10 Ways a College Football Playoff Would Improve the 2011-12 Season
The question of a playoff to determine college football’s national champion has been around since the BCS was instituted in 1998. The 2011-12 season, with so many great teams in the top 10, is no exception.
Should Stanford and Boise State be effectively eliminated from title game consideration after one loss? Are Oregon or Alabama the best of the one-loss teams? How would undefeated Houston fare against a top-five opponent?
These are questions a playoff might answer, questions perpetuated by a system that seems to leave fans wanting year after year.
When we talk about a playoff, imagine a system much like the one Yahoo! Sports writer Dan Wetzel proposed back in 2008. It would be a four-round, 16-team single-elimination tournament, with seeding determined by regular season performance. All 11 conference winners would get automatic bids, with the remaining slots filled on an at-large basis.
Looking at this season and seasons to come, should a playoff be implemented in college football? It’s an old argument, but here are a few ways a playoff would have improved the 2011-12 season.
A Playoff Would Correctly Solve the LSU-Alabama Rematch Question
After LSU’s 9-6 throwback win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the question was immediately poised: Despite Bama’s loss, should there be a rematch in the national title game?
With a playoff, we wouldn’t be having this debate. If LSU and Alabama actually are the two best teams in the nation, they would get a chance to prove it in a playoff. If the current standings were to hold, they would be placed on opposite sides of the bracket with a chance to meet in the national title game.
The current BCS system leaves questions like these open for discussion, while a playoff would allow teams to speak for themselves on the field.
While few neutrals might enjoy watching another defensive slugfest between the Tigers and Tide, should they meet in the playoff final, we would know it would be the right matchup.
A Plethora of Good One-Loss Teams
If the current rankings hold, the BCS national title game will be between the LSU Tigers and Oklahoma State Cowboys. The two sides occupy the one and two slots respectively in the polls, and would be undefeated by season’s end.
But what if OK State were to lose to Oklahoma in the season finale? Assuming LSU wins out, that would leave possibly seven one-loss teams with a credible argument to face LSU in the title game. Oklahoma State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Clemson or Virginia Tech, Stanford and Boise State would all believe they should get a shot at a championship, but only one of them will.
Consider this: of the seven losses those above teams would have hypothetically have suffered, four or five of them (depending on the ACC championship game result) have come against other top-10 teams. These are the kind of head-to-head contests the fans deserve to see in a playoff, not hope for in the regular season.
A playoff seems the fairer (and more entertaining) way of sorting out which teams are actually better than the others. With a plethora of deserving one-loss teams this year, a playoff would be key in sorting them out now more than ever.
Better Non-Conference Football
Instituting a playoff to decide the national champion instead of the BCS system would allow teams more freedom to schedule tougher non-conference opponents, thus creating better non-conference football.
If the pressure to stay undefeated is considerably relaxed, power conference teams won’t be afraid to schedule games against feisty programs like Boise State or Houston. Everyone involved would get a chance to prove themselves early and hone their skills without the fear of championship elimination.
Cross-conference battles like the LSU-Oregon game should become a regular occurrence for all preseason contenders, and not just for one non-conference game on the schedule.
A tougher non-conference schedule gives the fans more marquee games to get excited about. Strength of schedule would become less code for strength of conference and more about the actual schedule, allowing that metric to factor more into final playoff seeding.
Allows Teams That Hit Their Stride Late to Compete
Consider LSU and Oregon, teams that took a risk this year and scheduled each other for their season openers. One of them had to lose (in this case Oregon), which would all but kill their chances of a title game appearance should two other teams go undefeated.
This is the stark reality of the BCS system: teams are not allowed to peak late. You have to be good every week from the start of the season to stay undefeated, and most teams aren’t.
To solve this, contenders regularly schedule creampuff opponents in the non-conference to ease their team into the season. This kind of thinking is another consequence of a flawed system. Teams should be able to schedule the best game for their fans, not the easiest ones to win.
Getting back to Oregon, they’ve only lost that one game to LSU this season, dismantling all other opposition by impressive margins. After the Tigers, Oregon has posted less than 41 points in a game only once, topping 50 four times. Most recently, the Ducks rolled then-undefeated Stanford 53-30. How does this team get jobbed from the title game after losing only once to the top team?
We talk about an LSU-Alabama rematch as if it’s the correct title game, but maybe we should consider LSU-Oregon. The Ducks peaked late, playing some of the best football in the country now, but they probably won’t get a chance to win a BCS title.
Takes Away the Total Influence of Polls
While I fully support the use of regular season polls to determine playoff seeding, the way they are used now lends them too much influence.
We cannot have a national champion determined simply by virtue of their ranking in what are honestly highly subjective polls. The USA Today poll, which is voted on entirely by coaches, accounts for one-third of a team’s placement in the standings. One could reasonably assume that not every coach has watched every team play, making their poll biased toward the bigger teams.
Perhaps the best case of this would be Utah’s exclusion from the title game in 2008-09. The Utes went undefeated during the regular season, yet could only watch as Oklahoma and Florida competed for the national title. Some voters of the Harris Poll (the other human poll) confessed that they had not seen any of Utah’s games, perhaps contributing to their exclusion.
With a playoff, polls would have the amount of influence they should have owing to their subjectivity. Polls should be a reflection of a team’s success in the regular season, nothing more. Having polls decide who should play in the national title game decides off the field what should be settled on it.
Gives Teams from Non-AQ Conferences a Chance to Win the Title
Like I touched on in the previous slide, the BCS system perpetuates a bias against smaller programs, but not just in the polls. Built into the system are power conferences labeled as “Automatic Qualifiers,” or in other words, conferences whose champion is guaranteed a BCS bowl.
Naturally, the SEC, Pac-12, Big 10, ACC, Big East and Big 12 are all AQ conferences, while the Mid-American, WAC, Sun Belt, Mountain West and Conference USA are non-AQ.
Teams from the AQ conferences have guaranteed spots in the top BCS bowls (with their lucrative payouts), while teams from the non-AQ conferences forced to play extremely well just to get noticed for an at-large bid.
This year, Houston seems most victimized by the non-AQ conference bias. Case Keenum and the Cougars will probably finish 12-0 and not even sniff the top-five, or even a BCS bowl. Houston leads the nation in scoring and passing yards per game, but because of they play in Conference USA, the Cougars are discredited as a title contender. Keenum should be in the Heisman discussion, but not enough voters watch him play for him to be a contender.
Houston has done everything they possibly can, but unfortunately exist in a system where they don’t even get a shot at a championship. A playoff would settle this matter, while the BCS will always leave it as “what if?”
Improves Revenue Sharing
By virtue solely of their AQ status, power conference teams get a huge financial boost every year that teams outside those conferences do not.
Each year, the winners of the five BCS bowls receive a payout upwards of $18 million, compared to an average of $2 million amongst the other bowls. With the power conferences assured a spot every year, sometimes against plucky a plucky non-AQ at-large side, the revenue from the BCS is being unequally distributed to the power conferences.
In other words, the rich get richer and the poor can’t keep up. Instituting a playoff would again solve this problem, with schools earning money based on their performance and not by virtue of their conference affiliation.
At any school, revenue from the football program helps fund other, less popular sports, further setting back the smaller schools athletically. Solving this problem wouldn’t have just helped this season, but it would help those disadvantaged schools compete nationally for recruits with the bigger programs.
Establishes New Inter-Conference Rivalries
By encouraging teams not to schedule difficult non-conference games, fans are deprived not only of more quality contests, but the establishment of exciting cross-conference rivalries.
In this day and age, could a USC vs. Notre Dame rivalry bloom? The two teams starting playing each other way back in 1926, but would they be such rivals had they first played in 2006? Would they have even continued to play every year?
Each bowl season, fans are treated to magnificent cross-conference clashes, but that’s where primarily where they stay. Because of the need of an undefeated season, teams simply won’t fill their schedule with good teams from other conferences.
With all the hype surrounding the SEC as the nation’s best conference, why not have them prove it during non-conference games in the regular season? LSU vs. Oregon was a step in the right direction, but with a playoff, there’s no reason this can’t happen more. If the Pac-12 believes it’s underrated, try scheduling good ACC, Big 12 or SEC teams instead of looking for mid-majors to crush.
A playoff system would allow schools to create rivalries across the nation by bringing postseason clashes into regular season occurrences.
Every Other Major College Sport Has a Champion Determined by Playoff
Of all the major team college sports, only football stands alone as the only sport that does not determine its national champion via playoff.
If college volleyball or soccer has a playoff, why can’t football? Look at the success of college basketball’s tournament, a sporting event considered one of the best in the nation.
Football needn’t stand alone, especially if the current system does not always indisputably crown a national champion. Over the past 141 years, 111 have contained multiple national champions according to the various polls used in those eras. No such problem exists in college baseball or water polo.
By conforming with the type of postseason that works so well for other sports, teams will get a refined sense of legitimacy with their title, especially in a year as wide open as 2011-12.
The Fans Want It
A Gallup Poll in 2007 found that 69 percent of fans are in favor of a playoff in college football ranging from four to 16 teams. That number actually grows to 85 percent if you include the fans who want a one-game playoff between the top two teams after the bowl games have been played.
The numbers haven’t changed much in recent years. The Quinnipiac University survey in late 2009 showed that roughly 63 percent of college football fans questioned wanted to do away with the BCS system.
What’s clear is that the fans want a playoff system, and it’s hard to blame them. With secret computers and biased humans dictating who gets to be the champ, it’s easy to see the allure of playoff football.
With many deserving teams probably not getting a shot in 2011-12, college football should listen to its fans and switch to a playoff. Staying with the current system won’t make determining a champion any easier as the years go by.