also truly make the regular season an important part of the college football playoff system.

    Conference championship games could also then become an early quasi-first round to any potential playoff.


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    The first argument we'll see is that a four-team playoff limits access, especially for teams that might not normally find themselves high in the polls despite having stellar seasons.

    Of course, any football playoff system in the FBS will mean huge sums of cash, and it won't be long before an additional round finds it way into the mix, doubling the number of participants.

    Expanding to eight teams also allows for expansion of the ways teams can qualify.

Equal Access

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    Since the point of this particular column is to find ways to level the playing field, we need to figure out some way of equal, level access for all conferences.

    We all live in the real world, and the fact of the matter is there are few people outside of Denton, Texas that want to see Alabama play North Texas is a BCS playoff game.

    But if UNT were to find a way to win the Sun Belt championship, shouldn't the Mean Green get a shot at something more than the lowly Sun Belt title?

    By allowing more playoff spots and requiring conference championships, it at least provides an opportunity for the “small programs” to step out into the limelight, at least for a day.

Incorporation of Current Bowl System

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    One of the great traditions of the top level of college football is the bowl system.

    Once a very special treat at the end of a very successful season, bowls today have become more akin to the participation ribbon every kid receives after elementary school field days. An utterly lackluster 6-6 record (and, in some cases, 6-7 record) is all that is needed to qualify for a bowl game these days, and there are over 70 spots available for postseason play.

    That means well over half of all teams make the postseason!

    We're not proposing to do away with the bowls, and we're pretty sure the Pizza Bowl, Belk Bowl and Famous Idaho Potato Bowl will go on as before—bowl games that no one attends, no one watches and no one cares about.

    But there are other bowls that will do anything to preserve their long, storied tradition. The Rose Bowl is famous for digging in its heels, and almost rejected becoming part of the BCS when it was realized that the game could feature teams from conferences other than the Pac-12 and Big Ten.

    So why not use those histories are part of a playoff? Each season, the Pac-12 champion and Big Ten champion could meet in the Rose Bowl Game, while the SEC champion heads to the Sugar Bowl, the Big 12 champion to the Fiesta Bowl and the ACC champion to the Orange Bowl.

    That leaves three slots open for the three highest-ranked remaining conference champions.

    The winners of those four BCS bowls then meet in the semifinals, and so on.

    Poof! Eight-team playoff system, and all the bowl committees stay happy.

Revamped Ranking/Selection System

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    Finally, we've come to the real crux of the BCS criticism that flies around year after year.

    The current BCS selection procedures is a laundry list of “if then,” “if and,” “or” and “but.” The whole document is several pages long, containing no fewer than 30 sections under seven different headings and a combined 2,300 words.

    And that doesn't even include an explanation of how the ranking system works, but just the eligibility and selection of those teams that are ranked by the BCS.

    To figure out the BCS ranking system requires a Ph.D in theoretical mathematics, with a specialty in string theory and quantum mechanics.

    The best way to level the field for everyone is to make the whole system much more transparent. Publish the mathematical formula behind the ranking system and let us all know who is doing the ranking.

    If everyone knows what is expected of them from the opening kickoff of the season, it will go a long, long way towards defusing any future complaints. It will insulate the new BCS playoff system from criticism, and allow teams to schedule future non-conference games accordingly.

Bringing It All Together

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    If the BCS is truly interested in equal access—even if it means admitting teams like Boise State, Houston or the like—then changes are going to have to be made over the long term.

    It seems perfectly plausible, and perhaps even desirable, to involve the current four BCS bowls in any future expanded playoff system.

    The bowls, as we've pointed out, can (and should) retain their historical conference tie-ins, which would still allow a number of traditionally non-AQ conferences access to an expanded playoff system.

    Requiring a conference championship of participants also has the effect of bringing a ring of truth to the statements about the “most important regular season in sports.”

    SEC fans will of course balk at the “preposterous” prospect that only one of the teams from God's gift to football would be invited. We fully and freely admit that there should be a bottom floor to the ranking system to earn a qualifying bid.

    But at the end of the day, the BCS will gain wider credibility if fewer conference non-champions are invited. Teams like Boise State, Hawai'i, Houston and Southern Mississippi should all have an equal shot at playing for a national championship as teams such as Alabama, Michigan, USC, Florida State, Oklahoma and all the rest.

    After decades of shutting out the “have nots,” leveling the playing field is long overdue.