I credit Dan Wetzel's "Death to the BCS" for changing the way I thought about the post-season in college football and for succinctly laying out how a number of playoff systems could work, why they would be the best for the sport, and why many of the criticisms of a playoff system were unfounded. In fact, writing a review of the book (Part 1 & Part 2) was one of the earliest projects I ever took on with One Foot Down.
We're now mere weeks away from the second College Football Playoff finishing up, and through some quality conversations on the new system both here and elsewhere, I believe our current set up has worked well. But it can get better.
Before we get to my plan we have to answer a few questions.
What's the driving force to tweak the current system?
This is an important question because stretching back to the late Aught's when a playoff began to really pick up steam, fears of messing up college football abounded. What if we devalue the regular season? What if the sport becomes more like college basketball? What is the meaning of 'best' team anyway?
Speaking for myself, I think tweaks are needed to create a more fair system, to sharpen college football's brand, and to decrease the importance of an archaic system that no longer applies to my future post-season plan.
Do we want to expand the playoffs?
Whether for positive or negative most people tend to believe the 4-team playoff will be expanded at some point--and probably before the current contract ends in 2025. In the delicate balance between protecting the regular season and a fair post-season I am going to expand the playoffs.
The biggest reason? There's little to no advantage for #1 Clemson to be undefeated as the top seed and playing #4 Oklahoma right out of the gate in a loser-goes-home situation. We tend to focus our criticisms of fairness on who gets into the 4-team playoff (or who gets left out) and not always how there's no incentive to be the top team in the country versus someone who makes the playoffs.
What do we do with the bowl games?
This is THE issue for any future playoff plans, especially those which expand from 4 teams. My theory has always been that the bowls got out of control--not only because there are 41 of them today and 5-7 teams get to participate now--but more so because they were never intended to serve as a coherent post-season crowning-a-champion type of system.
Remember, Knute Rockne had to pull teeth all over campus to get approval to send Notre Dame to the Rose Bowl after the 1924 season but that was the only bowl the Irish played in during the first 80 years of the program. Not until the AP officially decided for good to award their National Champion after bowl season in 1968 did Notre Dame decide it was time to participate in the post-season.
The current 4-team system is a compromise with the bowls--the number one reason, I believe, why the powers-that-be decided not to go straight to a 6 or 8-team playoff. We play the semi-final games at bowl sites and created a 6-bowl rotation so they can benefit from hosting these national final four matchups. Basically they said, "Yeah, the non-playoff major bowl games will see less viewers most of the time but every couple years you'll get a huge audience!" Thus, last year the Sugar Bowl was watched by 12 million more people and the Rose Bowl 10 million more people as compared to the 2013-14 season.
However, any expansion model has to figure out whether or not teams playing in multiple bowls (a bowl game in the quarter-final and semi-final, for example) is something worthwhile or come up with another solution. Basically, how important are the bowl games?
The Best Post-Season Plan for College Football
My playoff outline goes as follows...
- New 7-team playoff
- No auto-bids for conference champions
- Playoff committee & selection process stays more or less the same
- The 7th and 6th seed face each other in a play-in game
- All playoff games, including the play-in game, are played on the campus of the higher seed
- The National Championship Game is played on a neutral field
- The playoff re-ranks after each round so highest seed always plays the lowest seed
Using this year's rankings and with the higher seeds all winning that would give us (all times eastern):
Saturday, Dec. 12th at 8:00 pm, #7 Ohio State at #6 Stanford (play-in)
Saturday, Dec. 19th at 4:00 pm, #6 Stanford at #3 Michigan State
Saturday, Dec. 19th at 8:00 pm, #5 Iowa at #4 Oklahoma
Saturday, Jan. 2nd at 4:00 pm, #4 Oklahoma at #1 Clemson
Saturday, Jan. 2nd at 8:00 pm, #3 Michigan State at #2 Alabama
Saturday, Jan. 16th at 8:00 pm, #2 Alabama vs. #1 Clemson (neutral field)
I'm trying to get all of the action on Saturday's (there'd be push back from TV executives but this is my plan!) but there'd have to be minor tweaking when Christmas and/or New Year's Day fall on Saturday.
Why a 7-team playoff with a play-in game, you ask? Well, for starters I wanted to be different and not go with the typical 6 or 8-team expansion plans. A 7-team playoff feels like a football number (thinking quarterback here) plus it would provide an opportunity for 7-Up to break Dr. Pepper's death grip as college football's preferred advertising soft drink. I'm going to save everyone from the clutches of Larry Culpepper!
But more to the point, I wanted to create a system that rewards the higher ranked teams with byes and home field advantage, plus make it more difficult for the lower seeded teams to win a championship. For example, let's say a 10-2 team (like Stanford this year) made the playoffs as the #4 seed. That's a really good team. Now if they get matched up against an undefeated #1 seed that beat 6 ranked teams during the season but who loses their star quarterback on the first series while losing the semi-final, I don't like that. It was too easy for that #4 seed to be one step from a National Championship and the #1 seed gained very little by being the top team in the playoff. I want my lower seeds to have to earn it more because they've proved it less during the regular season.
My plan protects the integrity of the regular season, adds more intrigue to seeding, and makes it so that if, for example, a 2-loss #7 seed were to win a title they'd have done so three weeks in a row, against the best teams in the country, and on the road--plus win the last game on a neutral field. There'd still be complaints about that team "getting hot" or that they weren't the best but at least that's a gauntlet anyone can be proud to run through for a title.
That'd be a 17-game season if a team ever did that, by the way. Realistically, it'd probably never happen so it's not something I'd allow to nix my plan.
Bowl Game Plan
- 15 Bowl games
- Bowl games are broken up into 3 tiers
- The loser of the playoff play-in game gets put into the bowl lineup
- All ranked teams fill out the bowl slots
- The Group of 5 conference champions get bowl bids if not already in the Top 25
- Remaining bowl slots filled by the committee based on resume
- Current conference bowl tie-ins are used where applicable
Tier 1 Bowl Games- Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, Cotton
Tier 2 Bowl Games- Peach, Citrus, Russell Athletic, Alamo, Outback
Tier 3 Bowl Games- Sun, Independence, Belk, Holiday, Music City
Here is what this setup would look like with this year's results:
Saturday, Dec. 26th at 1:00 pm, Music City Bowl: Memphis vs. Bowling Green
Saturday, Dec. 26th at 5:00 pm, Belk Bowl: Miss State vs. San Diego State
Saturday, Dec. 26th at 9:00 pm, Holiday Bowl: UCLA vs. Arkansas State
Tuesday, Dec. 29th at 5:00 pm, Independence Bowl: Georgia vs. BYU
Tuesday, Dec. 29th at 9:00 pm, Sun Bowl: Washington State vs. Western Kentucky
Wednesday, Dec. 30th at 5:00 pm, Outback Bowl: #20 LSU vs. Wisconsin
Wednesday, Dec. 30th at 9:00 pm, Alamo Bowl: #11 TCU vs. #22 Utah
Thursday, Dec. 31st at 3:00 pm, Russell Athletic Bowl: #17 Baylor vs. #25 USC
Thursday, Dec. 31st at 5:00 pm, Citrus Bowl: #19 Florida vs. #24 Temple
Thursday, Dec. 31st at 7:00 pm, Peach Bowl: #21 Navy vs. #23 Tennessee
Friday, Jan. 1st at 1:00 pm, Orange Bowl: #9 Florida State vs. #18 Houston
Friday, Jan. 1st at 3:00 pm, Sugar Bowl: #16 Oklahoma State vs. #12 Ole Miss
Friday, Jan. 1st at 5:00 pm, Cotton Bowl: #14 Michigan vs. #10 North Carolina
Friday, Jan. 1st at 7:00 pm, Fiesta Bowl: #8 Notre Dame vs. #13 Northwestern
Friday, Jan. 1st at 9:00 pm, Rose Bowl: #7 Ohio State vs. #15 Oregon
Bowl season begins the day after Christmas, skips that NFL Sunday, then picks back up on the following Tuesday leading up to New Year's Day which becomes a March Madness-type of frenzied day with the Tier 1 bowls finishing every couple of hours.
That run from late December to early January got me like...
You'll notice I cut out 26 bowl games, or 63.4% of the current bowl lineup. Here's why:
Philosophically, we let this enterprise get out of control (we'll be adding more bowls next year to the current 41 by the way) and it's rather dumb to have 5, 6, and now 7-loss teams participating in bowl games. Watching the bulk of those games in empty stadiums with players going through the motions isn't my idea of a great post-season.
From a television standpoint these bowl games make absolute sense, though. There are some regular season games on television that can get some brutal ratings. Case in point, the Week 7 game between San Jose State and San Diego State on ESPNU received 71,000 viewers. In contrast, during last year's bowl season every game was watched by at least 1 million people. Match the Spartans and Aztecs in the bowl season and the math says you'll get more than ten times the eye balls on your product.
We know why they keep adding bowl games because they are money makers for television. My thought is that with an expanded playoff it'll devalue the bowl games (although 14 bowl games were up in ratings last year) which I'm completely fine with in a vacuum. But in order to throw a bone to the TV executives I'm creating a bigger impact, over a week's time, where we can improve the ratings of 15 bowl games by having most of them in prime time.
More bowl games created 25% (or whatever the number) more money for ESPN but it's crap TV. I'm creating better TV and better viewing periods for college football fans.
How could we ever get to a point where this type of a playoff system can be realistic?
We're adding bowls left and right and no one is going to want to throw away this increased viewership for ESPN on a Wednesday at 1:30 in the afternoon. This is in part why I'm ready to dump the bowls participating in the playoffs. I know some will say, "More football is great!" but these bowls hold the whole system hostage, something that's going to be interesting to watch if or when the playoffs get expanded. I get the sense that ESPN and the bowls smell a future where playoff teams aren't involved in their games so let's jack these things up to 50 games before then to compensate.
Recently, three of the Power 5 conference commissioners spoke at the IMG/Sports Business Journal Intercollegiate Athletics Forum and oh would you look at that...
Bob Bowlsby: "Expanding to 8 is going to change postseason that is unfair to people that have invested 100 of years to bowl tradition"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) December 9, 2015
Surprise, surprise. Other items mentioned by the commissioners as road blocks for the future include the unlikelihood of the playoffs expanding before 2025 when the current contract runs up, the problems fitting the extra games in, removing conference championship games, conflicts with exams, possibly moving major bowl games to before Christmas, the physical toll on the players, and my personal favorite, that they don't want football to be a two-semester sport even though several collegiate sports already are.
In short, basically a lot of the same reasoning that was used in the 2010-2012 time period as to why it was going to be just so difficult to implement a playoff system instead of the BCS. Yet, here we are.
Eventually, the playoffs will expand and the powers-that-be will trot out these same tiresome arguments. When it comes time to pull the trigger this 7-team playoff will be waiting to take over.