Why There Isn't a PlayoffThe BCS was created primarily to give us a 1 vs 2 game every year, but one of the unintended consequences of that is that it has fueled the fire of desire for a bigger playoff, which college football is not ready to accommodate. As I wrote below, the BCS has only given us a clear 1 vs 2 matchup that would not have been possible under the old Bowl Alliance twice in nine years. Also, there have only been two seasons where a playoff would have really been useful in order to solve the national championship puzzle. In the other five seasons, the BCS has been irrelevant.
However, now that the annual push for a playoff is underway, so that Division I-A can be "just like every other sport," let me remind you of the many obstacles to creating a playoff, starting with the much hoped for four-team variety.
The first issue is that a four-team playoff fixes almost nothing. The whining about a bigger playoff wouldn’t stop or even slow down. There’s virtually no difference between leaving out the #3 team and leaving out the #5 team. They would still be leaving out at least one team every year that has the talent to win a national championship. The only time this would have really been nice was in 2004, but even then, that would have depended on how the playoff was structured.
One option for a playoff would be to play the BCS bowls in their "traditional" matchups and then pick two teams after that. That's not really a playoff, per se, but is the basic version of plus-one. That structure placates the Rose Bowl, but seasons like 2004 remain unresolved because the top three teams (undefeated USC, Oklahoma and Auburn) would be in different bowls. It simply puts the problems of that season off a month.
No, if they’re going to mess things up, they need to at least solve the problems they’ve already had. Making two bowls semifinals (1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3) with the winners playing (at least) a week later is the only sensible way to do this. However, that would be a tough sell to the Rose Bowl (and in turn, the Big Ten, which is interested in protecting the Rose Bowl) because it would greatly decrease its chances of getting its traditional matchup. The Rose Bowl has said it has no interest in being a national semifinal, and whether or not that would bring in more money is not relevant to the bowl.
Now, you may disagree with this, but the bowls feel they exist to be the ultimate reward for the teams at the end of the season. Bowls that become semifinals will not be that. It changes their identity in a way that they don’t like. The other BCS bowls might be OK with that, but the Rose is the Granddaddy of them All, not a stepping stone to some other game. It’s bad enough for the Rose Bowl that it has become a place to avoid for its conference partners instead of a goal. Being relegated to a national semifinal would be too hard to swallow.
That leads to a concern among the other BCS bowls with regards to attendance. It’s not reasonable to expect that many fans could travel to both a semifinal and a final, so some might opt to save their money and not go to the semifinal. There would be other fans that have the money to go to both games (even with very short notice airfares for the second one), but may not make the big vacation out of the first one in order to conserve money to make both trips. Obviously, this is a bigger issue for Northern teams, which are nowhere near any of the BCS bowls and have to travel great distances no matter where the game is. Bringing fans to the host city for four or five days is one of the reasons the bowls exist, and that aspect would be severely damaged (the bowls feel) if they are no longer THE destination and are merely semifinals.
Some feel that if the Rose Bowl and Big Ten (and presumably Pac 10) don’t like the four-team playoff, they can just opt out and the other four major conferences will create their own like they did with the Bowl Alliance. They figure the money would eventually follow the Alliance and force the hand of the Big Ten and Pac 10. Maybe it would, but if the Big Ten and Pac 10 continue to have the #1 and/or #2 teams, like they have for the last five years, it would diminish the value of the playoff. This year, which is an extreme case, three of the top five and four of the top seven teams are Big Ten or Pac 10, so the playoff would be #2 Florida, #4 LSU, #6 Louisville and #8 Boise St and they could be playing for a final ranking as low as third. Actually, last year would have been even more extreme because four of the top five were from the Big Ten and Pac 10. That “playoff” would have been #2 Texas, #6 ND, #7 Georgia and #8 Miami.
The biggest problem with splintering apart is that unlike the current BCS structure, which fits in well with the current bowl system, a playoff of any size would require a change in the NCAA rules that prohibit teams from playing more than one postseason game. Everyone will have to be on the same page to get that done.
The other big problem with the four-team model is that another bowl would have to be created or "promoted" to the BCS so that the BCS can still accommodate ten teams. The change to ten teams was made to create a greater opportunity for access to the non-BCS conferences, and there’s no going backwards on that. In fact, once a true playoff of any size is created, those schools are going to start looking for access to that as well. You may see something like a guarantee for them and/or ND if they make the top eight or top six or some other, lower standard than top four, which would probably be the standard for everyone else.
But I digress. The additional bowl is a problem because it means each bowl’s share of the money gets smaller and that the championship comes to each city only once every five years. That’s the reason a fifth bowl wasn’t promoted for the current structure. The sponsors of the four existing BCS bowls felt that the value of their sponsorship was diluted if their bowls hosted the championship only once every five years, so they came up with the rotating host model instead.
Now that we know that the four-team model is a very difficult problem to solve to anyone’s satisfaction (let alone everyone’s), let’s look at bigger playoffs.
The eight-team model and any bigger playoff than that would probably be scheduled to begin in December, right after the final week of the regular season. That’s because starting in January, besides simply making the entire season way too long, cuts too much into basketball season. Another advantage of starting in December is that the schedule may be able to work so that the championship is around New Year’s Day, which would elevate that traditional date back to its rightful place on the college football calendar. Besides, it’s not really fair to the participants to make them wait a month before beginning a playoff. After all, no other sport has a long wait between its regular season and its playoffs, and being just like every other sport its one of the goals, right?
The big problem with the eight-team model is selecting the teams. Many feel that just going with the top eight teams in the BCS or some other ranking system is good enough, but politically, that won’t fly. There is no chance that a major conference is going to support a playoff system of this size without a guarantee that its champion participates.
However, if six of the eight spots are taken by conference champions, that only leaves room for two at-large teams, and that might not be enough for some people. That is especially true if it is necessary (and it certainly would be) to create a separate standard for the non-BCS schools and maybe Notre Dame.
And, of course, the other problem with a playoff of this size or larger is that the games would be played at campus sites, except for the final. While this may not be like every other sport, it is certainly like every other level of football. If the bowls think there would be attendance problems at a semifinal, it doesn’t take much insight to realize that neutral site quarterfinals would be played in half-empty stadiums. This does significant damage to the top bowls because eight top teams are being removed from the bowl equation. Also, sponsorship dollars become an issue because the bigger a playoff gets, the more money and attention gets taken by the playoff leaving less for the bowls.
Many people feel bowls and a playoff can peacefully co-exist, but bowl people don’t feel that way. The people who think that way say the bowls become just like the NIT in basketball, but keep in mind that the NIT is a money loser. Maybe some bowls would try to carry on, but I would expect them to just die off, probably quickly.
Of course, all the bowls’ problems are magnified even more in a sixteen-team playoff, which is probably the minimum size needed to keep everybody happy. There would be room for all 11 conference champions and still room for five at-large teams. It would be rare that a team capable of winning the championship would be left out. That doesn’t mean those just left out wouldn’t complain – teams left out of the 65-team NCAA basketball tournament complain – it’s just that those complaints would fall on mostly deaf ears.
Some might not like the idea of including teams like #78 Troy, the Sun Belt champion this season, but politically, it’s a much easier sell. Teams like that might never win a road game against Ohio St, but in the 21 years of the 64-65 team basketball tournament, no 16-seed has ever won a game either. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be invited.
A 16-team playoff could be scheduled to run through December and end around New Year’s Day. Again, games would be played at campus sites and the bowls would be further damaged by the removal of 16 top teams from the pool of teams to pick from. There would be even less money for the bowls and they would surely go away. However, you’d have a football tournament on par with the basketball tournament. You also wouldn’t have eight SEC teams playing postseason football, which is partly why there isn’t a whole lot of movement in this direction.
Another problem that the school presidents have with playoffs of 8 or more teams is the length of the season. It would be possible for a team that played in the championship game of an 8-team tournament to play 16 games in its season, which is the length of a regular NFL season. Many presidents feel that is too much wear and tear on a college athlete. The only way around that would be to shorten the season (lower divisions play no more than eleven games), but considering that it was just lengthened for financial reasons, it seems unlikely they would go backwards.
Like I have always said, if creating a playoff was easy, we’d already have one. It’s tough to come up with even a measly four-team system that will satisfy all the interested parties enough to make it happen, let alone something bigger. I’ve seen all the playoff proposals, but haven’t seen any that takes all these issues into consideration, and I probably haven’t even listed all the issues that need to be addressed.
In order for a playoff to be created, the university presidents will have to come to the conclusion that the bowl system is not worth having. They are not at that point, and it doesn’t look like they’re going that way anytime soon. If they feel the bowl system is the way to go, then the BCS is probably the best they can do in terms of deciding a national champion. If it’s not, then they ought to just skip all the nonsense and go straight to a 16-team playoff. There appears to be no reasonable compromise.