The Idiot's Guide to a College Football Playoff

Will SheltonSenior Analyst INovember 18, 2008

(Updated from a November 2006 piece at SouthEastern Sports Blog)

Lots of times in life, you sit down and look at situations and you can clearly see and say, "this is the right thing to do, this is the best thing to do for all involved." And then you have to say "but in the real world..." and settle, compromise, or whatever word you want to put on it.

A playoff in college football is the right thing to do, and it's the best thing for all involved. Even if you can think of one or two minorities in this equation who would not benefit from a playoff (small conference teams, or teams in tougher conferences—which we'll deal with in a minute), a playoff is still the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few.

Now, in the real world, there are things like BCS contracts, university presidents, and other factors that get in the way. And sometimes, like in 2005 with USC and Texas, the current system does work.

But you don't even have to have three undefeated teams, as in 2004, to cause controversy. Right now, unless Texas Tech wins out, the BC-mess is only going to begin at who wins the Big 12 South, with multiple potential problems over the next three weeks in trying to decide who should play the winner of the SEC Championship Game. And that debate is resolved by human pollsters and computes.

In any sport, the true and final outcome deserves to be decided on the field.

So this is the best I can do. Some of these ideas are going to stretch the boundaries of the current reality in college football, but I don't think any of them step outside of them. This isn't a perfect plan...but it's a good one.

1. Maintain the integrity of every game of the regular season
The common saying, which I use a lot, is that "the regular season is the playoffs."

If you lose one game, you're in trouble and no longer in control of your own destiny. If you lose twice, you're out of the conversation unless there are truly unusual circumstances (Colorado almost pulled this off in 2001, LSU did last season).

When you watch the NFL, when your team drops a game, it's unfortunate, but you know it's not the end of the world because 10-6 will usually make the playoffs. In college football, every Saturday can be Armageddon.

The playoffs must not turn the life-and-death reality of every Saturday into anything less. The playoffs must not allow the statement "oh well, we'll still make the playoffs" after a loss to enter into the college football vocabulary—this is most essential. Because of this, the playoffs shall include no more than eight teams.

If you entertain the idea of a sixteen team playoff—no matter how awesome and exciting that would be—you invalidate the regular season.  Teams that just have good years at 9-3 should not be allowed in the national championship conversation. If there was a sixteen team playoff, those 9-3 teams would be on the bubble.

You shouldn't get a chance to play for the national championship if you've just had a good year. The eight best teams in college football every year are all going to be great teams—no scrubs will sneak in.  This year, you'd be talking about Texas/Oklahoma/Texas Tech, Florida and Alabama, Penn State, USC, and potentially a couple of others.  All of those teams are great teams.

And yes, there would be debates about why the No. 9 team got left out and why they should've been allowed in. But the reality is, the No. 9 team is probably going to be a two-game loser...and if you've lost twice, you've probably also lost your real ability to argue about why you're a great team. An eight team playoff would keep intact the intensity and necessity of winning every Saturday of the regular season.

2. Be as fair as possible
We'll get to selection rules in a minute, but an effort must be made to put everyone on an even playing field. This begins with having somebody man up and tell Notre Dame to face facts and get in a conference, or at the very least removing any contract that gives them any special rights or automatic bids.

Rules also must be in place to make sure that small conference teams have at least a chance to make the playoffs. A rule would have to be written somehow that would ensure that 12-0 Boise State or Utah made the playoffs if they were in existence right now.

The biggest issue with fair and balanced is with conference championship games.

Simply put, it's terribly unfair that three major conferences have to play a championship game, while the other three don't. If a playoff was constructed, this issue must be handled. The issue of fairness is also what favors an eight team playoff over a sixteen team one, or a Final Four.

A four team playoff would mean that at least two conference champions got left out—and in the interest of maintaining the integrity of college football, a conference champion should get a shot in any playoff format. There would also be much more heated debate about "who's No. 4?" than there would over "who's No. 8?"

3. Schedule wisely
For all of the arguments about the season lasting too long, getting into finals, or anything else...the system must manage time well.

The one system that seems to work best is playing the conference title games the first weekend of December, then taking a week off, then playing the Quarterfinals the third weekend of December (all games on Saturday to avoid the NFL)—then playing all of the bowl games for the non-qualifiers—and playing the Semifinals on January 1.

Thisway, the National Championship could be played either January 8 or January 15, or on any Saturday that falls in between.  You could also entertain playing the title game the week in between the AFC/NFC Championship Games and the Super Bowl for maximum exposure, though I'm not sure college presidents are going to go for that one. 

The bowl system must remain for the remaining 111 teams that don't make the playoffs, and again, with an eight team playoff instead of a sixteen team, the bowls stay valuable. Right now, 10 teams make the BCS and are out of other bowl consideration. Eight teams out of bowl consideration wouldn't change the mix.

4. Make money
Well, duh. Hello TV ratings and advertising, because as much as the die-hard football fan loves to watch the January 1 bowl games, more people would watch any playoff game, because they would matter more. The fact that this would make money is almost as obvious as the fact that the playoffs would...

5. Give the people what they want
Which means no more segments on ESPN GameDay about what's wrong with the BCS, no more time wasted talking about who's getting screwed and left out of the national title picture, and all the time spent focusing on the product on the field. No other sport has a championship system that's decided by anything other than on-field performance. Give the people what they want.

With these guidelines in mind, here's the layout for an eight team college football playoff:

A. Make all six major conferences 12 teams with a championship game
This seemed wholly unrealistic until the ACC simply went out and made this happen a few years ago. And now, it's suddenly not so difficult to see this working out in the Big 10, Pac-10, and Big East. What would need to happen here:

- Add four teams to the Big East. The league already went shopping once and picked up Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida to replace the ACC defections. Picking up an additional four schools would help give the league more respectability if they did it right.

Now, here's where we get to talk about Notre Dame. The Irish play in the Big East in all other sports at the university. While the temptation would be for Notre Dame to jump to the Big 10, cooler heads may prevail there and see that the Irish might be a better fit—and find winning easier—in the Big East. Either way, the Irish are going to have to "lower" themselves and play the likes of UConn here or Illinois in the Big 10.

They'd still have four non-conference games to go out and schedule the big opponents, they could keep the Michigan and Southern Cal rivalries and then play a softer conference schedule if they went to the Big East.

For the sake of argument, in this scenario we're going to put the Irish in the Big East instead of the Big 10. Notre Dame doesn't want to go to a conference? This is where the NCAA needs to step in and make these rules official, and force the Irish hand. They might go kicking and screaming, but they'd go if it meant their shot at the National Championship.

Where else does the conference go? Raid Conference USA (again) is what they do. Marshall, thanks to their tradition and name, is an easy selection.

From there, you've got some options for the other two schools, but based on their strength over the last decade, and the fact that in this conference, you're only talking about taking a school for football only, I'd go with East Carolina and Southern Miss. This would give you a definite north-south split in the Big East. The new conference:

The New Big East
North Division: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse
South Division: East Carolina, Louisville, Marshall, Southern Miss, South Florida, West Virginia

- Add one team to the Big 10
With Notre Dame off the table, you lose that one sure-fire add to the conference, and force them to make a tough decision. Remember, here you'd also be talking about adding all the other athletic programs, which means you especially have to consider basketball when looking at a team to add and the divisional breakdown.

The conference could have its pick of the MAC litter, but there's just not one school there that would be an overwhelmingly positive addition in either football or basketball.

So we stretch the boundaries here, and look west—the geography is going to be a factor here, but that didn't stop Miami in the Big East. The one small conference college football team in the general north/midwest area that's been consistently strong in this millennium?

How about Boise State?

Again, each conference needs 12 teams, and Notre Dame makes more sense in the Big East to give that conference more instant credibility. So it's Boise State (don't get hung up on this part and throw the whole scenario out of the window), though if you can pick one of those average MAC teams at random and throw them in it'll still work. The divisional breakdown would then look like this (again, also must make sense for basketball):

The New Big 10 (because having 11 teams didn't force a name change, why would 12?)
East Division: Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue
West Division: Boise State, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin

- Add two teams to the Pac-10
Lots of options here - perhaps Boise State or Fresno State, or even Hawaii if you want a more exotic flavor. However, when you consider basketball and tradition as well, the best possible option by far is taking BYU and Utah. The Utes will be a nice addition to your basketball strength as well as being a solid program on the gridiron, while BYU is BYU. This makes for another easy divisional split:

The New PAC (Pacific Athletic Conference, anyone?)
North Division - California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington, Washington State
South Division - Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, Southern Cal, UCLA, Utah

Now that we've got six leagues with 12 teams, here's how we set up the playoffs:

B. Conference champions get automatic playoff bids
This means that the goal of each team, every season, is win your division. If you win your division, you play in the conference title game, and that means you'll have a shot to play for the National Championship.

This also means that, alongside the eight team playoff, you also get essentially another week of playoffs with the conference championship games. If you win your conference, you get to play for it all.

Six conference champions, six playoff spots leaves room for two at-large selections. These two spots will help protect two teams in exceptionally strong divisions (like back in the day when Florida would go 12-0 and the Vols were 11-1), and also protect against a team that finished the regular season undefeated and then was upset in its conference title game, to not throw away the whole body of work in one week.

The two at-large selections would be made using the BCS formula—two highest non-conference champions get in.

Stipulations are also made for any undefeated conference champion from C-USA, MAC, MWC, and WAC leagues. To help keep this honest, during championship week, the champions of Conference USA and the MAC will play each other, and the champions of the Mountain West and WAC will play each other (giving us a Boise State vs. Utah play-in game this season if Boise wasn't placed in a new Big 10).

No automatic bids for these leagues, but if a team goes undefeated, including the conference vs. conference title game during championship week, they get one of the at-large bids. No stipulations are made for Notre Dame or anyone else.

C. Playoff seeding is determined using the BCS formula
Because it's gotta be good for something, right?

The day after the conference title games (the first Sunday of December), the final BCS poll is released, selecting the two at-large teams and seeding all eight playoff teams. The bracket is then restructured to eliminate any regular-season rematches in the opening round.

Quarterfinal games are played at the higher-ranked team's home field.
Neutral sites are good and all, but it's way too much to ask the average fan to travel to a neutral site for the conference title game, then to as many as three straight other sites for the playoffs.

The quarterfinals are played on the third Saturday in December. The seminfinal games will be played at two of the BCS bowl sites (Sugar, Orange, Rose or Fiesta) not being used for the National Championship Game.

After the seedings are announced, the remaining bowls make their selections. The one BCS bowl that is not being used on a rotating basis for one of the three seminfinal/final games that year selects the two highest-ranked teams remaining in the BCS poll that did not make the playoffs (the No. 9 and No. 10 teams).

The playoff Final Four semifinal games are played on January 1, along with all the usual bowls. The National Championship Game is played on the second Saturday following January 1 - the day before the AFC/NFC Championship Games - anywhere between January 9 and January 15.

How would this look in 2008?
(All of this part, of course, is in theory...)
ACC Championship: North Carolina over Boston College
Big East Championship: Cincinnati over West Virginia
Big 10 Championship: Penn State over Boise State
Big 12 Championship: Texas Tech over Missouri
PAC Championship: USC over Oregon State
SEC Championship: Florida over Alabama
At-Large Selections: Texas, Alabama

Playoff Seeding:
1. Texas Tech
2. Florida
3. Texas 
4. USC
5. Penn State
6. Alabama
7. Cincinnati
8. North Carolina

Playoff Bracket (Quarterfinals)
North Carolina at Texas Tech

Penn State at USC

Alabama at Texas

Cincinnati at Florida

The potential year in, year out is outstanding. More than anything else, it just makes sense.

With playoff bids on the line in all of the conference championship games, and the ensuing'd watch. Odds are if you're reading this, you're watching anyway...but especially in years where there are no undefeated teams, which will happen, this is the only way to go.

More than anything else, you would eliminate controversy and human opinion from the equation, where only the on-field results count as they should. Win your division, you get your shot.

You would get a college football postseason that more people would talk about and watch, you would get three meaningful weekends of football alongside most of the currently-existing bowl games. The eight best teams would get their shot, and the best team would win at the end of the day. This is the way it's supposed to be.

College football needs a playoff. This is the best way I can come up with to do it, and realistically it's not impossible. The point of this isn't necessarily to talk about how realistic this or any other scenario is, but just to show what can be on the table. This could happen. We need it. College football is already the best sport in America—this is the only way I can imagine to actually make it better.

Yes we can.


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