Another Model Better than the BCS: Tournament of Champions

There have been many, many different models for a college football post-season and, frankly, all of them seem better than the current BCS model. Sure, there are some people who still like the BCS model -- or at least rely on it as 'the best we've got' model of a championship structure -- like Dallas News columnist Tim Cowlishaw, who wrote a piece this week trying to dismantle the playoff concept. Cowlishaw posits, in part:

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A 16-team tournament means the equivalent of four "bowl" games for the title contenders, extra games for others, too. What it means, among other things, is lots of injuries during a very busy December and January.⇥

At a time when the NFL is wrestling with what to do about concussions, a playoff this large is inviting some college teams to play 15, 16, maybe even 17 games in a season.
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The injury angle has some merit, but there is an equally meritorious counterpoint: with a month off between the regular season and bowl games, that's a lot of practice, likely half of which are in pads. Now, the hitting may not be 'game speed,' but many injuries come from little-to-no contact. And, when there is hitting, you're talking about an entire roster -- sometimes more than 100 student-athletes -- getting in on the action. In a regular game, no more than 35 or 40 players see time. So (again, just for the sake of counterpoint) fewer games in that timeframe means more practice, which actually could lead to a greater risk of injury for more participating players. Just sayin'.

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But to the greater point of a playoff: it has to happen at some point, so let's look at the ways it could. There's the plus-one, which looks to be the most likely concession by the BCS to placate a playoff-mad society. Then there's the four-team playoff, which will never work with the current six BCS conference tie-ins, leaving in extra space for at-large or teams, like Florida, teams that did not win their conference. Cowlishaw punches holes in the eight-team playoff by pointing out that the system only allows two at-large teams in, and in a year like this with two at-large teams undefeated, how do you have a playoff without Florida, who lost in a conference championship game that teams like Cincinnati, Ohio State and Oregon didn't have to play?

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Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! had the most detailed and plausible scenario for a playoff, which included a 16-team tournament including all 11 conferences, not just the six BCS teams, with five additional at-large teams. This model is fantastic, and makes fans of the playoff system salivate. But -- you knew there was a but -- if this year's BCS Championship teams made it to the final of this theoretical tournament, they'd each have to play 17 games, which not only is more than a non-playoff team in the NFL, but nearly half a season more than a team in their own conference that doesn't qualify for the postseason.

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So what about this ...

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Rather than conduct a National Championship tournament, why not have a Tournament of Champions. It's more than just semantics, actually. Invite the conference champion from all 11 FBS leagues into a tournament, adding in the FCS National Champion to make a 12-team playoff. Sorry Notre Dame, if you ever want to get into the Tournament of Champions, you'll have to suck it up and join a conference.

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With 12 teams, four would get byes, and those four teams could be determined by a modification of the BCS rankings. Personally, I'd put more weight on overall strength of the conferences; because each team is representing their conference as its champion, the rankings would be weighted toward conference RPI. For example, this playoff system would not include Florida -- they'd play in one of the remaining bowl games (just like they are doing this year, by the way) -- but due to the overall strength of the SEC, thanks in part to the Gators' fantastic season, Alabama would easily earn the top seed, and a first-round bye.

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In theory, this system protects four of the six BCS conferences from playing a first-round game, with the fifth seed playing the FCS Champion. If it were weighted on team success, TCU would have a bye this season, but based on the overall strength of the Big Ten or Pac-10, Ohio State or Oregon would be awarded the bye over the Mountain West Champion.

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As Wetzel's model suggests, this tournament structure would also involve playing games at the home field of the higher-ranked seed. For this system, I'd suggest that the semifinals and finals be played at predetermined neutral sites, like, say, Pasadena, New Orleans, Tempe and Miami, with the Tournament Championship contested a week later at a different neutral site.

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In this model, especially with the early games being played in hostile territory for the higher seeds, the likelihood of a team playing four games is rather slim. Sure a higher seed could make a run, but in most years, the Tournament of Champions will come down to two of the top seeds who received byes, ostensibly capping the number of games any team would play to three.

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And for those complaining that teams like Florida or Iowa wouldn't be in this tournament when the likes of East Carolina and Troy get in, I'll counter with this: it's is a Tournament of Champions. Win your conference and you get in. Besides, since its inception in 1992, the BCS, Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance has never produced a National Champion that didn't win it's conference. So they've gotten something right.

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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