Building the Perfect Playoff

It seems inevitable that a college football playoff is coming.  As somebody who has long opposed playoffs, this frightens me – mostly because the odds are very, very low that the powers that be create something that isn’t worse than what we have now*.

*Yes, that is very much a possibility.  This playoff will likely be built by the same folks who brought you the much-maligned BCS.  Chew on that for a while.

So with that in mind, I want to offer some much-needed advice to make a college football playoff work:

1.  Set clear, easy to understand guidelines for a) how to get in, and b) how to be a high seed.

Who gets in?  This is the biggest hurdle, and the most important to the success of a playoff and the validity of the champion it crowns.  There are a bevy of different options, including one (or more) of the following:

  • Human polls
  • Computer rankings
  • A “BCS-style” composite rankings
  • Conference champions
  • Conference champions and a “wildcard”
  • The wildly ambiguous “four best teams”, regardless of if they won their conference (or even their division).
  • A selection committee made up of conference commissioners, athletic directors, and/or media members.

This is a huge decision, and will likely be the one that causes the most controversy.  I believe the best answer is to only have conference champions eligible for the playoff.  This accomplishes two key goals:  1) it maintains the integrity and value of the regular season, and 2) it eliminates most of the bizarre scenarios making the playoff qualification criteria cut and dry.

Want to be in the playoff?  Win your conference.  You say you should be considered because you beat the conference champ head to head, but didn’t make the conference championship game because of a tie-breaker?  Too bad.  Win you other games and win your conference.  Put up or shut up.

What about conferences that do not have a championship game?  Most of those conferences (such as the Big XII, Big East, etc.) are playing round-robin schedules, so determining a champion (with the help of thorough tiebreaker rules) shouldn’t be too hard.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if all conferences are playing a championship game by the time a playoff starts up.

What about Notre Dame, BYU, and the other independents?  There is a part of me that wants to say “if you’re not in a conference, you can’t expect the spoils”, but I guess we can consider the independents for a spot in the playoff.  However, you won’t be able to make the playoffs by putting together a 12-0 schedule against a bunch of low-tier schools.  For the independents, strength of schedule and overall wins and losses will play a huge role.  If they don’t like it, I’m sure the Big East or Mountain West would gladly take them in.

1b.  There are 11 conference champs (and the independents) but only four playoff slots.  Who gets in, who doesn’t, and how are they seeded?

This is where the other part of the controversy comes in.  While I think being a conference champ is a clean and clear requirement to be considered for a playoff, picking which conference champs get in (and which do not) is much harder.

Flaws and biases abound with all of the potential options (human polls, computer rankings, composite rankings, and selection committees), all of which threaten to snowball the playoff into an 8 (or 16) team monstrosity to include all of the “deserving” schools.  I think the best way to combat that is to include all of them, and give them equal weight in creating the bracket.  My formula would include:

  • 33% – The AP Poll (media vote).  The BCS currently uses the ESPN Coaches Poll, but I prefer the media.  Why?  Well the media are likely seeing more games than a coach who is putting in 70 hour weeks during the season, and the media is going to more accountable for questionable ballots than a coach who votes up his conference mates.  At the conclusion of conference championship games, take the final AP Poll, strip out all of the non-conference champs would be striped out and re-rank the champs (and Notre Dame, BYU, etc) 1-11.  If a conference champion is not ranked and does not receive any votes, they are ranked last.
  • 33% – The Sagarin Poll (computer ranking).  Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings have been around for decades and are widely respected.  I prefer Sagarin due to its relative simplicity as well as the presence of a strength of schedule component.  Coaches, fans, and the talking heads love to bash the computers, so I’m also picking Sagarin due to the name recognition and credibility he brings.  Again, after the conference championship games, the final Sagarin Poll would be used, with non-champs filtered out.
  • 34% – A selection committee composed of Athletic Directors.  This would be very similar to the committee used for the NCAA basketball tournament, where “Committee members serve five-year terms, with between one and three old members rotating out and the same number rotating in every year.  The Committee is balanced geographically, with no fewer than two members representing the East, Midwest, South, and West regions at any one time.”  The committee would be tasked with a) evaluating if an independent should be considered among the top four teams, b) considering head-to-head results in determining/seeding the top four teams, and looking at the complete season of the champions (i.e. including their non-conference games and strength of schedule).  They would produce a list of the conference champs (and any independents they deem worthy) ranked from best to worst.

Now that each of the three have their own final ranking (1-11, plus any independents that make the cut), they are combined into a composite ranking, with equal weight going to each of the three components.  Any ties are broken by the ranking of the selection committee.  The top four teams move on.

2.  Play the semi-final round on campus, at the higher seed.

Look – I get that the primary motivation for a playoff is money.  Money from TV contracts, money from ticket sales, money from New Orleans/Indianapolis/Miami/Glendale, AZ bidding for the game – there is a lot of money on the table.  But a playoff should also be about the fans – those of the teams participating, as well as those watching at home.

Let’s say you’re a diehard Washington fan, and your Huskies are the #2 seed.  But your budget only has room for one post-season game.  Do you go to the semi-final game in Miami?  Or hope that they win so you can go to the championship game in New Orleans?  Why not reward the fans of the top two teams with another home game?

Now you’re an average sports fan with no rooting interest in the semifinals.  Which game would you rather watch on your 50″ LED:  Michigan vs. Miami playing in the Super Dome, or the same match-up in Ann Arbor, Michigan?

The game in New Orleans looks bland and has the energy of an NFL pre-season game because the fans of both teams couldn’t afford the expensive last-minute flights to New Orleans  The attendance isn’t bad because lots of tickets were handed out to the sponsors of the game, who gave them to their clients.

The game in Michigan’s Big House drew 107,000 cheering fans.  Since it the game is in mid-December, it is 20 degrees and snowing in Michigan, which creates an awesome football environment that you’ll be talking about for years.

And please, don’t give me this crap about teams like Kansas State (few local hotels, small press box) or Southern Miss (tiny stadium) being the reason why the semifinals should be played at JerryWorld.  With all due respect to the Southern Mississippis of the world, the odds of them being the #1 or #2 seed are pretty remote (and nothing would stop them from moving the game to New Orleans if they wanted to cash in).  Besides, these smaller college towns seem to do just fine hosting six or seven home games a year.

As for the media, I think the world will survive if Oscar from the Backwater Times-Gazette has to watch the Kansas State vs. Oregon semifinal outside with the masses or drive 2 hours back to his hotel after the game.  A good reporter will deal with it and still write a great story.

3.  Convince the Big Ten to put their Rose Bowl infatuation on hold for the good of everybody else.

As a Nebraska fan, I’m new to the storied traditions of the Big Ten conference.  Many of them are still a little foreign to me, but I can see the appeal and charm of playing for pigs, buckets, and large axes.  But I do not get the hierarchy of Big Ten priorities:

  1. Rose Bowl
  2. Beating rival
  3. Winning trophy game(s)
  4. National Championship
  5. Any other bowl game

This is foreign to me, as the Nebraska hierarchy of priorities looks like this:

  1. National Championship
  2. Conference Championship
  3. Division Champion
  4. 9 wins
  5. Bowl Game

One of the potential snags for a playoff is the insistence (led primarily by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney) that the Big Ten champion meet the Pac 12 champion in the Rose Bowl in the afternoon on January 1.  With all due respect to Mr. Delaney and the “Grandaddy of ’em All”, the Big Ten needs to step out of the black and white era and embrace a High Def world.  The Rose Bowl was a storied game, and the ultimate goal for any Big Ten team.  But then teams like TCU, Texas, Oklahoma, Miami, and Nebraska started crashing the party.  And with Ohio State making the BCS Championship game twice, the Big 10 runner-up was shipped out to Pasadena as Plan B.

This game has not been your Grandaddy’s Rose Bowl for more than a decade now.  It’s time to let go for the good of the sport, especially if we promise to send the (true) Big Ten champion to California if they are not in the playoff.

4.  Maintain some of the bowls as a consolation for teams that do not make the playoff.

Despite what you read from Dan Wentzl, the bowls are good for college football.  They are a reward for teams, they give schools a reason not to pack it in during November, and the extra three weeks of practice can be a springboard to building more quality programs.  Yes, there are things that should be changed about the bowl system including:

  • You must win 7 games (against D-1 schools) to make a bowl.  This will also help shrink the bowl games down to a more manageable number.
  • Eliminate the ticket purchase requirement for schools.  This is a big part of why schools lose money on bowls (along with sending half the campus to the game), and the schools don’t have to put up with the extortion.
  • The bowls should be played in increasing order of importance – start with the 7-5 teams in mid-December, and keep going until January 1 when the conference champs not in the playoff meet in the storied games (Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton, etc.).  No more random MAC-Conference USA bowl game in between the Sugar and Orange Bowls.
  • And yes, maintain January 1 as a day chock full of bowl games – even if a playoff makes them nothing more than semi-relevant exhibitions to determine which team ends up #5 in the final poll.

A playoff does not need to be a death-knell for the bowls.  The bowls can survive (and thrive) with a little fine tuning.

5.  Protect the integrity of the regular season.

One of the big reasons that I am anti-playoff can be summed up in three words:

NFL Week 17

Week 17 is the final week of the regular season, and you’ll find three types of teams playing that week:

a) The team that desperately needs to win to make the playoffs.  These teams will scratch, fight, and claw to win.  In other words, these will be the games you want to watch.
b) The team that has been eliminated from playoff contention.  Some of these teams are looking to play a spoiler role, but many just want the season to end.  Watch at your own risk.
c) The team that has clinched a playoff spot.  These are the teams the anti-playoff people like me point to.  Because the odds are good that the QB (and other key starters) won’t play, or will definitely be done by the start of the 4th Quarter.

When a team willingly takes a loss (or at least gives the impression that they don’t really care) in favor of the postseason, that is when the regular season starts to lose its luster.

So how do you maintain the importance of the regular season with a playoff?

Since there will be 11 conference champs vying for four spots, having a solid resume will be vital.  Obviously, winning your games will be as important as ever.  Plus, with the computer ranking and selection committee both considering strength of schedule, it would benefit teams to avoid non-conference cupcakes.

College football has the best regular season out there.  Bar none.  Any system that removes the importance of regular season games should be avoided at all costs.

6.  Limit the playoff to four teams.

I fear the slippery slope.

Why?  Look at the number of teams in the NCAA Basketball tournament field since 1975:  32, 40, 48, 52, 53, 64, 65, 68, and it almost went clear to 96 this year before cooler heads prevailed.

You can accuse me of making an apples to oranges comparison, but college football is on the same trend.  Despite its flaws, the BCS was originally intended to be a two team playoff (#1 vs #2)  Now it will almost definitely expand to four teams in 2014.  How long will it take before the cries of how the #5, 6, and 7 teams were “snubbed” from the playoff become so loud (or the TV money becomes too good to pass up) that the playoffs expand to eight teams?  And once we’re at eight, 12 or 16 is right around the corner.  As I’ve written before, the more teams you have in the pool of contenders, the more teams that will have a legitimate beef for being snubbed.

Frankly, this is probably the hardest part about setting up a college football playoff.  I cannot think of a way to keep this thing at just four teams.  A four team playoff WILL expand at some point.  It may not be in the first 5 or 10 years, but it will happen.  Whether it happens due to fan outcry over a (perceived) snub or because ESPN writes a check with a lot of zeroes remains to be seen.

And once it expands once, it will likely expand again.  The slope is slippery, but the masses and the media do not care.

7.  Put the NCAA in charge.

I saved this one for last because it is the one that I feel the least strongly about (in other words, you could likely talk me out of this one), but hear me out.

Right now, college football does not have an overall head, a true governing body, and the championship is not (technically) sanctioned by the NCAA like all of the other sports.  Instead, college football is run by the conference commissioners of the power (BCS) conferences.  So while the national championship trophy for football is a lot cooler than the boring trophy the NCAA gives out, the trade-off is any consensus must come from six commissioners (representing 60+ schools) with wildly divergent interests to protect.

By putting the NCAA in charge, you get a central governing body that gets to call the shots, set the rules (and enforce them), and provides a unifying presence.  More importantly for the Mountain Wests, Sun Belts and WACs of the world – it eliminates the notion of a rigged system where the haves will do whatever it takes to keep the have-nots on the outside looking in.

*   *   *

Until I see the final playoff plan put forth by the ADs, presidents, and commissioners, I have serious doubts that they will get it right (as I mentioned above, we are talking about some of the same folks who created the BCS).

Hopefully, they will approach a playoff with caution, and create a system that not only crowns a “true” champion, but also makes one of the best sports in the country even better than before.

*   *   *

This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed college football’s post-season….Read more about:

And feel free to let me know how right (or wrong) I am in the comments.


Very nice post. I think this was definitely something that was inevitable. A playoff system was coming and it wasn’t a matter of if but more a matter of when. I guess when is going to be 2014. It’s going to be really interesting to see how this changes the game in college football and how much more or less interest it garners in general. Big changes for sure. Also, you think you could take a gander over at my latest blog post because I would absolutely love to hear what you have to say

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