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A Feasible Playoff Plan

Goal: A Division 1 College Football Playoff Plan that would leave the bowl games intact, yet would provide a satisfying, settled-on-the-field resolution to the season!

Background: Seemingly, a majority of the public, the media, and the players desire a Division 1 college football playoff – some process which would allow teams to settle the question of “Who is #1?” on the field. The principal stumbling block has been that major college football and the bowl structure have been wedded for many decades, and the power structure is reluctant to change this. And this is not necessarily bad – most fans have a fondness for this tradition.

My playoff plan would keep the bowl structure completely intact, yet at the same time would provide for a satisfying resolution to the season. It would give both the BCS power conferences and the non-BCS schools opportunity to prove their worth. Let me lay out the basic plan now, then expand on it where necessary.

Playoff Plan

Who’s in the tournament? 12 teams will be selected. Four will receive a bye – they will be the top 4 ranked conference champions from among the 5 major conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC-10, and SEC). The 5th major conference champion will be guaranteed inclusion, but will not receive a first round bye. Each of the 4 teams with the bye will be placed as a participant in the Big 4 Bowls: Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, and Rose, which now would all be played again on January 1 (unless that day is Sunday).

Teams 5-8 will include the 5th major conference champion, and the top 3 rated teams from among these conferences: Big East, Mountain West, WAC, Conference USA, Sunbelt, and MAC, with no more than one team from any one conference. However, to be included in the field these schools must be rated among the top 16 teams in the country (this cut-off point is negotiable). Likely these teams would be conference champions, but not necessarily. Should there be fewer than 3 such teams from the non-BCS conferences, that would free up additional berths for teams now listed as 9-12.

Teams 9-12 would constitute the “at large” field. They will be the 4 highest ranking teams not yet in the tournament. A negotiable item may be the desire to limit a single conference (BCS or non-BCS) to two participants.

What are the logistics? There are always 13 Saturdays in the months of September, October, and November. Set the last Saturday in November (which is the Saturday after Thanksgiving and will always fall between Nov. 24 and Nov. 30) as the final date on which all Division 1 schools must have completed their seasons, including conference playoff games for those still wishing to play them (at this point the ACC, Big 12, and SEC). With 11-game schedules, this still allows for one or two bye weeks for each team.

After this Saturday, the 12-team field will be selected. (How this may be done will be discussed later.) The top 4 BCS conference champions will be slotted into the traditional New Year’s Bowl games, respecting this tradition as much as possible. (This means that the PAC-10/Big 10 champ, or both, would normally be placed in the Rose Bowl, the Big 12 champ in the Fiesta Bowl, the SEC champ in the Sugar Bowl, and the ACC champ in the Orange Bowl.)

Teams 5-12 would be paired into the four first round games, to be played the first Saturday in December. The determination of the pairings would come from assessing factors such as perceived team strength and geographical location. Logistically, it may be wisest to have the higher rated team in each pairing host the game, but a neutral site may be considered. Each of the 4 winners of these first round games would then fill into the remaining New Year’s Bowl slots.

Here’s a highly attractive feature of this plan: at this point the standard bowl season can take place just as it always has!! Eight teams have been determined for the New Year’s bowls, and all the remaining bowls can make their selections much as they have done in the past. (Losers of the first round tournament games likely will receive other bowl invitations.)

The four winners in the New Year’s bowl games now represent the semifinal field. The semifinals will be played 7-10 days later. Game sites for the semis (as well as for the final) could be the major bowls (on a rotating basis) or other sites that have bid for the games.

The championship game would take place around January 15 -20, depending on the day of the week desired.

Here is how this plan could have worked this year: Teams 1-4 would have been USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, and Virginia Tech. USC would be slated for the Rose, OU the Fiesta, Auburn the Sugar, and Virginia Tech the Orange.

Teams 5-8 would be Michigan, Utah, Louisville, and Boise State. This year there were 3 non-BCS teams that would have met the “entrance” requirement. Again, if there were not 3 such teams, more slots would be available for teams labeled 9-12.

Teams 9-12 (and these numbers do not necessarily reflect how teams will be seeded or paired) would be Texas, California, Georgia, and Iowa/LSU. Here I am opting to give the final spot to Iowa, since two SEC teams are already included. As with every selection process, there will always be someone who feels they were left out unfairly. Personally, I am less concerned with leaving out a team at the #12 slot than I would be in leaving out a team at the #3 slot when only two are named for a single championship game.

Considering strength and regional interest, I would have matched Michigan and Texas, winner meeting USC in the Rose Bowl; Boise St. and California, winner meeting Auburn in the Sugar Bowl; Iowa and Utah, winner meeting OU in the Fiesta Bowl; and Georgia and Louisville, winner meeting Va. Tech in the Orange Bowl. The semifinal pairings would likely be predetermined, based on the seeds of the top 4 teams, so as to give fans more time to plan.

Questions and Answers

Q: How would the 12 teams be selected?

A: A committee would make the determination. I would recommend that they use the AP poll results as their primary tool. (The BCS rankings would have sufficed, too, if the AP were to get back in the mix.) Guidelines for choosing the teams could be pretty clear-cut. For example, for a conference to receive a 3rd berth in the field, it could be required that its 2nd and 3rd teams be the top rated at large teams (or perhaps just not the last at large team chosen according to the rankings).

Q: What about arguments that such a tournament would make the season too long, or interfere unduly with academics?

A: The tournament extends the season by roughly one week for two teams and another week for the two finalists. Starting with games the first week of September and finishing the tournament in mid-January would constitute a 4 ½ month stretch, the same length of time that college basketball takes (mid-November through March).

As for academics, it should be noted that every other division plays a football tournament (and during December, when conflicts with final exams would seem possible), yet no loud outcry seems to be coming from their leadership. Certainly if these schools have found ways to work things out, it could be done as well at the Division 1 level. And academically, January at most institutions doesn’t pose as many problems as does December.

Q: Why not bypass the first round games and just have a committee choose the top 8 teams for the 4 major bowls?

A: This could be done. However, if one seeks to give fair representation to non-BCS schools as well as to perhaps very deserving at large schools (independents, strong runner-ups, or possibly even conference co-champions who lost out due to tie-breaker considerations), it seems that eight teams are often not sufficient.

One could look at going the other direction and making the field 16 teams with 8 (rather than 4) first round games, but personally I like to idea of guaranteeing each major bowl a set home-based team. That may not be possible with a 16-team field should certain results occur.

Yet a third variation would be to grant each of the 5 power conferences a berth into the four New Year’s bowls. If tradition were to be maintained, the Rose Bowl would host the PAC 10 and Big 10 champs. The remaining 3 New Year’s bowl slots would go to the winners of three first round games whose participants would be two guaranteed non-BCS teams and 4 at large teams. Thus only 11 schools would be included overall. This plan would probably be preferred by the power conferences (since all are guaranteed a New Year’s berth). I could live with this variation, but I feel the initial plan presented is the most fair-minded.

Q: Is the varying lengths between games a concern?

A: Not really. The time between playoff rounds is the standard week to 10 days, not at all atypical of the regular season. Of course the one aberration is the 3-4 week time before the New Year’s bowls. Yet we have accepted this time frame as part of our tradition for the bowl games. Some may even find it appealing that the eventual champion must successfully negotiate the two different time intervals.

Q: Would the number of fans who would attend their team’s game(s) drop because they couldn’t manage to attend up to three games?

A: This is a legitimate question, and I’m not certain how the attendance numbers would play out. Fans of a participating team could be encouraged to attend the New Year’s game. After that, my thought would be that were a team to make the semis, a healthy traveling fan base would materialize. (“Build a playoff, and they will come.”) On the flip side, the chance to see in person a national semifinal or final match-up may attract a good number of people who are fans of college football in general.

Q: What are the positives of such a plan?

A: For the purist, the foremost positive is that a playoff allows for a national champion to be determined through head to head competition. Seemingly every college sport at every level, except Division 1 football, has a tournament plan so that its champion can be determined on the field of play. Opponents of a playoff will argue (with some merit in certain years) that a champion is determined on the field of play, namely during the course of the regular season. Yet too often it seems that deserving squads are not given the opportunity to stake their claim. A tournament comprised of the 12 teams described above should allow for a satisfactory resolution.

Of course, I haven’t even mentioned yet what most colleges may find to be the most appealing aspect of this plan. Namely, the $$$$$$!! It seems quite likely that the various networks would find such a college football tournament to be a highly attractive proposition. I won’t try to speculate on exact dollar amounts, but it would seem very plausible that this could be an economic windfall to colleges or specifically to their athletic programs.

Again, with the plan I have proposed, the final 8 teams will have been determined after the first week in December, and then all bowl match-ups can be finalized (many could have been arranged even earlier). This is exactly the time frame currently used for the bowls. So, all bowls can be played just as before! All that’s different is that the four major bowl winners get to then decide who’s #1 on the field. Truly we get to have our cake and eat it, too!

Other questions? Please contact Doug Hartman (asst. math prof. at Midland Lutheran College) --- --- (402) 941-6383