Point: College Football Needs a Playoff
by John Galinksy, special to the Sabre Newsletter
TSL Extra, Issue #9

Editor’s Note: no, the notation that says "special to the Sabre Newsletter" is not a misprint. Our good friends at the Sabre.com were nice enough to let us reprint one of the articles from the last edition of their newsletter here in the TSL Extra. Why would we want to do that? To run a rebuttal, of course. Bruce McKinley’s counterpoint follows this Galinsky article.

Just imagine…

The date: Jan. 14, 2007.

The place: Miami's new BioClone.com Stadium.

The event: The college football national championship game, pitting Nebraska against Virginia (hey, it's a fantasy sequence).

The scene: 100,000 fans at the stadium, millions more watching on UPN, the nation's No. 1 network, which shelled out $4 trillion for the TV rights. Revenue records are expected to be shattered for the game. And why not? Fan interest has been mounting for weeks during the first Division I-A college football playoff. The Cornhuskers and Cavaliers have advanced through three rounds to get this far. Now, finally, after decades of bowls and polls and BCS nonsense, the first true, undisputed national champion will at last be crowned.

Is this the future? Who knows? The appeal is obvious to any fan. In just about every other sport, college and pro, the champion is determined as it should be - on the court or field or rink through a playoff format. College football's champ, meanwhile, is determined in large part by the opinions of sportswriters and coaches, and recently by the formulations of computers. Anyone who loves the BCS, raise your hand. Now leave the room, both of you.

The truth is, the current bowl system is antiquated and, let's face it, boring. While basketball junkies get the passion and drama of March Madness, football fans get nothing comparable to stir their emotions. Instead, they get sorry spectacles -- like, for instance, the Oahu Bowl, with its nearly-empty stadium - and dozens of irrelevant contests. They get only one big game. And only two teams get a shot at the title. (Whether those are the two most deserving teams is a whole other controversy.) This is fun? This is fair? This is the best possible thing for college football and those who love it?

We say no. A thousand times no. College football deserves better. And who better than us to offer the sport what it needs? The assignment from Boardhost was to design a workable playoff proposal that breathes a little more life into a bloated and tedious postseason. So with the help of two experts, former UVa football coach George Welsh and ex-UVa athletic director Terry Holland, who support a playoff but recognize its potential pitfalls, this is what we propose:

  • A 16-team Division I-A football tournament running from early December to mid-January. Why 16? "Anything fewer, you're going to eliminate some deserving teams," Welsh said. "Any more and that's too many games." A group similar to the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee would pick and seed the teams. Holland suggests taking the champs from the big six conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10), plus 10 at-large bids.
  • The first and second rounds would be played at the home stadium of the higher seeds. That would ensure sellouts and cut back on travel costs and missed class time. The road team would not need to arrive at the game site until Thursday or Friday, just like a regular-season game, and it would get a large allotment of tickets to help mitigate the home-field advantage. The games would be played on the second and third weekends in December (perhaps Friday and Saturday doubleheaders in the first round, to get every game on TV). And to make sure the season is not drawn out too long, no team would be allowed to play more than 11 regular-season games. Conference championship games (and preseason so-called classics) would be eliminated and each team would need to complete its regular season by Dec. 1.
  • Following a Christmas Break, the semifinals would be held at a neutral, pre-determined site on the first Friday and Saturday in January. The winners would advance to the championship game, also at a pre-determined site, the Monday before the Super Bowl. Most universities would still be on break, so class time missed would be minimal, especially when compared to other NCAA tournaments. And after weeks of buildup, the excitement surrounding the title game would be enormous. Therefore, so would the TV rights fees and other revenues.

Why might this become reality? Just count the dollars. Cha-ching!

"Some of the proposals I've seen show that we could at least double our income by having a playoff," Welsh said. "A lot of [university] presidents are against it. But if they keep seeing red ink in their athletic budgets, that will help them see the light."

Maybe, maybe not.

Holland says money issues make a playoff unlikely in the near future. The commissioners of the top six conferences like the BCS, he says, because they run the system and are in charge of allocating the money. If the NCAA took over, much of the extra dough likely would be spent on funding the travel costs of small-conference teams playing in the NCAA tournaments of nonrevenue sports. For example, Holland said, sending Davidson to Hawaii for the NCAA volleyball tournament or flying VCU to California for an NCAA baseball regional. After all, that's where a lot of the basketball money goes. For now, the big conferences have control of college football - "and they ain't going to give it up," Holland says.

To Holland, the logic of a playoff format is obvious. "However," he says, "as usual when dealing with athletic folks, logic takes a back seat to egos, money and emotions." By that, he means there are a number of factors that keep college football decision-makers wedded to the current bowl system. Besides the conference commissioners, many coaches like bowls because there is less pressure - half of them can finish the season as winners. Furthermore, as Welsh noted, university administrators often argue against a playoff based on academic concerns.

That is bogus, Holland says: "Football players would have to play 30 years to miss as much class as volleyball [players miss] in one season. Yet we allow 64 volleyball teams to travel to Hawaii and who knows where else at our expense and we can't accept millions of dollars to have football players, who have never missed a class, possibly miss one class for the year." All of which is absurd, he says, but those are the political realities.

Given those obstacles, Holland says the most practical solution is to keep the current system, but add an eight-team playoff after all of the bowl games are completed. Under that format, the two teams in the BCS championship game, plus the winners of the other three BCS bowls, would get automatic bids to the playoff. A committee would then pick three more at-large teams and seed them all, with all three rounds taking place in January.

One benefit of that arrangement, as Holland points out, is that it would make more bowl games relevant, since conceivably the Peach Bowl winner, for example, could get an at-large bid to the playoff. The BCS championship game would be diminished, of course, but the rest of the bowls would be enhanced. More importantly, such a proposal would not involve fighting all of the forces who support the bowls. Trying to eliminate the bowls once the BCS agreement expires in 2006 may prove politically impossible. Adding the playoff on top of the bowls, Holland believes, is "the only thing that might work right now."

Fortunately, our task is to create the best proposal for college football, not the most feasible or likely scenario. And when it comes to a playoff system, there is no useful role for bowl games. The 16 teams would be better off taking part in an NCAA tournament similar to that of any other sport, rather than tying them into corporate-sponsored, week-long extravaganzas. Bowls could continue to exist as a sort of NIT - a nice trip and a reward to winning teams who did not qualify for the NCAA field. Our preference: Blow up the bowls. Who needs 'em?

Holland and Welsh both agree that a 16-team playoff for college football, in Holland's words, "would make very good sense." Welsh says he knows players would love it, especially if some of the extra revenue went toward providing small stipends to the athletes who help generate the money. More important than the economics, however, is the principle of fairness. Is there a more just way to determine a champion than by having a playoff? Would anyone question the validity of a team that survived four rounds of stiff competition to earn the title? "Right now a lot of teams with one loss say they didn't get a chance," Welsh says. With a 16-team playoff, every deserving team (plus a Cinderella or two) would get a shot at the ultimate prize. What is more fair that that?

So forget all of the politics and money and old men. This is college football, played by college kids. Shouldn't it be fun? Shouldn't it be exciting? Shouldn't it be more interesting than, say, the Motor City Bowl? Is that asking too much? Just imagine the upsets, the drama, the hype and hoopla between games of a month-long tournament. Even March Madness might not compare. Surveys consistently show that fans favor a playoff. As long as the integrity of collegiate athletics is unaffected, what's wrong with giving fans what they want? Sure, there are minor drawbacks to a playoff, but those pale in comparison to the overwhelming advantages. So this may be a polite proposal on our part, but college football fans can turn it into a demand: Give us justice! Give us excitement! Give us a playoff!

Either that, or we'll boycott the bowls. (Oh, yeah, we already do.)


Copyright © 2001 Maroon Pride, LLC