A College Football Playoff That Works

The stadium scene.
Oct. 24 2000 3:00 AM

A College Football Playoff That Works

Everybody hates college football's Bowl Championship Series. The BCS rankings let the media, the coaches, and eight computers determine which two teams play for the national championship. It's like letting The McLaughlin Group and a cabal of social scientists decide who runs for president. But this year, no one may hate the BCS more than fans of the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs.

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When the first BCS rankings are announced during halftime of tonight's Monday Night Football game, TCU will probably rank 13th. The Horned Frogs have no chance to reach the title match at the end of the year, even though the team will likely go undefeated behind the running of Heisman Trophy candidate LaDainian Tomlinson. Sorry, TCU. The kingmakers who run the current system have already made up their minds.

How to take this power away from the polls and the number crunchers and return it to the football field where it belongs? The obvious solution is a playoff. Players want one. Fans want one. The media want one. Even many risk-averse coaches want one. While some critics say a college-football playoff is too impractical, here's a proposal for an eight-team affair that would retain what's best about college football while deciding a national champion the way it should be—on the field.

Give the champions of each of the six conferences that currently get automatic bids to the BCS—the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Big East, Pac-10, and SEC—an automatic bid to the playoff. Let the conferences pick their champions any way they choose. If the Big 12 and SEC want to schedule conference-championship games, fine. If the Big Ten doesn't, that's fine too. Then add two at-large teams to the mix. The twist: These two teams cannot come from any of the six major conferences.

The message of this playoff system is simple: If you're not good enough to win your conference, you're not good enough to win the national championship. If the system were implemented this year and TCU continues to triumph over its rivals, one at-large team would be the WAC champion: TCU. The other would be either Conference USA's Southern Mississippi or Notre Dame, which is independent. In another year, the Mountain West champion might be selected. (It doesn't matter how you pick the teams. Use the BCS rankings if you want. Or use a selection committee, the way the NCAA does for its basketball tournament. Just pick them.) Seed the teams. Play the first round at each of the four major bowls that currently make up the BCS: the Fiesta, Orange, Rose, and Sugar. On the following two weekends, play the final two rounds at a neutral site, just like the Final Four.

There are five main criticisms lobbed at any proposed playoff system: The season would last too long. A playoff would diminish the traditional bowl games. It would be too hard to pick the teams. Regular-season games wouldn't count anymore. Plus the old saw, "the current system works." Let's dispatch these one by one.

1. The current system works. BCS proponents assert that the nation's two best teams are already selected to play in the national-championship game. Why muddy things with a multi-round playoff? But this is the third year for the BCS, and it's the third time an undefeated team won't be given a chance to play for the title. In 1998, Tulane cruised through the regular season with its own Heisman candidate, current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Shaun King, but got stiff-armed by the kingmakers. Instead of playing on New Year's Day, Tulane went to the Liberty Bowl and blitzed tradition-rich BYU, 41-27. And Coach Tommy Bowden left for Clemson, a big-conference team that would give him a shot at a national championship.

Last year, Marshall went undefeated with a team that featured quarterback Chad Pennington, who finished fifth in the Heisman balloting and was drafted in the first round by the New York Jets. The year before, the team boasted future NFL superstar Randy Moss. But the kingmakers said: No, you are not invited to our party. Go beat BYU like Tulane did. So the Thundering Herd went to the Motor City Bowl and trounced the Cougars 21-3.

Not only does the BCS discriminate against high-caliber minor-conference teams like Tulane, Marshall, and TCU, it also discriminates against major-conference champions with one loss. Let's say Oklahoma loses this weekend to No. 1 Nebraska but goes on to win the Big 12 championship game. That's a pretty good season, and the Sooners could stake a claim to being the best team in the country. But if Virginia Tech and Clemson go undefeated, the Hokies and Tigers will play in the national-championship game, and Oklahoma will have to stay home and watch. Are Virginia Tech and Clemson better than Oklahoma? We don't know. They haven't played each other. With a playoff, we'd know for sure.

2. Regular-season games wouldn't count anymore. It's true that the season-ending 64-team tournament diminishes college basketball's regular season. For the most part, all that matters are the conference tournaments and the Final Four. But under this football playoff, conference play would count more than ever. If you can't win your conference, you can't play for the national title. Sorry, John Cooper. If your Ohio State Buckeyes can't beat Michigan (or Michigan State, or Miami, or Minnesota), they clearly aren't the best team in the country. But if you win your conference, you get a shot at the national championship, even if you lost a game or two early in the season.

Granted, nonconference play will matter less than it does now. But that adds to, rather than detracts from, the allure of a playoff. Teams will have an incentive to stop scheduling creampuffs for nonconference games. Under the current system, teams load up with Boise States and I-AA teams that don't threaten the quest for the Grail: an undefeated season. But if nonconference losses won't derail your championship hopes, you'll want to schedule the toughest teams possible to prepare your team for the rigors of conference play. Games like Florida vs. Ball State could be replaced with games like Florida vs. Kansas State.

3. It would be too hard to pick the teams. The classic argument against a college-football playoff is that there would be no fair way to select the at-large teams without expanding the playoff to an unwieldy 16 teams. That's true if you're trying to pick the at-large teams from a long list of conference runner-ups. But if only conference champions are eligible, the teams will be obvious choices, whether they're selected by the media, the coaches, the computers, or a smoke-filled room of NCAA officials. Last year the picks would have been No. 10 Marshall and No. 13 Southern Miss. Every year there's a BYU or a Tulane or a TCU that deserves the chance to play for a ring.

4. A playoff would diminish traditional bowl games. This one's dubious on its face. The BCS has already made a mockery of all the bowl games except one. Under the current system, only the national-championship game counts. A playoff would make fans care about all four major bowl games.

5. The season would last too long. Another one that doesn't pass the prima facie test. Allowing four teams to advance beyond the bowl games would mean one extra week of play for two teams and two extra weeks for the top two teams in the country. The college-basketball tournament means an extra week for 64 teams, two extra weeks for 16 teams, and three extra weeks for four teams. No one complains about that.

That leaves one criticism for this system: Minor-conference and independent teams aren't good enough. Well, we know Notre Dame frequently is good enough. And heck, Toledo beat Penn State this year. Last year, Cincinnati upended Big Ten champ Wisconsin. The national championship should be decided on the field by football players, not by the whims of the sports punditocracy. Thanks to college basketball's system, Larry Bird's undefeated 1979 Indiana State team got more than a pat on the back. Bird's Sycamores got a chance to fight all the way to the Final Four's championship game, only to lose to Magic Johnson and Michigan State. Bird got his shot at the title, and fans got to watch one of the sport's historic games. College football players—and fans—deserve the same opportunity.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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