Monday, December 8, 2008

What a College Football Playoff Would Look Like

Those of you who are big college football fans, and have been yearning for a playoff, well, let me kill you with the potential. I've given a lot of thought to what a good playoff system would look like, and after watching the BCS show us all the different ways to do it poorly, I think it could really be done well, and would generate excitement to make that of March Madness pale in comparison.

My approach is based in the essentials of competition. Each competitor should have exactly the same chance, in principle, to win the championship. Opinions should hold as little sway as possible. Rules should be as objective as they can be, and of course, known in advance.

With over 100 Division I teams, and at least 11 major conferences, having a playoff with 8 or fewer teams is unworkable if we are to remain within our stated constraints. There just are not enough slots. 16 teams is the ideal number. That would take four weeks, and compared to participation in the bowls, would add three games to the schedule of only two teams (the finalists), two games to the two losing semifinalists, and a single game to the four losing quarter finalists. With the parity in college football, the notion of students missing a lot of time because of the playoff is tough to argue.

So on to it. Start with conference champions. There are too many conferences to let in all of them, but there should also be no favoritism in cutting down the numbers. No conference champion should get in merely on conference reputation or political pull. Since we are all about settling this on the field, make it about what the conferences did on the field. So, as in the case this year with the Mountain West and the PAC-10, the Pac-10 might have the reputation, but it was the Mountain West that did it on the field. So the MW champ goes, whereas the PAC-10 champ will have to find another way in. Send the champions of the conferences with overall winning records against all other Division I opponents. Never mind their records. For too long teams from the power conferences like the SEC and Big-12 have seen themselves overlooked because they beat each other, while lesser teams in even lesser conferences were given top ranking. So, here are the Conference Champions making the playoff:

Big 12: Oklahoma
Big 10: Penn State
Big East: Cincinnati
ACC: Virginia Tech
Mountain West: Utah
SEC: Florida

After the winning conference champions, it's time to rectify the other major problem with past seasons: the undefeated team that is left out. No more should we have an undefeated Auburn or Tulane excluded. It doesn't matter if we think they will win it. The point is letting the competition happen, and no one has more claim to a shot at the title than those who've defeated all comers. So welcome the undefeated to the dance:

Boise State (12-0)

Now comes the tough part. There isn't much else that can be done from a performance-on-the-field perspective that makes much sense, so we'll fall back on the other two techniques we've relied on: polls and computers*. Alternate down the polls and computer ratings to fill out the entries. Computers are ideal for this job per our criteria. Too many people point to imperfections in computer ratings as reasons not to use them, but they focus on the wrong issue. No selection system is going to be without flaws. But the one thing we know about computers: they are completely fair and objective. Texas and Texas Southern have equal chances of winning in the computers estimation. As for the polls, as much as I hate them, there is still some value to human judgement over these other methods. If there is a team that for some reason has captured the imagination and excitement of the voters while garnering no objective arguments, let 'em in. It'll be fun to watch them get crushed. With all that in tow, here are the remaining playoff teams as chosen by the polls and the computers:

Poll: Texas (12-1)
Computer: Texas Tech (11-1)
Poll: Alabama (12-1)
Computer: USC (11-1)
Poll: Ohio State (10-2)
Computer: TCU (10-2)
Poll: Oklahoma State (9-3)
Computer: Georgia Tech (9-3)
Poll: Oregon (9-3)

Now we use the BCS standings to seed the teams, and slide the seed of teams from the same conference as necessary to keep them as separated as possible. They've already had their conference battles, let's see some new match ups in the playoffs. If conference foes meet in the playoffs, it should be in the finals. Finally, the final four teams should be receded. It is just one more way of placing value on the regular season, and lessons the possibility of a random chance tilting the playing field. So here are the brackets:

1 Oklahoma vs 19 Virginia Tech
8 Penn State vs 9 Boise State

4 Alabama vs 13 Oklahoma State
5 USC vs 11 TCU

2 Florida vs 17 Oregon
7 Texas Tech vs 10 Ohio State

3 Texas vs 14 Georgia Tech
6 Utah vs 12 Cincinnati

So who can complain? #15 Georgia, #16 BYU, and #18 Michigan State, but not about much. As for the rest of us, we'd get to enjoy a month of the best college football has to offer, and a championship decided on the field, as it should be. Let's hope President-elect Obama, after he's dealt with the sadly numerous serious problems facing the country, can finally get us the college football playoff we deserve.


*The computer ratings currently used in the BCS rankings are required to not make use of scores, and are based entirely on wins and losses. Not only is this absurd, since margin of victory is a reasonable proxy for relative skill, but the polls most certainly will give a team that wins by 40 more credit than a team that wins by three. However, the most sinister effect of the no-score policy is to effectively block teams from weak conferences from the possibility of playing in the title game, since their only hope of obtaining a high computer ranking is to beat their opponents by wide margins. Utah or Boise State could have won all their games 100-0 and would still not be rated any higher than the 5th and 8th rankings they obtained. This inherent injustice in the system desperately needs to be changed.

1 comment:

Harriet said...

Note that the Poinsettia Bowl matches Boise State vs. TCU; though I am a fan of neither team I am very much looking forward to that game!

I might have ditched Oregon for 12-1 Ball State (whom I've seen play several times) but otherwise I agree with your field.