Can you imagine how incredible a 68-team college football playoff would be?
Sure, people may balk at the watering down of the product and the regular season becoming marginalized to mean almost nothing, but watching four of the Top Five teams in the country—Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke and Kansas—battle in an early season hardwood classic on Tuesday had to make fans wonder what college football would be like if teams scheduled games like they weren't so damn afraid to lose.
With 11 minutes left in an epic matchup between Kansas and Duke that saw the Jayhawks pull away in the final minutes, ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale put the early season action in perspective.
"This is November 12th. Are you serious? This is November 12th."
"Think it's going to be a fun season?" Dan Shulman rhetorically asked in response.
"Oh wow," Vitale exalted, "what will these teams be like in a couple of months?!"
That is the beauty of the college basketball calendar. We are just at the start of the year, and all four of the teams that participated in the Champions Classic are going to use the experience in Chicago as an opportunity to learn, grow and improve.
If those four teams find each other in the NCAA Tournament, all of them will be more prepared to win a national championship because of the regular season, not in spite of it.
Can you imagine if this were football, where Kentucky and Duke—both losers on the early season's biggest night—were suddenly on the outside looking in at the fight for the national championship?
Can you fathom the fallout if those two power teams had to hope the entire rest of the season that Michigan State or Kansas or Louisville or any number of top-ranked teams with a legitimate shot to win a national title this year loses, to put them back in the title hunt?
Can you see how ridiculous that is?
Risk vs. Reward
That is the college football system, every year. Even with the limited playoff structure starting in 2014, we are never going to get a regular-season football series like we have in basketball because the system in college football prevents teams from taking that risk.
Every game matters in football, which means a whole lot of them actually don't.
Because of lucrative TV contracts, there are some teams that won't shy away from facing top-level opponents to start the year. Often, though, the teams in those marquee matchups are those on the fringes of the national title picture as the season begins. Teams that need an extra big win to get into the conversation may be more willing to take an early season risk.
The top teams, however, get no benefit from facing tough competition. There is all risk and very little reward.
A Real Football Tournament
Now, obviously a 68-team playoff in football isn't viable, mostly because there is nearly one-third the number of teams in the FBS as in Division I basketball. Also, in a sport where teams play one game per week, it would take six weeks to play a six-round tournament that basketball can do in three. (Note: The college season ends December 7, which is 30 days before the national title game. There is plenty of time for a larger elimination tournament.)
Alas, I'm not actually proposing a 68-team football tournament—though I am getting a trademark for December Delirium just in case—but the four-team playoff that's coming next year isn't going to get any team in college football to loosen up during the regular season.
The smaller the party stays, the less likely a team that football's power players don't want invited will be able to crash. With just four slots in a football playoff, there is very little chance for the football equivalent of a Butler or a VCU or a Florida Gulf Coast to capture the nation's attention.
The system in college football is so heavily weighted toward the power conferences—and the power teams in those conferences—that few contending teams feel any inclination to play top-level opponents unless they have to.
Look at this year's national title hopefuls and see what games they have played out of conference.
Undefeated Alabama has a non-conference slate of Virginia Tech, Colorado State, Georgia State and Chattanooga. Florida State plays Nevada, Bethune-Cookman, Idaho and Florida. Ohio State plays Buffalo, San Diego State, Cal and Florida A&M.
What's that…three, maybe four actual non-conference football opponents for the nation's top three teams?
It continues from there. Stanford and Oregon only have three non-conference games each, and outside of the Cardinal's season finale against Notre Dame later this month, it's San Jose State, Army, Nicholls State, Virginia and Tennessee, which sound like better teams than they actually are.
The only team in the national championship hunt to play a seriously strong out-of-conference slate is Clemson, who, at 8-1 with a blowout loss to Florida State as the only blemish on an impressive record, has an outside-at-best chance of reaching the title game…with a lot of help. Clemson's non-conference slate features Georgia, South Carolina State, Citadel and South Carolina.
And you know what? None of that matters, because teams all know the college football system punishes losses far more than rewards wins.
There is such little incentive for a power-conference team to play anyone of quality in the other three or four games that we rarely get a situation with the top teams clashing like we get in basketball every year.
"Let's be honest, 1,2,4,5…it's early, it doesn't mean all that much," Shulman said late in the Kansas-Duke basketball game Tuesday night. "We all know they are all great teams."
"It means something in football," Vitale offered. "But not in basketball right now. That's why in football you're getting ready for Alabama and Florida State. I know Buckeyes fans don't want to hear that."
Is it already a foregone conclusion? If Florida, Syracuse or Idaho upsets Florida State, will people defend the process by calling one of those games "a playoff game" for FSU?
One and Done
Even with the four-team playoff slated to begin next year, chances are most teams are going to have to finish the season undefeated to guarantee a spot in the playoffs. With so many one-loss teams at the top of the football rankings, the likelihood of a team with two losses getting into the playoffs is incredibly slim.
Heck, we're nine games into this season and there are still six undefeated teams in college football, with another nine ranked teams with one loss. How is a four-team playoff going to determine the sport's best team?
How does a series of voter-based rankings and computer calculations based on who plays whom determine which teams are worthy of inclusion, especially when most power teams avoid each other at all non-conference crossings?
In 20 years, we're going to look back on this and laugh at the BCS era. Those in charge of college football shouldn't just look at its insular playoff model and realize immediate expansion will help the postseason. They need to look at what an expanded playoff structure does for basketball to see it can help the regular season too.
With 16 teams in the playoffs, top schools wouldn't be so afraid to schedule each other, as a loss wouldn't do much more than lower a potential playoff seed. Even expanding a tournament to 32 teams, with home field going to the higher seed up until the semifinals, would create a much more aggressively scheduled regular season—not to mention a month of December (Delirium, I tell you) that would rival the NFL playoffs in terms of interest and excitement.
Teams could spend the season trying to improve in time for the tournament instead of worrying about how one loss on the road to a top-ranked opponent could ruin all their plans.
Just look at Oregon. The Ducks lost one game by six points on the road to a Top-Five team and they're now sixth in line for one of two national title game spots this season behind the team that beat them and four undefeated schools.
Now, should a few of those teams falter, Oregon can sneak back into the title game picture, but they need a lot of help all of a sudden.
Would facing a few ranked non-conference teams change that? There is no incentive to play extra games a team can lose when one loss is all it takes to ruin a season.
For contending teams, the goal in college basketball is to use the regular season to prepare for the rigors of the NCAA Tournament. In college football, it's all about avoiding losses.
There is no value in becoming battle tested if it means you might actually lose one of those battles.
It's the fault of the system, not the teams.
With more than 30 games on the annual slate, college hoops teams have a ton of time to recover from early season losses. That recovery is so much easier for top teams when the safety net of a 68-team field is always underneath should they slip. Kentucky can lose to Michigan State and it might help the Wildcats in the long run, not destroy their season.
People who defend the college football system suggest that the regular season polices itself. Stanford and Oregon played a playoff game, so to speak. The regular season has more value that way when we put that kind of meaning on games each week.
But Stanford hosted that game because of scheduling, not merit. The outcome could have been totally different if the game were played in Eugene. And Stanford beat Oregon, but Oregon's loss is much better than Stanford's, so shouldn't that count for something when looking at a team's body of work?
And what about the remaining undefeated teams? It's impossible for voters to truly determine if Florida State is more or less worthy of playing Alabama than Ohio State or Baylor. Just because the system of computers and the eye test has been in place for years doesn't mean there's not a much, much better way to determine the best teams.
Get them to play each other.
Get them to play during the regular season and then get them to play again, if warranted, in the postseason. With a wider-reaching tournament, fans (and voters) could see some of these in-season games, which would actually give people a better sense of how good some of these teams are.
Stanford has one loss at Utah, Oregon has one loss at Stanford, and Clemson has one loss vs. Florida State. Even Auburn deserves to be in the conversation at 9-1 with games against Georgia and Alabama left to play. Auburn's only loss came to then-No. 6 LSU on the road. So if Auburn wins out, do they get into the title game over undefeated Baylor or Ohio State? What about Stanford?
Auburn vs. Alabama is akin to a playoff game. Stanford vs. Oregon was the same, and one can make a case that Clemson vs. Florida State served as the same too.
So where is Baylor's playoff game? Baylor has a very tough end-of-season schedule, but it doesn't play anyone as tough as the six aforementioned teams.
Ohio State has not lost a football game since the Gator Bowl after the 2011 season, but it won't face a Top 15 team all year.
How do we know if Ohio State is any better than Stanford or Oregon or Clemson or Auburn? Do we even know if it's better than Fresno State or Northern Illinois? If Florida State or Alabama lose, should Baylor, Ohio State, Fresno State, Northern Illinois, Auburn, Stanford, Oregon, Clemson or some other team like Missouri be in the conversation?
Why do we continue to have that conversation? Even next year—which is so much better than this year—can you say with any certainty which of those teams deserves to make a playoff tournament?
We don't have to wonder that in college basketball.
We get to see the madness unfold in March, and because of that, we get the benefit of great nights in November.
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