Monday, March 31, 2014

Why 4-Team Playoff Is Good Enough

What if last season's college football playoff yielded this quartet of teams vying for the national championship: Florida State, South Carolina, USC and Vanderbilt?

Would you be OK with that?

That's exactly what the basketball Final Four has given us, if we line up the teams according to the official rankings given by the selection committee (for basketball) against the final regular season AP poll (for football).

The parallels are pretty apt, actually. We have a consensus No. 1 (Florida/Florida State), a very good team from a top conference that didn't win its title (Wisconsin/South Carolina), an extremely talented team that underachieved for part of the season (Kentucky/USC) and a middle-of-the-pack team from a power conference (UConn/Vandy).

But unless Florida wins the basketball title as Florida State did in football, would anybody say the NCAA Tournament gave us the best team of the season?

No, it'd have given us the best team in a six-game stretch, a mere 15 percent of the year.
This is why when someone clamors for a full-blown "playoff" for college football, you should climb to the peak of the nearest mountain and yell "stop!"

College Football Playoff will debut next season and give us a four-team playoff. That is going to be good enough. Any more it will significantly reduce the importance of the regular season. A 16-team playoff, as some have proposed, will render it nearly meaningless.

As it is right now, a 16-team playoff will allow 13 percent of all FBS teams to have a shot at the national championship. That's only slightly lower than the 19 percent of Division I teams that gets to play in the 68-team NCAA Tournament.

Why does college football want to emulate that model? Does a team that finished ninth in its conference with a .500 record really deserve to be crowned "national champion" as UConn was in 2011? That would be like allowing Vanderbilt or Texas A&M to win last year's football title if they were to get hot in a playoff.

The thing is, college football's extremely narrow path to the national championship—from the poll era to the BCS and now the CFP—makes for the most meaningful and rigorous regular season. Except for rare cases such as 2003 and 2011, there really is no such thing as a "meaningless regular-season game" for any team with aspirations for the national title.

In American sports, pro or college, there is no regular season that is remotely close to college football's in terms of integrity. There will never be a game where a title contender gets to rest its starters in preparation for a playoff game (OK, those late-season SEC vs. FCS games excluded, but that's a different issue).

Any playoff that's more watered down than the four-team version of the CFP will do irrevocable damage to the regular season. If you want to observe what a meaningless regular-season game looks like for a title contender, just tune to any NCAA basketball game that took place before the show on Selection Sunday.

Does college football want that?


Demosthenes said...

I'd still like to move to eight teams. Although I think it would be fun to see a sixteen-team tournament where every conference champion gets an automatic berth, there are simply too many practical obstacles. But if a four-team tournament works out, I see no reason why it couldn't expand to eight in a decade or so. There are simply too many quality teams in the top conferences, and too much money on the table, to stop at four.

To prevent the games from being watered-down BCS style, by giving automatic berths to major conference champions no matter where they finished -- and to prevent the access argument frequently made by the minor conferences -- you could simply structure qualifying like this:

1) Any conference champion in the committee's top eight at the end of the season gets an automatic berth.
2) If there are any berths remaining, then any other conference champion in the top ten (or twelve) can get a berth, with preference being given to higher-ranking teams.
3) Any berths remaining will go to at-large teams that the committee feels are most deserving, with no limitation on the number of teams from one conference.
4) Teams will then be seeded by final ranking, with allowances made to avoid conference games and/or regular-season rematches before the semifinals.

Had these standards been applied to the BCS standings this year, the top eight teams would have made the playoffs, five as conference champions and three as at-large teams. The matchups would have been:

#1 Florida State - #8 Missouri
#2 Auburn - #7 Ohio State
#3 Alabama - #6 Baylor
#4 Michigan State - #5 Stanford

And for one of the most controversial years in BCS history (2004), the matchups would have drawn from outside the top eight, giving teams like Boise State access to the national championship picture. In fact, seven of the eight participants would have been conference champions. That year, we would have seen:

#1 USC - #10 Louisville
#2 Oklahoma - #9 Boise State
#3 Auburn - #8 Virginia Tech
#4 Texas - #6 Utah

Seems like that would have been a lot of fun to me...

The Guru said...

Let's just say we go with eight, then I still would prefer to give preponderance to conference champs. For example, last year I'd given berths to the big 5 plus the highest group of 5 champs - UCF, who proved they were deserving by walloping Baylor.

I don't think you should ever have three teams from the same conference in the playoff. With only two at-large berths, they should come from different conferences.

Demosthenes said...

You say that UCF proved they were deserving, but what you cite for their worthiness would have happened after a playoff field was selected. By that logic, OU clearly proved they deserved an at-large berth by beating Alabama...but before they did it, most people would have been able to point at three or four teams clearly more deserving.

The problem with giving certain conference champions automatic bids has been illustrated by some of the embarrassing teams that the Big East, in particular, has sent to the BCS in recent years. (The ACC has also been a frequent offender.) What if a conference stinks on ice? For that matter, what if the 5 smaller conferences between them can't produce a credible champion.

Conference champions should absolutely get preferential treatment, but at the end of the day, a playoff should be about seeding the best teams. That's why I say, if a conference champion meets a certain standard, lock their berth down first. Otherwise, find the best teams to fill out the field. If that means we have no at-large teams one year and three the next, so be it. If that means three of the eight teams are from the same conference, so be it.

The Guru said...

Actually, the Big East champs were 9-7 (counting UCF in the last season) in BCS bowls. The one that frequently tanked was the ACC champ.

I am only advocating giving the highest-ranked conference champion from the 'have-nots' an automatic berth, and the history of BCS proves that most of those teams can compete, and win.

And by having this provision it addresses the problem of access. This way you can say that every team in FBS theoretically has a chance.