The scenario everyone foresaw is here.
The NCAA was thoroughly warned and yet here we are anyway. The problem with setting up a four-team playoff and keeping the conference championship games is the likelihood that either the blowout loser of a championship game will have locked up an invitation before the game started or a team will deserve an invitation despite not even reaching its conference championship. Add in the danger of having a top-heavy conference warrant two or possibly even three invitations and you’re guaranteed to make everyone angry more sooner than later.
The NCAA was lucky, frankly, not to have fallen deeply into either trap in the first two seasons under the new system.
The problem is very simple. Four teams out of 128 in football is too few. We don’t need 64 or 68 in the playoffs, like basketball, where everyone accepts that going undefeated is a once-in-a-generation thing and the tournament itself is an important spectacle. With only 12 games in the regular season, there just isn’t enough time to separate four elite teams from the rest of a fairly deserving crowd.
This four-team event is a compromise – and one that not only preserves the flaws in the system; it emphasizes them.
I think we’re long past the point where anyone has any illusion that major college football players on scholarship are students. The difference between a maximum of 16 games (12 plus the potential Hawai’i clause plus a conference championship plus two playoff games) and a maximum of 18 games doesn’t seem like that much, especially when you consider you can begin a playoff before Christmas.
An 11-team playoff seems ideal to me. The five major conference champions receive byes. That’s the bonus for winning a major conference and it gives those games renewed importance. If Florida upsets Alabama, Florida deserves the bye and Alabama still gets in. And six at-larges play each other in the first round. Add in a rule that an undefeated (and only an undefeated, because the schedule differences are enormous) Group of Five school may receive consideration for an at-large invitation and the committee can come up with a compelling tournament.
1. Alabama versus (8. Florida State versus 9. Wisconsin)
2. Clemson versus (7. Michigan versus 10. USC)
3. Penn State versus (6. Ohio State versus 11. Colorado)
4. Washington versus 5. Oklahoma
You still have legitimate beefs from WMU and from the SEC, which suffered from having one world-beating team and a tremendous amount of not-quite-great evenly-matched talent knocking each other around. But it’s quite a compelling tournament. I’d keep the Broncos out because of that schedule. I can’t imagine them finishing without at least three losses in a major conference.
I’m sure there are bowl purists around who wouldn’t appreciate the further evisceration of the unique characteristics of a Rose is a Rose is a Rose or an Orange and a Sugar and a Cotton are cool, too. Even though these are usually more a “thanks for being good, but not great” reward than anything else these days. I felt that way myself around the turn of the millennium. Now, I can’t for the life of me remember who gets what assignment and why. Just that there are semifinals and finals and a bunch of other games. The later you play the better your team, except that there’s seemingly always a MAC team playing on a Tuesday somewhere.
However… we’re still dealing with a four-team playoff. So here’s how I see it:
First, my accumulated accomplishment per game metric:
1. Alabama 71.7
2. Ohio State 69.0
3. Clemson 67.9
4. Penn State 62.5
5. Washington 61.5
6. Colorado 60.6
7. USC 60.3
8. Michigan 58.2
9. Wisconsin 56.9
10. Florida State 56.8
14. Oklahoma 53.4
70. Western Michigan 37.2
Somewhat controversially, I think Alabama (13-0) deserves an invitation.
Somewhat controversially, I don’t think Oklahoma (10-2) even belongs in the conversation. Why? Well, they’ve done everything right. Nine straight wins sweeping the Big 12. Challenging non-conference games (unlike seemingly everyone else in the Big 12). But a really bad year for the conference as a whole, and, well, the Sooners lost their two quality non-conference games.
The Big 12 thinks it can fix this problem with a conference championship game pitting the top two teams in the standings. Reason? Attention at a critical time. But what would have happened this year under such a system? Oklahoma and Oklahoma State would have played last week, each team having sewed up a berth in the championship. So last week’s game would have been dreadfully bland. The starting quarterbacks would have played one series, the playbooks expunged of anything Barry Sanders or Billy Sims wouldn’t recognize.
Of course, that wouldn’t happen every year. But it would be a rematch every year, and that doesn’t give a game a championship feel – especially with no divisions to conquer. It’s a bad idea.
The Big 12 is in a poor position here, I recognize this. They’ve lost four quality schools in recent years. One can argue that’s their own fault for letting Texas get away with too much over the years, but there’s still some depth and some greatness here. Expanding to 12 may be a good idea – especially since getting West Virginia a rival in Cincinnati is valuable and Houston, while not exactly bringing in television revenue, would add significant sports credibility. If not, then better non-conference scheduling has to happen.
Clemson (12-1) won a thriller at Florida State (9-3) in October, and, given Louisville’s late collapse, that ended up being the game of the year in the ACC. Clemson is a deserving champion with a solid win in the ACC championship and a high-quality win at SEC power Auburn in its resume. There simply isn’t any compelling reason not to invite the Tigers.
Based on everything that’s happened since September, USC (9-3) is the best team in the Pac 12. The Trojans even beat both division champions. They played a top-notch schedule. But look at September. An evisceration against Alabama, a really poor effort at Stanford, then a bit of bad luck in a loss at Utah. The quality wins are the wins against Colorado and Washington. This is an at-large resume in a bigger tournament. You just can’t rank USC ahead of Washington (12-1). So what about the Huskies? The win over Colorado (10-3) Saturday solidifies Washington as the only PAC 12 team that deserves attention under the four-team system. So do you take the Huskies over a second Big Ten team? I think it comes down to this non-conference resume: Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State. If your out-of-conference schedule is that weak, you have no room for error, and the loss at home to USC was a convincing loss. Under the circumstances, that takes away the “automatic” from Washington.
First, I’ll deal with the bad luck. Michigan (10-2) has no case. I’ll spare the rant about the officiating at Ohio State. It’s a compelling rant, but in the end, if you want to take the game out of the hands of the guys in stripes, don’t keep turning the ball over. Best defense in the country? Probably. Quality wins over top ten teams? Absolutely. Wins over both division champions? Check. Ok, you’re in the same at-large boat as USC. But third in their division and an absolute stinker of a November performance at Iowa. Out of the conversation.
Wisconsin (10-3) also has no case. Even with a quality non-conference, neutral-site win over LSU to open the season, those three losses to the other three conference candidates are the deal-breakers.
Penn State (11-2) has won nine straight games, including wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Ohio State win was at home and more than a little lucky. The two losses were on the road, both in September and both to quality teams. The loss to Michigan was a blowout. Clemson also lost a close one to Pittsburgh. Is this a top-four resume? Hard to say for certain. But the Nittany Lions played a top-notch schedule (even the win against Temple ended up being a decent achievement) and came out champions of the conference with the most depth at the top.
What about Ohio State (11-1)? Due to tie-breaking procedures, the only one-loss team in the Big Ten didn’t get to play for the championship. There’s the huge non-conference win at Oklahoma. The one loss was due to a freak play at Penn State. On the down side, their wins over Wisconsin and Michigan required overtime. They were a two-point conversion away from losing at Michigan State two weeks ago and were outplayed most of the game last week against Michigan. On results alone, the Buckeyes are in. But can you take a team that didn’t win its division and hasn’t been convincing against a quality opponent in a few weeks?
In the end, we have five candidates for four positions. I think Alabama is an easy #1 and Clemson is an easy #2. The next two spots are tougher. Penn State’s head-to-head edge over Ohio State is mitigated because they played at home and Ohio State dominated most of that game. I don’t like the system in that a team that didn’t play for its conference championship probably shouldn’t be in a four-team tournament, but all three of these remaining teams are flawed. I think Ohio State takes #3 because of strength of schedule. That leaves Penn State and Washington, and I give the edge to Penn State because of its nine-game current winning streak and, again, strength of schedule. But I wish there was room for more teams.