The Monday after the BCS championship participants are selected is officially Hate The BCS And Proclaim College Football Broken day across the country. It is a tradition almost as storied as Homecoming itself at this point. This year, we are outraged that Alabama would be selected over Oklahoma State (nobody is outraged about Stanford, it appears), but really, the teams don't matter. No matter what, Random No. 3 team clearly should have an opportunity to play for the national title, and Random No. 2 clearly is no better. Some years, if we're lucky, No. 4 or No. 5 also have decent claims to a bid. And if Random No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 have football fans for congressmen, the fun is only beginning.
(I have a long-standing theory that your progressive/conservative nature when it comes to politics is the direct inverse of your views on fairness in college football, but that's another column for another time.)
So basically, the system is broken, it's all unfair, it's all stupid ... and we're still going to watch the national title game. But lo, there is hope on the horizon. The BCS' current contract expires after the 2013 season, and decision-makers have already been discussing potential changes. I am about 99 percent positive we will be getting a Plus One model with the new deal, which would obviously be a hefty step forward. But is that the most fair method for determining a champion?
Before we go further, however, we have to define fairness as it pertains to college football. Is fairness "Give everybody a shot at the title"? Because if so, the 16- or 20-team playoff model below is the only logical solution. Does fairness include giving teams with the best regular seasons a significant advantage? Because maybe, then, something between a Plus One or the old model would be fine. LSU has already proven a ton this season, so one could almost make the case that forcing them to win another three to four games to claim the title would be a bit unfair. Does fairness include giving extra benefits to conference champions? Giving advantages to teams with better records (to hell with what computers might say)? Giving advantages to teams that won head-to-head matchups?
In just about every other sport, teams play enough games to more fully establish a general hierarchy. But we are dealing with just 12-13 games in college football. Should we buck history and decide that fairness includes handing out as many seats as possible to the title race, since we can't learn much of anything in 12 games? Is that fair?
Below, I'm going to present 10 options for determining a national champion. In the poll below, I want you to vote for the method you consider most fair. Feel free to explain why in comments. Instead of simply deciding "the system's broken" and announcing that a playoff would cure all ills, it's time to add a little more detail to the equation.
Method No. 1: The BCS
The Method: This is a two-team playoff of sorts, in which two participants are chosen for a national title game by a mix of human pollsters and computer rankings after all regular season and conference championship games are played.
This Year: No. 1 LSU vs No. 2 Alabama.
Pro: To an extent, this maintains what was originally the goal of determining college football national champions, namely that the "best team of the entire season" wins the title. Plus, it assures us of at least one extra No. 1 vs No. 2 matchup per year. Being that this is the first rematch in 14 BCS seasons, it usually produces a matchup of teams from different backgrounds and conferences, which improves inter-connectivity.
Con: As we've seen, there are quite often more than two teams that can claim to be deserving of the title. In 2010, three teams finished undefeated. In 2009, four did. In 2008, seven major conference teams finished with one loss, and two mid-majors finished undefeated. Et cetera. My line has long been that the BCS' problem isn't who it selects to play for the title -- it's that it can only pick two teams.
Method No. 2: An Amended BCS
The Method: This adds two qualifiers to the current system: you must win your conference, and if the No. 2 team lost to the No. 1 team, the No. 3 team earns the opportunity to play for the title (and on and on until a non-rematch is found).
This Year: No. 1 LSU vs No. 3 Oklahoma State
Pro: This addresses the current outraged lines of choice: "Alabama already lost to LSU!" and "Alabama didn't even win their conference/division!"
Con: This still only selects two teams. Plus, in the case of this year, human voters and some computers determined that Alabama was a better, more deserving team than Oklahoma State, but Oklahoma State gets the nod simply because they didn't have to play LSU in the regular season and Alabama did. Everybody is currently outraged about Oklahoma State getting denied a shot, but the outrage would only be about one decibel lower if Oklahoma State got picked instead. We are angry because of the system, really, not particularly because of the teams themselves.
Method No. 3: The Old Way
The Method: Automatic bids go to some conference champions (SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten), and most other top bowls are left to fend for themselves. The AP names a champion after all games are played.
This Year (using AP poll):
Sugar Bowl: No. 1 LSU vs No. 11 Kansas State
Rose Bowl: No. 6 Oregon vs No. 9 Wisconsin
Fiesta Bowl: No. 3 Oklahoma State vs No. 4 Stanford
Orange Bowl: No. 2 Alabama vs No. 13 Michigan
Pro: I don't know ... LSU gets an easier game after facing a brutal regular season schedule? This season, that could almost be considered fair since one team so clearly stood out above the rest.
Con: In most seasons, it's a mess. As we witnessed over decades, this system invites controversy and co-champions with a much higher rate than the BCS. Depending on the conference affiliation, a No. 1 team might not have to play a top-ranked team in its bowl, and the only way a No. 2 team (which, in many years, might be just as deserving as No. 1) might have a shot at the title is if No. 1 loses to somebody else.
Method No. 4: The REALLY Old Way
The Method: A national champion is named after the regular season is completed. Bowls are exhibitions with no impact on the final polls.
This Year: Congratulations, LSU, on your national championship!
Pro: If there is a single team that clearly distinguished itself in the regular season (like LSU in 2010), then they aren't forced to win one more game to take the crystal football.
Con: Most years, there is not a single team that has clearly distinguished itself.
Method No. 5: Plus-One Model A
The Method: Using a method not unlike the current BCS equations, the top four teams are selected for two national semifinal games. The winners play in the BCS championship. Again, I fully expect this model to be adopted in two years.
No. 1 LSU vs No. 4 Stanford
No. 2 Alabama vs No. 3 Oklahoma State.
Pro: More teams get a shot at the title, but there is still a rather elite overall cutoff. Most years, only undefeated and one-loss teams would get a spot in the Top Four, meaning the regular season would still carry quite a bit of weight.
Con: This still doesn't offer teams from every conference an equal shot at the title (meaning the Orrin Hatch's of the world would still find reason to complain and meddle). Plus, let's face it: the "No. 3 team got screwed!!" outrage would not in any way be tamped down, as most years, No. 5 would be every bit as deserving of a shot as No. 4. (Just think about how worked up we get about Team No. 69 not getting a shot in basketball.)
This year, actually, proves that. No. 4 Stanford would likely get into the playoff (unless there is some sort of conference title requirement), while No. 5 Oregon, which beat Stanford and won the Pac-12 over the Cardinal, would be denied. People would complain exactly as much as they do now.
Method No. 6: Plus-One Model B
The Method: The current bowls are maintained with their automatic bids and allocations (sans the BCS national championship game), and after all bowls are played, the top two teams (according to, presumably, the BCS rankings) would play in the title game.
This Year (using BCS rankings):
Sugar: No. 1 LSU vs No. 4 Stanford
Fiesta: No. 3 Oklahoma State vs No. 2 Alabama
Rose: No. 5 Oregon vs No. 10 Wisconsin
Orange: No. 15 Clemson vs No. 23 West Virginia
Pro: This allows for the further maintenance of conference-affiliated bowl games (which assures buy-in from big bowls like the Rose) and technically allows for more than four teams to have a shot at the title if things play out just right.
Con: Among other things, it is messier. Model A is clean and easy to understand.
Method No. 7: Eight-Team Playoff
The Method: Eight playoff participants are determined based on some combination of conference championships, rankings requirements (meaning, conference champions get an automatic bid as long as they are ranked __ or higher) and at-large bids. For this exercise, we will say that conference champions ranked in the BCS Top 12 get bids, and the other participants are selected based on BCS rankings. Presumably, the first round would take place on the higher-ranked team's home field, and the semifinals and finals would take place in BCS bowls. (Also: no limitations on the number of teams from a given conference.)
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 1 LSU
No. 5 Oregon at No. 4 Stanford
No. 6 Arkansas at No. 3 Oklahoma State
No. 7 Boise State at No. 2 Alabama
Pro: This allows for more seats at the table, and it allows us to continue to value conference championships to a certain degree.
Con: This begins to open the door for a three-loss champion at some point; plus, the selection criteria would get messy. Conference champions get a bid, except for when they don't. Also: BOISE STATE GOT SELECTED INSTEAD OF KANSAS STATE OR SOUTH CAROLINA? RAGE!! AND WHY SHOULD WISCONSIN GET IN JUST BECAUSE THEY WON A WEAKER CONFERENCE? (Or to put it another way, we would still figure out a way to get angry about who was selected.
Method No. 8: Ten-Team Playoff
The Method: Matt Hinton's proposal.
Automatic bids go to:
— The champion of each of the "Big Six" conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC
— regardless of ranking. (NOTE: The existing, meritocratic BCS formula for selecting which conferences earn this distinction will remain in effect, leaving the door open to the Mountain West, WAC, Conference USA, etc., to earn "Big Six" status, and keeping, say, the ACC and Big East from becoming entrenched if they fail to perform on the field.)
— The top four at-large teams in the final BCS standings (limit one at-large bid per conference).
This Year (to my best understanding):
No. 7 Boise State at No. 23 West Virginia
No. 8 Kansas State at No. 15 Clemson
Boise State/West Virginia at No. 1 LSU
No. 4 Stanford at No. 5 Oregon
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 3 Oklahoma State
Kansas State/Clemson at No. 2 Alabama
Pro: It is a nice mix of politically acceptable and still somewhat elite. Major conference titles still matter, but other schools still get a seat at the table.
Con: It is messy and would open the door for Unfrozen Caveman Analyst ("I'm just a simple man in this complex world. I do not understand why the No. 7 team is playing at No. 23 while No. 9 South Carolina sits at home.") to take over our television screen for weeks at a time. (Any resemblance between Unfrozen Caveman Analyst and Lou Holtz is completely coincidental. As far as you know.)
Method No. 9: Sixteen-Team Playoff
The Method: My proposal. All 11 conference champions get a bid to the tournament, along with the top five at-large teams according to BCS-like rankings.
Louisiana Tech at No. 1 LSU
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 8 Kansas State
No. 21 Southern Miss at No. 5 Oregon
No. 23 West Virginia at No. 4 Stanford
No. 18 TCU at No. 6 Arkansas
Arkansas State at No. 3 Oklahoma State
No. 15 Clemson at No. 7 Boise State
Northern Illinois at No. 2 Alabama
Pro: Everybody (aside from independents like Army and Navy) begin the season with a shot at a national title. That alone is very refreshing, no? Plus, this is a rather clean structure that people would understand very quickly. And if implemented as I drew it up at Football Outsiders a couple of years ago, it would allow the bowl structure to continue to function, meaning teams who don't get a spot in the bracket still get rewarded for good (or average) seasons with bowls.
Con: In under a decade, a three-loss team would win the title. Maybe not everyone sees that as a bad thing, but it would represent a major break from college football tradition that the "best team of the entire season" (or one of them) didn't win the title. And while this system might encourage better non-conference games (since you are still guaranteed a spot at the table if you win your conference), it would also lead to a lot of very poorly-attended non-conference games, since why go if it doesn't matter for anything?
Method No. 10: Twenty-Team Playoff
The Method: Why stop at 16? Just set up the current FCS monster, a 20-team bracket using the same criteria as the 16-team bracket.
Louisiana Tech at No. 13 Michigan
No. 23 West Virginia at No. 21 Southern Miss
Arkansas State at No. 18 TCU
Northern Illinois at No. 15 Clemson
West Virginia/Southern Miss at No. 1 LSU
No. 9 South Carolina at No. 8 Kansas State
No. 12 Baylor at No. 5 Oregon
Louisiana Tech/Michigan at No. 4 Stanford
No. 11 Virginia Tech at No. 6 Arkansas
Northern Illinois/Clemson at No. 3 Oklahoma State
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 7 Boise State
Arkansas State/TCU at No. 2 Alabama
Pro: Everybody still gets a seat at the table; plus, if you believe that 12 games proves very little, then adding spots for teams like No. 13 Michigan and No. 12 Baylor is a good thing, since how do you distinguish between those two and, say, No. 9 South Carolina?
Con: A five-week playoff structure would just about kill the bowls as we know it, meaning 8-4 teams in major conferences would have little to play for (and fans would have less reason to attend). As fun as a playoff like this could be, it would result in a ton of very poorly-attended November (and, potentially, September) games.
So there you go. Now it's your turn to vote and explain which way is the best.