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The Great College Football Playoff Debate

What do Mark Emmert, president-elect of the NCAA, and Barack Obama, Commander in Chief, have in common? Other than being extremely good at Icing their Bros, both are pro-college football playoff and both have bully pulpits from which to speak. Since both have been elected into positions of power (depending on your definition of power), it is not a far stretch to say that their voice carries much weight, right?

POTUS started the discussion in November of 2008 when he was still President-elect:

I think any sensible person would say that if you've got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season, and many of them have one loss or two losses, there's no clear decisive winner that we should be creating a playoff system.

Eight teams. That would be three rounds, to determine a national champion. It would it would add three extra weeks to the season. You could trim back on the regular season. I don't know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So, I'm gonna throw my weight around a little bit. I think it's the right thing to do.

Bud Whithers of the Seattle Times continued with reports that Emmert, who will take over this November for the late Myles Brand, was also pro-playoff:

"I happen to be one that thinks it's inevitable we'll have a playoff," he told me in a conversation about 18 months ago.

If both the President of the United States and the President-elect of the NCAA want a college playoff, why don't we have one? Well, to be blunt, its because these two men have about as much say in the BCS vs. playoff debate as you or I, and unless your name is Bill Hancock (or to a slightly lesser extent Jim Delaney or Mike Slive), that isn't saying much.

While Obama and Emmert have greater concerns in their respective arenas, and thus aren't weighing in much on the issue, the playoff debate has taken a back burner to expansion talk. However, with Delaney's insistence that the Big Ten is sticking to its original timetable, the expansion talk has cooled some, making room for the other annually debated topic, a college football playoff.

About a month ago, the bigwigs within the BCS held annual meetings in Arizona, with Bill Hancock denying rumors that expansion talk was the only issue to be discussed:

Hancock said expansion was never broached during the meetings. He called the meetings "collegial, thoughtful." He emphasized the widespread contentment with the BCS, noting that "We're now planning as though it's going to be here in 2040." So start the 2041 playoff talk

A 30 year solid forecast, Bill? That's ballsy.

Then last week, in a rare showing of bipartisanship, disgruntled US Senators Orrin Hatch and Max Baucus sent a letter to Hancock, expressing their displeasure with the way the BCS crowns a champion. Hancock, never one to back down to two aging white men, has engaged the Senators in a he said-he said cat-fight:

"While I appreciate your interest, I believe that decisions about college football should be made by university presidents, athletics directors, coaches and conference commissioners rather than by members of Congress," Hancock said in the letter, repeating a stance he has taken when lawmakers and public officials have threatened the BCS.

His answers did not satisfy Hatch, whose home state team from the University of Utah didn't play for the national title at the end of the 2008 season despite going undefeated.

"Today, the BCS simply confirmed what most fans of college football have known for some time, that the BCS system is biased, secretive and harmful to schools and competitors," Hatch said in a statement.

"I agree that university presidents and conference commissioners should be able to make the proper decisions regarding college football," Hatch said. "The problem is that the small number of privileged schools that participate in the closed system have been unwilling to provide students, athletes and fans with what they deserve a fair, unbiased system like the kind they have in literally every other NCAA sport. No one wants to see Congress get involved here, including me. But if this response is any indication, there may not be any other option."

Say what you will about the BCS, it has worked more times than not in its dozen year run. Further, Hatch's claim that a "small number of privileged schools" are the ones making the decisions is moderately-if-not-completely off base. Sure there are only six (of 11) automatic qualifying conferences in FBS, but how often are the teams of the MAC, Sun Belt, and CUSA going to compete for BCS bowls, let alone BCS championships? Is Hatch saying that Florida International should be as equally heard as Alabama, Texas, Penn State, and Florida in any college football debate? The Mountain West Conference is positioning itself to make a run at a BCS AQ bid (the success of that run is a debate for another day), and adding Boise St. will certainly help, but outside of those MWC teams (BSU included, presumptively), who else can lay claim that they deserve to be included in the discussion? Teams like '98 Tulane and '07 Hawaii will be annual outliers, but just because some team can run the table in the CUSA or WAC does not mean that they deserve to be in the national championship debate, at least as it stands right now.

Hatch's "ruling class elite" may have a slightly disproportionate share of the power in terms of sheer numbers, but the six AQ conferences make up the vast majority of successful college football programs, so why should the power not be vested with them? The current BCS system is arguably prejudiced against only a small number of non-AQ teams, but the prejudice is somewhat founded on the fact that these teams play weaker schedules than the six AQ conferences. That may be a bit ironic, as the Big Ten is perceived as playing a weak schedule, but there is a huge difference between playing Indiana or Minnesota and Colorado State or New Mexico.

However, Hatch has a point. A college football playoff is needed, even if Hancock says it is decades away from being close to a reality. However, Bill Hancock's BCS could very well still be around in 2040, only with the tweaks that make a college football possible. Without the BCS (flawed voting and all), there would be no way to rank the teams in order to find out who is in and who is out of whatever playoff system we have.

The only debate, then, is what type of playoff - a plus-one system most frequently advocated for? an eight team playoff like the one proffered by Obama? or some larger tournament similar in scope to college basketball?

Easily dismissed from the debate is any type of system that requires a multiple game set to win a certain round of the tournament, like the systems that exist in professional basketball, hockey, and baseball. While these are arguably the best methods for deciding championships (save your money-grubbing-league-extended-playoff arguments), they are impractical in football in general, not just college football. So what are we left with? For the most part, the three options stated above are the ones that will be thrown around whenever the playoff debate arises, so any BCS vs. playoff debate should be limited. How would a college playoff of whatever ilk change the landscape? Let's examine.

Plus One System
A plus-one system is the most often cited alternative to the current BCS system. All this does is extend the current BCS structure an extra game. The current BCS bowls would remain the same, with two pre-selected bowls' winners playing an extra game for the national championship. This allows more than just the top two ranked teams to be eligible to play for the national championship, but it would likely not increase the number of BCS bowls. While Auburn, Utah, and Boise State fans might have had a shot under this system, it does not ensure that the best teams will be chosen for the BCS bowls, nor does it ensure that a team like Boise or Utah won't be ranked fifth in the BCS out of spite (justified or otherwise). Right now there are 10 BCS teams, but with a national championship game being played after the regular bowl season, the number would drop back down to 8 BCS teams. Even if a fifth BCS bowl is added, there will still be teams on the outside looking in. But that is going to happen in every system - you wouldn't be familiar with the term "on the bubble" if everyone got a shot at the title. This system has its ups (four candidates for the title instead of two), but it too will have flaws - this is nothing more than one more game among the same 8-10 teams that, only 4 of which have a shot at the title. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Obama's Eight Team Plan
A hybrid of the current system and a true bracket-style format, the notion mentioned by the President (though certainly not his original idea) would likely keep the same BCS bowls, only they would all be played like the Elite Eight. Seeding would be necessary (which would eliminate bowl allegiances and invites while still requiring a system like the BCS), but this would only add 3 extra games for the national champions. Ignoring for now the "extending the bowl season would cut into the spring semester" argument, this system could be completed by the end of January, obviously not too late for football. Like the downfalls of the Plus One system, this format would also limit the number of teams chosen for BCS bowls, but would enlarge the window of teams that would have shots at the title.

The first two systems are decent alternatives to the current regime, but they have a common flaw - they both require a ranking to determine who is in and who is out. To be sure, there will always be some sort of ranking system in college football, and that is OK. But the current voting system of the BCS is flawed. Unfortunately, that is an argument for another time, but suffice it to say that a fix is required. However, with the limited number of teams in a plus-one or eight team plan, there will still be Top Ten teams without a shot at a national title.

That leaves only one system; one that would involve the most teams, but one that would likely be viewed as the most fair, because it would likely incorporate more AQ conferences (assuming those conferences still exist) and, obviously, more at-large bids.

The Sweet Sixteen
A sixteen team bracket, with appropriate tweaks to scheduling and travel, can be accomplished and is a more than fair way to crown a college football national champion. There would be negatives to this system (would you have been upset if 9-3 West Virginia had won the 2009 BCS National Championship under this system?), but the positives outweigh the negatives. Everybody wins in this scenario (well, except for the 15 teams that don't win) - more games (that would likely be played in the major bowls, with a rotating schedule ensuring that no one bowl receives more attention/money than another) means more money for more teams and conferences; more games means more football which means more viewers; and more games means more potential champions which means fewer curmudgeons in the US Senate.

Further, the sweet sixteen method is tested - the FCS, Division II, and Division III college football all employ a bracket style system. College baseball, softball, and women's volleyball all use some sort of extended playoff.

Who else uses a bracket, and has been doing so for over forty years with increasing success? The National Football League. More than four decades worth of Lombardi Trophies have been awarded based on a multi-team playoff. Sometimes underdogs win it all and sometimes heavily favored teams are knocked out in the first round; that's just the way it happens. If titles were awarded on the merits of the regular season alone, Alexander Ovechkin would have a Stanley Cup and the Pittsburgh Steelers wouldn't be the winningest Super Bowl team in history.

Expansion is so close you can nearly touch it, and a college playoff is not far behind. Too many people with loud voices and important positions are speaking out against the current system that its just a matter of time before the switch is made. Fans across the country will stop their "WE WERE ROBBED!" (see TCU, Boise, and Utah fans) and "MEDIA BIAS" (see Big Ten fans) arguments; these will be replaced by the 17th and 18th seeded teams complaining, but that is a trade worth making to ensure that a true champion is crowned in college football.

Penn State's hypothetical run to a 2010 title? Easy - play one of the hardest road schedules in America during the regular season, finish in the top 16 of the BCS rankings, and then face teams like Texas, Boise St. and Oregon.