By David J. Cohen
It’s the last week of the regular season in big time college football. This means the BCS controversy is approaching full tilt. This year the controversy is over who plays Ohio State for the national championship. Michigan is waiting in the wings if USC collapses against arch-rival UCLA. Then there’s Florida, the team on top of arguably the toughest conference in the country and the team every analyst outside of CBS wants out of the picture. Then there’s the issue over whether Notre Dame will get a bid despite being outside of the top eight in the BCS standings because they are Notre Dame, will generate an audience, and would be paid less by the BCS then a representative from a BCS conference. The Irish would receive $4.5 million. When the winner of a conference makes a BCS game this year, the conference gets between $14 million and $17 million to split among the teams. The other rotten apple this year, which is being overlooked, is the fact that an ACC team will get a bid despite the mediocrity of the conference this year. The highest ranked team is 14th ranked Virginia Tech, who isn’t in the conference championship game. The real argument, of course, is the debate of whether the BCS gets it right or if D-1 college football should join every other sport and have a playoff. In a perfect world or a sane world there would be a playoff and most followers of college football would be happy. Some say this would allow the non-BCS conferences to have a fair chance of a possible championship and let the true champs emerge on the field. SEC people and anyone who has ever gone to Boise State are currently backing this position. Supporters of the BCS say despite the computers and everything else, it is the best alternative and gets the game right most of the time. Just about every major conference team’s president likes this scenario to get the money that comes with the BCS. Anyone connected with USC also loves the BCS since they seem to have a reservation in the title game booked every year. Others have argued for a plus 1 system, which would shift the controversy to who is left 3rd to who is left 4th.
The problem with everyone’s arguments for which choice is right is a matter of extremes. No one has argued for any type of compromise. The BCS supporters want things to pretty much remain the same. The playoff supporters insist that the BCS be destroyed and the power left in the hands of those who can actually watch college football. In a perfect world, computers wouldn’t come into play, but they are here now and they are here to stay for the long haul. The solution to this mess is like most other complex solutions in life: somewhere in between point A and point B.
I think I have the answer. I have the ultimate solution to this mess. But first the underlying factors of the current BCS system must be examined.
The reason the BCS exists is because it favors the powerhouses in college football. The major conferences all are guaranteed at least one team in a BCS bowl, which means each of the major conferences is guaranteed $14 million to $17 million this year. In case you were wondering, it’s all about the money. If a second team makes it, that’s another bucket of change for the conference. With the Big East, Big 10, Big 12, ACC, SEC, and Pac 10 all guaranteed a spot, it locks up millions for the big football schools while putting a cap on mid major teams to advance. The addition of a 5th game this year would seem to help the mid major teams, but the odds of more than one of these teams getting a shot is very slim. This means the powerhouses are getting even more money. If this system continues, in most years 3 conferences will get at least $34 million to divvy up. The BCS system acts to make the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The big schools get the BCS money, the huge ratings, massive exposure for recruiting and the money from ticket sales among other things. Powerhouse football schools continue to reap the benefits and get stronger while the sleeper teams and Cinderella teams are one-hit wonders. The small schools will never get to the championship game in this system and will usually disappear for a while afterwards. Either the talent falls off or the great coach who led the team to success bolts to a bigger program. A big reason for this is that success is limited at a non-BCS school. This allows traditionally powerful football programs to keep their prestige and block threats from other schools. This is why the “big wigs” running the BCS and running the major conferences support the BCS so much. They have it made right now.
Obviously the only solution is a playoff system, but the underlying factors at play can’t be dismissed. A compromise has to be made: a playoff system is established, but the BCS remains and keeps its importance.
My solution is an 8 team playoff. The BCS is a big factor in this playoff. The top 7 teams in the BCS at the end of the season would qualify for the tournament. The final team in the playoff is determined in a special vote by the human polls. The team getting the most votes at the last team would play the top seed, with a couple of exceptions. If a non-BCS conference team goes undefeated and is outside the top 7 in the BCS (for example, this year Boise State, at #8, could be left out under this format), they are automatically penciled in as the 8th seed. Also, if no teams from any of the top 4 conferences according to the combined overall record and strength of schedule of the entire conference are in the top 7 in the BCS poll, they automatically get in. In an ideal situation, the automatic bid situation would be dropped. Basically, if a conference fell off this year, they should be punished and not cash in. For instance, this year, the ACC would be left out in this scenario. This rule would upset the big time conferences and would force them to continue to maintain their strength. This would make recruiting more competitive among the major conferences. However, since a compromise among university presidents would need to occur under this scenario, this clause probably couldn’t exist. The last stipulation is the selection of independent officiating crews by the NCAA to call the playoff games to avoid any controversy involving which conference’s officials call the games. If I could have it my way there would be no conference officiating crews in college football, since football is played by the same rules regardless of the conference. In reality, the playoff system will arrive in college football before universal officiating crews do.
What about the money? The playoffs would start with the quarterfinals: The Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Rose Bowl. The teams and conferences would get their money for making the playoffs. Thus, the conferences and teams don’t lose any money for switching to a playoff. Each conference would get $14 million (if it happened this year) per team that qualifies to split among its schools. In this sense the quarterfinals would exist as if there weren’t a playoff system or a 5th game. Since there is no 5th game in the quarterfinals, the money allotted for conferences making the championship game in the current system must go somewhere else. This money would go towards marketing the playoffs and hosting the additional games. The rest of it would be a reward for the schools advancing through the playoffs. Therefore, the farther the school goes, the more money the school itself makes. The TV ratings for the games would also be protected by a clause saying that no other bowl game can occur during these playoff games and if other bowls are scheduled for the day, they must be scheduled so that they would normally end at least an hour before these games are set to kick off. Otherwise all other bowls would still exist and go on as they do now. Their significance would remain the same: an opportunity for teams outside of the BCS picture to be rewarded for a winning season. Some critics of a playoff claim a playoff would diminish the value of these bowl games. These same critics won’t watch most of these bowl games. I don’t hear these critics telling me why I should watch Rice in the New Orleans Bowl. The critics miss the point of these other bowls: to benefit the specific teams invited. These bowls serve these specific teams and their fans and followers. They are not specifically aimed at a national audience, as the BCS games are now and as the playoffs would be if accepted.
Now for when the playoffs start. One of the main arguments against a playoff by big schools is that their student-athletes would be dragged into week-to-week games throughout finals week. This is a legitimate issue to deal with. The logical way to counter this is to start the playoffs during the latter half of December, when most schools are already on winter vacation. For instance, this year I would have the quarterfinals start on either Friday December 22nd or Saturday December 23rd. By this time, finals should be finished and the student-athletes should have enough time in between the end of the year and the playoffs to prepare for finals. Also, a lot of football players have tutors during the year as it is to help them overcome the amount of missed classes during the season. And if the playoffs started on the weekend stated above, the championship game could take place at the same time it is scheduled for now: in the 2nd week of January. Thus, the college season wouldn’t drag on longer than it currently is.
This is the ultimate college football solution. The championship is finally decided on the field as a playoff is established. The powerhouse schools and BCS conferences still get their money and the schools themselves could potentially make more money under this playoff system. The added ticket sales and exposure from advancing through the playoffs on top of the reward money would make it very profitable for the individual schools. Also, for the non-BCS schools, it would give them a chance to win it all and overcome the odds. And if a school not traditionally high in prestige made a run in the playoffs it could change the school for the future in drastic ways. The exposure and success would boost the quality of recruits significantly, allowing the school to build on their success instead of almost always being one-hit wonders. This new realm of possible success would possibly motivate more successful coaches at smaller schools to stay put and build a new power instead of bolting to a bigger school. This aspect alone is a great reason a playoff system is necessary in college football.
The other argument against a playoff is the total number of games which would be played by qualifying schools, which could reach as much as 15 games. I personally don’t see this becoming a huge issue, especially because of the rest period before the playoff and the level of conditioning of the athletes at this level. If it is an issue, non-conference schedules could be reduced. For instance, that one game most big schools play against a powder puff every year (like the Gators against Western Carolina) could be dropped. The fact that some conferences play a conference championship game and other don’t could also factor in. I think either all conference championship games should be dropped (which would complicate matters with all kinds of tie-breakers coming into play) or have every conference, or at least every major conference, play a conference title game regardless of the size of the conference. This could help level out the amount of games played. If any playoff system is adopted, changes in scheduling are likely to occur to account for the amount of games played.
This is the ultimate solution for big time college football. This is the complex compromise which would make college football reach its full potential. We would have an undisputed national champion. The power conferences would still get their money. Big time presidents could end up getting even more then they are now. And the little guys would finally get a chance at the ultimate prize. Basically, everyone’s a winner.
Then someday college football can have its own George Mason.