Each year, the BCS Armageddon Watch follows a pretty strict timeline.
In mid-October, when there are somewhere between about eight and 15 undefeated teams remaining, everybody projects the most fantastical, least-likely, every-conference-ends-up-with-an-undefeated-team scenario. "THIS will be the year everybody gets screwed and the BCS blows up!"
In mid-November, once a supposedly great team has lost a game or two (preferably to other great teams), everybody mourns the fact that they are probably ineligible for the title despite the fact that they are clearly great. By late-November, we have poked every hole we can find in the "The current system is great because every game matters" truism. In early-December, every person with an Internet connection has shared their idea of the perfect playoff, gives examples, and tells you why their way is clearly better than the current system.
What will happen if, one of these years, playoff proponents actually get their way?
For all intents and purposes, we have been talking about a college football playoff for decades. In War As They Knew It, Michael Rosenberg talks about how demands for a playoff were building in 1977, and the idea was not, by any means, new then.
Fourth-ranked Michigan was headed to Pasadena to play No. 13 Washington. If the Wolverines won, they had a chance at the national title … as long as No. 9 Ohio State beat No. 3 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and No. 5 Notre Dame beat No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, and No. 6 Arkansas beat No. 2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
This was how college football had operated for years -- there was no system for producing a clear national champion. But the clamor for a playoff was increasing. The Football News told fans that if they wanted a playoff, they should write to the three most powerful men in college football: Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA; Roone Arledge, the president of ABC sports; and [Michigan athletic director] Don Canham.
Canham was not interested in a playoff. He didn't want to extend the season, and he thought the automatic Rose Bowl bid gave the Big Ten a huge advantage over other conferences. But the Football News was right: if Canhan had wanted a playoff, he was one of the few men who could help create one.
The BCS may be Public Enemy No. 1 (we blame "the BCS" for everything from the lack of a college football playoff, to academic scandals, to the lack of good food in dining halls, to awful gameday traffic, I believe), but it isn't like the BCS is actually the reason there is no college football playoff. The reason there is no playoff is that the most powerful people in the sport have never wanted one, for one reason or another.
I have plenty of issues with the BCS process and formulas. I loathe the way we have neutered the computer rankings. Not only is margin of victory -- which is, whether we like it or not, one of the best predictors we have if we are only using points scored and allowed to determine strength -- no longer allowed to be part of the equation, but one of the formulas used is designed, basically, to emulate AP voting. We have tweaked the computer portion of the formula so that it reflects what humans want to see, and that is both absurd and a waste of time. But it was a sign of progress to use computer rankings at all, and I realize that.
And if anything, the BCS truly has actually improved life ever so slightly. At the very least, we are now guaranteed a two-team playoff of sorts, and a surefire No. 1 vs No. 2 matchup at the end of the season now. Until the 1990s, we didn't even have that. College Football: Taking One Step Forward Every Two To Three Decades Since 1869.
To be sure, a playoff has support from a few more of college football's power hitters these days. Not enough support, mind you. But it exists. SEC commissioner Mike Slive, arguably the most powerful of the power hitters, has long expressed a modicum of support for a plus-one model. Meanwhile, ESPN long ago authorized their college football commentators to feel free to passive-aggressively talk about how a playoff would solve all of the world's ills. If ESPN and Slive are behind an idea, you have to think the odds of its eventual success are high, no?
So what will happen if or, more appropriately, when playoff proponents actually get their way? How will a playoff take shape? What will it look like?
The initial answer is easy: it will almost certainly be a Plus-One. A Plus-One playoff will simply take one of two approaches:
1) Use BCS-like formulas to create two national semi-final matchups, with the winners playing in the BCS championship game. Here's how that would have looked in recent history:
2007: No. 1 Ohio State (11-1) vs No. 4 Oklahoma (11-2); No. 2 LSU (11-2) vs No. 3 Virginia Tech (11-2)
2008: No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1) vs No. 4 Alabama (12-1); No. 2 Florida (12-1) vs No. 3 Texas (11-1)
2009: No. 1 Alabama (13-0) vs No. 4 TCU (12-0); No. 2 Texas (13-0) vs No. 3 Cincinnati (12-0)
2010: No. 1 Auburn (13-0) vs No. 4 Stanford (11-1); No. 2 Oregon (12-0) vs No. 3 TCU (12-0)
2011 (to date): No. 1 LSU (9-0) vs No. 4 Stanford (9-0); No. 2 Oklahoma State (9-0) vs No. 3 Alabama (8-1)
2) Continue BCS standings after the bowl games have been completed, then select the top two teams to play one extra "championship" game. This would have meant something more like, perhaps, LSU versus Georgia or USC in 2007, and Florida versus Utah (or Texas, or Oklahoma) in 2008, etc.
Depending on the method chosen, of course, Boise State may still have never received a national title shot. Nor, perhaps, would Utah in 2008. The Orrin Hatch types -- the people of influence who care deeply about injustice when their school is involved (and less so when it's not) -- would have shouted no less vociferously if a plus-one were instituted, and the demand for an extended playoff would have begun before even the first Plus-One game was played. "Who's No. 5?" outrage would be just as strong as our current "Who's No. 3?" debates (and justifiably so, since in most seasons the difference between No. 3 and No. 5 is almost non-existent). While a Plus-One would suffice for keeping as much of the regular season meaningful as possible, and it would certainly give another couple of (potentially) deserving teams a shot at the crown, it would not quiet outcry more than about two decibels.
At college football's current rate of progress, a Plus One might be all we get for quite a while, whether it satisfies people or not. However, just because of the potential money involved, eventual expansion would be inevitable. This both excites and terrifies me. It would be nice because an expanded playoff could potentially both make conference titles a viable commodity again and offer everybody a seat at the table. I wrote a couple of years ago about my "Perfect Playoff" idea -- 16 teams including all conference champions and five at-large bids; first and second rounds at home stadium of higher-seeded team; first- and second-round losers cycle back into the bowl pool -- and I stand by it. My own personal preference is that, if we were to ever expand beyond four teams, then we should offer a spot to every conference champion.
(And if you wanted to assign a minimum rankings requirement like MWC commissioner Craig Thompson's recent proposal, that's fine too, though I prefer the all-inclusive iteration. I'm a sucker for the underdog tales.)
The problem, of course, is that expansion never stops once it begins. The NCAA basketball tournament has now expanded to 68 teams, and it seems a given that expansion will continue, perhaps to the 96 teams rumored a couple of years ago. The FCS playoffs recently expanded from 16 teams to 20. At some point, playoff opponents' cries that a playoff would reduce the importance of the regular season would become true; non-conference matchups, while occasionally entertaining, would mean next to nothing, and attendance might quite possibly lag. We would sacrifice September and October excitement for the hopes of January fireworks. And with things progressing as slowly as they ultimately would, maybe this wouldn't seem like a big deal by the time it happened. But it feels like it would be a significant change in current culture and mindset.
(Other options exist, of course, beyond the simple 4-, 8-, 12-, 16- or 20-team models. Matt Hinton has proposed an interesting 10-team layout, and others have established rules that would allow for a different number of teams to qualify in different years. These, too, are feasible -- more the ten-teamer than the flexible playoff that would probably confuse people more than it is worth -- and if we can go years with an awkward 65-team model in basketball, then anything is possible.)
As a whole, I am easy to please. I honestly don't hate the current system; I've often said our hatred of "the BCS" as all that is evil in college sports is misdirected since we really just hate it because it cannot figure out how to fit three teams on the field at the same time. Our current system of, basically, a two-team playoff suffices in some years, and a four-team Plus-One system would suffice in most. I roll my eyes at a lot of pro-playoff arguments because they either miss the point, because they want to force college football to be like college basketball (there's no inherent harm in being different), or simply because playoff proponents are quite often as rooted in self-interest as supporters of the current system.
That said, I am not of strong principle in this battle. I would completely and totally throw myself into an 8-, 10- or (obviously) 16-team playoff, and while I would wring my hands over the thought of something beyond 16 teams, I would dutifully throw myself into that too, eventually. I do think, however, that a playoff is coming, and as with a lot of the conference realignment drama, once it seems inevitable, I just want it to go ahead and happen so we can all move on with our lives. If I am not lying to myself, then I admit that virtually all of the following scenarios excite me.
2011 Two-Team Playoff: No. 1 LSU vs No. 2 Oklahoma State
2011 Four-Team Playoff: No. 1 LSU vs No. 4 Stanford; No. 2 Oklahoma State vs No. 3 Alabama
2011 Four-Team Playoff With Conference Title Requirement: No. 1 LSU vs No. 5 Boise State; No. 2 Oklahoma State vs No. 4 Stanford
2011 Six-Team Playoff: No. 1 LSU vs No. 4 Stanford/No. 5 Boise State; No. 2 Oklahoma State vs No. 3 Alabama/No. 6 Oklahoma
2011 Eight-Team Playoff: No. 1 LSU vs No. 8 Arkansas; No. 4 Stanford vs No. 5 Boise State; No. 3 Alabama vs No. 6 Oklahoma; No. 2 Oklahoma State vs No. 7 Oregon
2011 "Hinton Special" Ten-Team Playoff: No. 1 LSU (SEC champion) vs No. 6 Oklahoma (at-large)/No. 7 Oregon (at-large); No. 4 Stanford (Pac-12 champion) vs No. 9 Clemson (ACC champion); No. 3 Alabama (at-large) vs No. 12 Penn State (Big Ten); No. 2 Oklahoma State (Big 12 champion) vs No. 5 Boise State (at-large)/No. 23 Cincinnati (Big East champion).
2011 16-Team "Perfect Playoff": No. 16 Nevada (WAC) at No. 1 LSU (SEC); No. 9 Clemson (ACC) at No. 8 Arkansas (at-large); No. 12 Penn State (Big Ten) at No. 5 Boise State (MWC); No. 23 Cincinnati (Big East) at No. 4 Stanford (Pac-12); No. 11 Houston (CUSA) at No. 6 Oklahoma (at-large); Northern Illinois (MAC) at No. 3 Alabama (at-large); No. 10 Virginia Tech (at-large) at No. 7 Oregon (at-large); Arkansas State (Sun Belt) at No. 2 Oklahoma State (Big 12).
And the first time an Arkansas State takes out an Oklahoma State, then we forget whatever reservations we may have had.