F or all the talk about how to structure college football’s postseason, the regular season looms as the bigger issue.
Assuming college football agrees to some kind of four-team playoff, whether it’s the top four teams as the Southeastern Conference and Big 12 desire, or if conference champions are written into the formula as the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC want, they all seem to agree on a season-ending bracket.
One vs. four, two vs. three, winners meet for the championship. That’s the popular choice, and we’ll begin to figure out the where and when along with the how when commissioners meet twice over the next two weeks in Chicago.
The hope is that a postseason model will have taken shape by June 26 when the Presidential Oversight Committee gathers in Washington, D.C.
What won’t be addressed this month is the regular season and its impact on the path to a playoff.
Saturday football from early September through the first week in December is the most fun — and unfair — thing in major sports. As long as there were just a bunch of bowl games to conclude the season, and a BCS standing clouded in skepticism, the ambiguity and debates were part of the sport.
But a bracket changes things. A bracket suggests a system of equal access and fairness, and that’s not what regular-season college football is about.
Not when teams get to directly choose one-quarter to one-third of its opponents. The rest of the schedule is determined by a conference office, but the number of league games played is based on the collective wisdom of the schools.
What’s your pleasure: nine (Pac-12, Big 12), eight (SEC, Big Ten, ACC) or seven (Big East)? If South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier had his way, the SEC would be down to counting merely six division games.
Commissioners have been accused in the news media of forwarding their league’s agenda in playoff preferences. The four-best crowd has enjoyed the most recent BCS success, so of course they say top teams regardless of conference placement. West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck called this system, “the American way.”
The conference-champion-qualifier crowd says a first-place finish should be the cover charge. What’s the value of a league race if somebody’s second-place team is deemed more worthy?
But regular-season scheduling is the epitome of self-interest. LSU’s Les Miles not only didn’t want to see Florida on his schedule as a permanent cross-division opponent, but he also didn’t want division rival Mississippi State to have the advantage of playing Kentucky every year.
Oregon finished one spot behind Stanford in last year’s BCS standings despite winning the Pac-12 championship game and beating the Cardinal at Palo Alto. But had a top-four playoff been in place last year, the Ducks would have been penalized for having lost to LSU at Cowboys Stadium in the season opener. Stanford’s toughest nonleague game was a home against Notre Dame.
By its nature, college football is imbalanced. There is no cap on how much a program can spend. If Texas wants to drop $24 million on its football program and Iowa State $12 million, as they did in 2010, great. They still gladly play for the same stakes, and this inequality is accepted.
Talent isn’t dispersed equally. At the moment (and the foreseeable future), the greatest source of football athletes is where the weather is warmest and outdoor activities run longer on the calendar. More than ever, those athletes are remaining in that part of the country.
This isn’t the NFL, where the college quarterback from California is dispersed to Indianapolis and the Texas quarterback relocates to Washington, D.C. In college, coaches talk about building fences around their areas to keep the best players at home.
What makes the NFL playoff bracket work is what a new college system will need: integrity.
Last year, while the college game fussed over the worthiness of LSU’s opponent in the BCS title game — Alabama or Oklahoma State — there was nary a protest when the sixth-seeded New York Giants won the Super Bowl, or when the Denver Broncos at 8-8 make the playoffs as a division champion.
NFL playoff results are accepted because of the belief in fairness of the regular season. Based on many factors, including scheduling, the perception is every team had an equal shot of reaching the postseason.
That simply won’t be the case in a college football playoff, not with some conferences playing nine league games, some eight, some playing a complete conference round-robin, some avoiding the more difficult teams through a scheduling rotation and some playing a conference championship game.
Short of massive realignment to even up the conferences and coordinate scheduling, I don’t believe there’s an adequate solution, or frankly, enough recognition that this is a potential problem.
But if the goal, starting with the playoff after the 2014 season, is to become a football Final Four team, it will be the responsibility of that school to create the path of least resistance. There is no central organizing body, no commissioner of college football, to command otherwise.
And as long as we believe there is something unfair about the process, a college football playoff will generate the same debates about which teams deserve to be there and which ones don’t. Won’t that sound familiar?
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