College football will implement a four-team playoff by 2014. One proposal is to require the four teams to be conference champions. SI’s Stewart Mandel argues this would be a “surefire way” to undermine the playoff. We disagree. We think it would improve both the playoff and the regular season.
Entertainment and profit are reasons enough for a playoff, but the true purpose is to provide a coherent and just finish to the regular season, thereby improving both products. Selecting only conference champions does this.
Mandel criticizes the system that would have played out this year, because the bracket would not have had the four best teams. It would have looked like this.
LSU (1) vs. Wisconsin (10)
Oklahoma State (3) vs. Oregon (5)
Mandel’s criticism was that Wisconsin was the 10th best team. Were they? Had one of their two traumatic minutes gone the other way the Badgers would have been in the conversation with Alabama and Oklahoma State. The BCS formula has no predictive value. We’re not Vegas experts, but setting the odds for a neutral site game in early December, Wisconsin would have been favored or at the very least approximately even against (9) South Carolina, (8) Kansas State, (7) Boise State and (6) Arkansas. It’s hard to say those teams, none of whom won their conference or division, have cause to feel slighted.
The above bracket may not feature the four best teams. However, how the teams arrived there is as important as the bracket itself. This bracket logically extends from the regular season, giving truth to the notion that “every game counts” and the regular season is a de facto playoff. LSU eliminated Alabama (2) and Arkansas (6) by beating them and beating them in the SEC West. They indirectly beat (9) South Carolina who did not win their division. Oklahoma State eliminated Kansas State by beating them and by winning the Big 12. Oregon eliminated Stanford by beating them in the Pac 12 North and winning the Pac 12. Boise State (7) did not win its conference.
The gravest point for contention would have been whether Wisconsin (10) deserved to go ahead of Clemson (15). Few would have made that argument. Using a more conclusive formula than the present BCS edition would eliminate it. Every contender had a chance to reach the playoff under this system and had that chance eliminated on the field. Compare this to what would have happened in 2011 with Mandel’s straight seeding plan.
LSU (1) vs. Stanford (4)
Alabama (2) vs. Oklahoma State (3)
This may be a better bracket. It also renders much of the regular season meaningless. Alabama faced no consequence from losing to LSU, losing its division and losing its conference. Worse, Stanford reaches the playoff ahead of Oregon when the Ducks won the Pac 12 North, won the Pac 12 and beat the Cardinal by three touchdowns in Palo Alto. Stanford would have received the nod solely because they were less ambitious with non-conference scheduling.
Straight seeding four teams does not end the season conclusively. It shoves the present controversies down a level. It would be just as difficult to find a consensus four teams as it has been to find a consensus two teams. You would still have teams eliminated, not by losing but by being voted out. Using just conference champions does what the conferences should want: It adds tension to marquee conference games and it makes the title game a vital playoff elimination. It does what fans should want: reduce the incentive to schedule four rubber stamp non-conference games.
Selecting only conference champions enhances the regular season, ends almost every point for contention and provides as concrete of an ending as possible in a four team format. Straight-seeding provides a better bracket. Selecting only conference champions provides a better college football season.
[Photo via Getty]