Once college football's powers-that-be agreed to implement a four-team playoff, they should have immediately set about putting one into place for the 2012 season. Instead, we're staring a nightmare scenario in the face.
In June 2012, the rulers of college football caved to public opinion and agreed to implement a four-team college football playoff. A committee would establish which four teams would participate, the semifinals would take place within the current bowl structure, and they might farm out the national title game to the highest bidder. College presidents agreed to the plan.
This was, and will always be, a flawed plan. Using a committee guarantees that the politicking and late-November posturing most of us have come to hate will triple, and the elimination of computer polls ensures an even higher level of subjectivity. But the computer polls, as used by the BCS formulas, stink anyway (prohibiting the use of scoring margin from the proceedings means that we are basically just using one giant, complicated Transitive Property exercise). And if a standalone committee actually pays attention to the job it is tasked to do, then it will probably work out more reliably than the Coaches or Harris polls. It could be a lot worse, in other words. But there is one aspect of the plan we can all bring ourselves to hate with voracity: that it won't be implemented for another two years.
The very moment the playoff plan fell into place, everybody involved should have been figuring out how to make a playoff work for the 2012 college football season. Because while plans moved forward rather quickly after last year's miniature nightmare scenario (an Alabama-LSU rematch seemingly nobody wanted to see), the real nightmare scenario for what amounts to the BCS' two-team playoff -- four viable, interesting, brand-name major programs all finishing undefeated, including Notre Dame -- could still take place. And why would you want to take that risk?
Between December 15 and January 7, there are 35 bowls, including the BCS championship game. They are already scheduled to take place, and any three of them would be more than happy to host either a semifinal or final. Hell, we already have one called the "national championship game" ready to host a battle for the national championship. Go ahead and sell the title game to the highest bidder in the future if you want; but in the present tense, the current bowl structure is almost perfectly designed to serve as an interim solution.
The only downside is that a four-team playoff would eliminate two slots for bowl-eligible teams (since two teams would be playing in two bowls). Somehow, the world will continue to spin. And if you are that worried that another 6-7 UCLA team might not be able to find a place to stay and play in mid-December, then go ahead and approve the Love's Tulsa Bowl or the Barbasol Indianapolis Bowl. I'm pretty sure you have applications on the table. Or hey, say that the semifinal matchups will take place on the home fields of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in mid-December, then put the semifinal losers back into the bowl pool. Voila! You have the same number of bowl teams.
Worried about figuring out how to put a selection committee together on relatively short notice? You've got options. First of all, there are any number of retired coaches who would be more than happy to serve as interim committee members. Fly Bobby Bowden, John Cooper, and Mike Bellotti to Norman to sit in the Midway Market and Deli with Barry Switzer, and I'm pretty sure you would get a tolerable 2012 playoff (and an entertaining show). Or, better yet, don't worry about the committee yet. Use the BCS standings. They were kind of made for this (even if they use an awful poll and neutered computers).
The "We've created a solution that will make people happy(ish), but now we're going to sit back and let the current system run for another couple of years" approach was packed with risk, and as we sit on November's doorstep, the delay could not possibly look any worse. Not only are we looking at the prospect of four undefeated major-conference teams (five including Louisville, but no), but all four are interesting stories, and at the moment, all four both a) have played well enough to claim a seat at the table and b) have viable paths through November.
Alabama has been so dominant that it has almost broken my S&P+ ratings. The Tide's schedule has not been brutal by any stretch, but not only have they still beaten Michigan on a neutral field, Arkansas and Tennessee on the road, and previously undefeated Mississippi State at home, they have won those games by an average of 32 points.
I always say that you can prove something no matter who you are playing (though that is typically the argument I give when supporting Boise State, not Alabama), and Nick Saban's squad couldn't have proven more with the way they have run laps around their 2012 opponents.
Remaining schedule: at LSU, Texas A&M, Western Carolina, Auburn, probable SEC championship versus Georgia (or Florida).
I feel quite confident in saying that this is Chip Kelly's best Oregon squad. The offense is great -- of course it is -- but the defense is probably coordinator Nick Aliotti's fastest, meanest, best unit yet (ignore the garbage time yards and points; they don't matter), and the special teams unit is strong. The Ducks have even shed their "slow start, then surge in the second or third quarter" habits, leading their last three games by scores of 35-7, 43-7 and 56-0 at halftime. Halftime!
To me, Alabama is by far the best team in the country, but Oregon is the only team I would give serious thought to picking over the Tide (before going ahead and picking Bama). Of course, their dominance doesn't matter thanks to the
glorified transitive property BCS computers. It only matters who they've played, and they haven't played the teams Kansas State or Notre Dame have played. So they currently sit in fourth place in the BCS standings.
Remaining schedule: at USC, at California, Stanford, at Oregon State, probable Pac-12 championship versus USC (or UCLA, Arizona State or Arizona).
Exactly how do you propose keeping Kansas State out of the national title game? What more could the Wildcats have proven in the past month? In September, they ended Oklahoma's seemingly ages-long home winning streak versus ranked teams. And in the last two weeks, they have completely and totally emasculated two pretty well-regarded teams. First, they traveled to Morgantown and destroyed West Virginia by 41 points. Then they welcomed Texas Tech (who also pummeled West Virginia) to Manhattan and won by 31.
Despite Bill Snyder's well-earned, conservative reputation, Kansas State is fifth in the country in scoring offense, posting 44.4 points per game. Oh, and they are 13th in scoring defense (despite having faced Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas Tech), allowing just 17.1 points per game. And they've done this all against a schedule tougher than what Alabama and Oregon have faced.
Remaining schedule: Oklahoma State, at TCU, at Baylor, Texas, and NO conference title game.
As an homage to the late, great Beano Cook, I'm sure, Notre Dame decided to actually become a legitimate national title contender this year. The Irish are 8-0 for the first time since 2002 and actually look the part of a contender for the first time since probably 1993. This past weekend, they traveled to Norman and ALSO beat Oklahoma in (what was once known as) one of the toughest venues in college football, physically dominating Oklahoma in the trenches and riding what might be the nation's best defense outside of Tuscaloosa to victory.
Thanks to a weaker-than-expected early slate -- Michigan State and Michigan are both currently unranked, meaning the Irish have only beaten BCS No. 12 Oklahoma and No. 14 Stanford (but still, they have beaten two Top 15 teams, one away from home) -- Notre Dame is also currently on the outside looking in, sitting in third in the BCS standings.
Remaining schedule: Pittsburgh, at Boston College (the school that beat Notre Dame in both 2002 and 1993), Wake Forest, at USC.
Within a couple of months of Texas A&M and Missouri coming aboard, the SEC figured out how to squeeze two awkward, seven-team divisions with all sorts of permanent rivalry games into an eight-game conference structure. It wasn't pretty, and it was a little bit frustrating, but it worked. And it will work again in 2013 while the conference continues to search for the perfect long-term plan. Granted, SEC commissioner Mike Slive is unusually great at his job, but if his league could figure that out, college football's decision-makers could have figured out how to squeeze a national title game into the current structure, especially since the structure barely had to be changed at all. Instead, they are staring a nightmare scenario in the face.
Now, it makes sense to point out that it is October 31. In each of the last two years, the Top 5 teams in the BCS standings were undefeated in the last October poll. In 2009, seven of the top eight had yet to suffer a loss. In 2008, eight teams remained undefeated. November has a way of cleaning up some potential messes. Two of the above four teams, Oregon and Notre Dame, a) employ a redshirt freshman starting quarterback and b) have to play at USC in the next month. USC might not be as good as many expected, but they are good enough to win either or both games. Collin Klein and Kansas State still face one of the three teams that beat them last season (Oklahoma State). This coming weekend, Alabama has to travel to maybe the most hostile stadium in the country (Tiger Stadium) to take on a wounded but dangerous LSU squad, then has to face the Johnny Manziel Show and a strong team in the SEC title game.
For all of the complaining I'm doing right now, after the first weekend in December we might end up with two teams (or even just one) standing ahead of the pack.
The point, however, is that there was no need to take this risk in the first place. If you can agree to implement a playoff, you can figure out how to create an interim process in six months. And no sport could more adequately handle a short-term solution than college football, which already has postseason exhibitions in place, not to mention an (admittedly flawed) formula that has been selecting participants in a two-team playoff for the last 14 seasons.
We have a playoff, but we don't. And instead of dreaming about two fascinating semifinal matchups (right now, we'd be looking at Alabama-Oregon and Kansas State-Notre Dame, which … wow), we're fretting about which two deserving teams will be left out in the cold. Even if November solves this problem, there was no need for this to be a problem in the first place. But I guess college football wouldn't be college football if it didn't shoot itself in the foot in the process of progress.
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