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May 19, 2008

Why I oppose a Playoff in College Football

There are lots of reasons why I'm against a playoff. Scope/Mission Creep is certainly a big one. If you start with 4 or 8 teams, it will eventually become a larger field, and it will devalue the regular season.

The NCAA basketball tournament was an 8 team bracket 30 or so years ago. Today, it has ballooned to 65 teams, and there are many coaches who are pounding on the table demanding that it go to 96 or 128 teams. Scope/Mission Creep is unavoidable.

But that's not my biggest concern.
My issue is related to the NCAA's fundamental inability to develop a system whereby the "Best" eight teams make the playoffs. To architect a playoff system for college football today would require so much compromise, consensus building and caveats to get sign off, avoid Anti-Trust Law Suits from small conferences and to include all the appropriate TV Partners that it would create a dramatically more frustrating system than what we have today.

The Compromises:
To create a playoff of 8 teams, the NCAA presidents would have to agree to certain compromises with each other to get the deal done.
    1. They would give preferential access to non-BCS teams who met certain criteria. This is done today with the BCS Bowls, and it is done entirely to avoid law suits. There is no way a playoff vote passes without a Boise, Hawaii or Utah having access if they crack the Top 8 or 10 in some sort of poll.

    2. They would still give ND preferential access. This is done because the NCAA presidents can't count. They have 119 votes to Notre Dame's 1 vote, but they still cave to ND's demands for no apparent reason other than fear and TV.

    3. The six BCS conference commissioners would NEVER sign off on a deal whereby their conference champ was shut out of an 8 team playoff. There would have to be automatic access for regular season champs.
Everyone likes to point to 2004 and say, "See. We need a playoff because undefeated Auburn didn't get to play for the title." I'd like to point you to 2006 and show a playoff won't work.

The final regular season poll from 2006 was:
    Bowl Champ. Series Poll 2006:
    1. Ohio State (Big 10 Champ)
    2. Florida (SEC Champ)
    3. Michigan
    4. LSU
    5. USC (Pac 10 Champ)
    6. Louisville (Big East Champ)
    7. Wisconsin
    8. Boise State (Top Non-BCS Champ)
    9. Auburn
    10. Oklahoma (Big 12 Champ)
    11. Notre Dame
    12. Arkansas
    13. West Virginia
    14. Wake Forest (ACC Champ)
  • For the sake of argument, let's swap Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
  • Let's also assume that Notre Dame gets a waiver for the playoffs that ensures they make the 8 team bracket if they finish in the Top 10. For TV reasons, this is a VERY likely scenario.
  • Let's also assume that a Top 8 non-BCS conference team gets an automatic bid into the playoffs. This is another likely scenario to avoid lawsuits, and to get the non-BCS conference teams to vote for the tournament.
That means your seeds from the 2006 season would be:
    #1 Seed Ohio State as Big 10 Champ
    #2 Seed UF as SEC Champ
    #3 Seed USC as Pac 10 Champ
    #4 Seed Louisville as Big East Champ
    #5 Seed Oklahoma as Big 12 Champ
    #6 Seed Boise State as top non-BCS team
    #7 Seed Notre Dame by virtue of finishing in Top 10 poll
    #8 Seed Wake Forest as ACC Champ
Look at who doesn't make the playoffs in that scenario. Michigan (#3), LSU (#4) and Wisconsin (#7) are left out of that bracket. That's a better system than what we have now? One that excludes better teams who are fully capable of winning from participating?

In 2004, the at-large teams in a playoff would've been #4 Texas and #6 Utah. Cal (#5) and UGA (#7) would've been left out of the bracket in favor of #21 Pittsburgh and #13 Michigan (conference champs of their respective leagues). In 2005, #5 Oregon would've been shut out of the playoff system in favor of #22 FSU. And, there are other examples of a #6 or #7 team being shut out of the system for a team ranked sub-10 team.

Is that really more "fair" and less "frustrating" than our current system? Is that really "settling it on the field?" Is that the best way to "discover who is the best team?"

I can't see how.

If you were building a system from scratch to decide a college football champion, you would definitely use a playoff system. Unfortunately, that ship sailed about 70 years ago. We have to recognize the realities of college football today. They would have to build a system that addresses the needs of various constituents with conflicting agendas and historical biases. And committee driven, compromised process won't get you a better end result.

As for a 4 team "Plus 1" system....what good is that? Last year, UGA and USC were likely the two better teams in college football, and they finished 5th and 6th in the final BCS polls. Some sort of polling / mathematical system would be used to see the Top 4 teams in a Plus 1, and it likely wouldn't be very different than the BCS Poll. If last year's team UGA doesn't get to play for the title, then what good is a Plus 1?

See Also
-- MGoBlog's 6 Team Playoff Format - MGoBlog (2006)
-- 8 Team Playoff Won't Work? - FanBlogs




hoodawg said...

I guess my concern with these arguments (and they're all good arguments) is that they lead us to the conclusion that ANY attempt at ascertaining a champion in D-1 football is a fool's errand. If the football establishment is incapable of erecting a 4-team or 8-team playoff that mostly gets it right, then why would we EVER be willing to call something arising out of the BCS a valid championship? In fact, why do we even bother attempting to call the winner of one game in January the champion of anything, when there are equally good teams playing somewhere else in the Sugar or Orange who, depending on the criteria, would be playing in the championship some other year?

I am a fan of the regular season as much as any other guy, but don't try to tell me the regular season is the be-all-end-all, then agonize endlessly over who makes what bowl at the end of the year. Either the bowls matter, and they should be chosen as precisely as possible and lead to a clear result approximating a championship in other major sports; or they don't, and we should all be supremely satisfied when we can beat Auburn, Florida, Tennessee and Tech in a given year and then go enjoy some beer in city that happens to be warm in January.

Unfortunately, everyone on both sides of this argument wants it both ways. And they can't. So they argue. And is there anything else more typical of college football than a good argument?

Anonymous said...

This whole post is a giant strawman.

Assume it can't work, then make the argument that we shouldn't try.

Having one or two capable teams left out of the hunt is better than having 6-7 left out. Period.

Unknown said...

So what you are saying is you need to win your conference to be able to win the National championship? #3 Michigan would have been left out. So what? Win your Conference!

We really could not complain last year. We lost to South Carolina... South Carolina! We did not deserve to be in the title game. We did not win our own tournament (the SEC Conference). LSU did.

If you include conference champs you retain the value of the regular season. WIN your Conference, compete for the nat'l championship. simple enough to me.

PWD, you call yourself a dawg....?

Anonymous said...

I call myself a Dawg?

Dude -- Who taught you logic? What about my post would suggest that I'm not a Dawg?

I'd like a system that:
A. Starts with conference champs.
B. Gets the best 8 teams out there.
C. Helps UGA.

I like UGA's chances better with the current system than a playoff. Only because the system that I think they would design would end up screwing the 2nd SEC team...which in a playoff would usually end up in the Final 4 at worst.


peacedog said...

The NCAA tournament stopped being an 8 team format in 1950.

By 1975, it went from 25 to 32 teams (and started the decade at 16, I believe). In the early 80s, it had moved to 48, and then it crept up to 64 (and then 65). The 65th game added in 2001 was a little silly, but the only game added since 1985.

Scope creep couldn't be meaningfully argued until the field had moved beyond the high 40s, I think.

Cash Mag-Direct Mail Ads in Savannah., GA said...

Using your scenario, UGA would have been in an 8 team playoff in 2002, 2005 and as an at-large in 07. I'm not sure about 03.

An 8 team playoff would have put us in the National Championship hunt in at least 3 seasons of the past 7.
Sounds good to me.

As far as 2004 goes, had we beaten UT, we probably would have gone to an 8 team playoff.

I think the 6 conference winners should be guaranteed a spot. This does indeed value the regular season. It also makes it damn hard to get in if you don't. There are already checks and balances in place that hold bcs leagues accountable for their bcs rankings. The ACC and the Big East (for example) can't yr in and year out finish in the teens or twenties and hold on to their auto bid. That would contnue.

Anonymous said...


One could argue that once scope creep started, it was unstoppable. Especially since the tourney quadrupled in size from 1950 to 1975.

peacedog said...

Something growing is not scope creep, and while it's valid concern with discussing a playoff many of the playoff opponents have already seriously started abusing the issue of scope creep. Growth is not scope creep. Can you point to evidence of scope creep in the NCAA basketball tournament from 1950 to 1975?

Scope creep only arguably set in in the late 70s/early 80s. Before then, the tournament just grew. There were reasons it grew, and there were even valid reasons it continued to grow beyond 32 teams. It is arguable that the NCAA did a poor job correcting flaws in the system (and that might be indicative of the NCAA failing to recognize the problem, though I'm not quite sure that's the case, as expansion in the mid 70s was driven by great teams getting shut out of the tournament).

Anonymous said...

I'm the wrong guy to argue about 1960s hoops. I will say this:

"expansion in the mid 70s was driven by great teams getting shut out of the tournament"

That's what will happen in football. That's what scope creep is.

Anonymous said...

"Can you point to evidence of scope creep in the NCAA basketball tournament from 1950 to 1975?"

Growth of the tourney in that period was primarily fueled by the decline of the NIT due to several factors. The NCAA sensed the opportunity to expand and stepped in.

peacedog, I'm not sure why you think the rationale for growth is as important as the expansion itself. The fact is that every organized sport played in America at the college or professional level that's adopted a playoff has expanded its tourney - and not just once.

I don't see how D-1 football would be immune from that, even if the reasons why may differ from other sports. Although in the end, doesn't it always come down to money?

ChicagoDawg said...

Well said. For any doubters about the scope creep, all one has to do is look at the additional games added to the regular season, the conference title games, the endless bowl games and the ubiquity of CFB on cable TV. It is inevitable that 8 would lead to 16, which leads to 24...36...There are those who would say, so what, to which I would argue that just because we can does not mean we should and inevitably, too much of anything creates devaluation. Some may not care about preserving the differentiating characteristics between CFB and NFL, but I do see the need to at least attempt to hold onto the unique aspects of CFB. The playoff system would be yet another progression in the dilution of what used to be a product without peer. Moreover, a playoff system, for the reasons stated in your article, and due to the inherent dysfunctions of the confederacy that is Conference structure, would render an imperfect result at best -- and would come at a cost that I feel is too high to pay.

Anonymous said...

Assumptions about a structure are just that; but your point is a good one. There will never be an objective way to create a playoff because the NCAA is not a "league" like the NFL.

Conferences are the "leagues" here. The SEC does a fantastic job with its league and determining a champion; the Big 10 does a horrible job with theirs. But outside of conference play, it's a total crapshoot to pick the top 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 or 64 teams in the whole of the NCAA.

So devaluing the conference championships (which you would have to do to some extent to accommodate a playoff) in order to arbitrarily pick more teams to compete for the BCS title would be really bad for college football.

We'd be better off requiring conferences who want to be in a BCS-type thing to have a consistent championship format (I'd suggest the SEC / Big 12 / ACC model) and taking the top two teams who emerge from that (heavy on computer rankings, please) for the "national championship" game.

Anonymous said...

I'm against a playoff, but for completely different reasons than you. I don't think teams that can't win their conferences deserve a shot at the national title. I remember leaving Sanford after the South Carolina game and realizing that we had just eliminated ourselves from the MNC race. I don't want that USC game in September to be any less important than it is now.

Don't let loser teams in whatever system you're going to have. I'd personally rather just go back to the old bowl tie-ins, but if there is going to be a playoff it needs to be conference champs only (however many teams that may be-4, 8, or 11). Screw Notre Dame if they don't want to join a conference.

Anonymous said...

Another argument against the playoff is the additional physical toll that it would put on these players' bodies. Some of these kids are still teenagers--most males don't reach the apex of their physical condition until their mid- to late-20s. Many NFL players can't handle a 16 game season without a break, and most of them are financially set for life. What makes us think that a 20 year old can handle a 15 game (or more, with scope creep) schedule and expect to survive, let alone thrive to make a career out of their exceptional physical talents? There's a good reason why the college season is shorter than the pro season, and that's to preserve the youth and vitality of these players.

Anonymous said...

I think the assumption that the tournament would grow is a bad one. Most presidents do not want a tournament now because they think it will extend the season to be longer. Going from 8 to 16 to 32 would extend a few more weeks for football.

The BCS or NCAA should force teams to join a conference and forget about independents. They did this in basketball. Just put Notre Dame in the Big East and be done with it. I think we should wait until we have conferences that have championship games before we decide who gets to play for the championship. What we have now is the PAC 10 and the BIG 10 voting only to save the rose bowl and not on the best interest of all teams.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the idea giving a team who wins their BSC conference championship an automatic bid to the 8 team playoff. Although I think it is a great starting point, other requirements should be met additionally, perhaps also finishing in the top 10 of the final BCS rankings would suffice.

Given your 2004 example, an undeserving Wake Forest team would be eliminated, freeing up a spot for the next most deserving team who did not win their respective conference championship (in this case, Michigan). More importantly, the additional requirement would not allow the regular season to be devalued by the playoff system as giving auto bids to conference champions would, because non-conference games become equally as important to a team's chances of making the post season.

I guess the hardest part about this scenario would be getting the conferences to get on board with the possibility of having their champion left out in the cold... although I do think it is a solid step towards arriving at a legitimate playoff system.

Anonymous said...

Cap'n Ken,

How do you figure the Big Ten does a lousy job of determining its champion?

Under NCAA rules it cannot have a championship game. It has 11 teams. To have a championship game you need 12 teams.

Also, the Big 10 plays 9 conference games. Last I checked, the SEC plays 8 conference games. The SEC could have easily added a 9th conference game when the schedule went to 12 games (the PAC 10 did this so everyone plays everyone).

I will argue that the championship game cost UGA a national title chance last year. If we had no divisions, UGA, UT and LSU would have been 6-2 in the conference. There once was a tiebreaker system (I am going back before the BCS). Not sure who would have been the Sugar Bowl rep from those days, but UGA could argue that it as a co-conference champion should be considered to play for the national title. As it was, the championship format hurt as people could point to 1) UGA did not win its conference and 2) that it did not even win its division. Now in the BCS world there is no rule requiring a BCS title team to have won its division or conference, but in voting it certainly has to play a role. And many who favor a playoff make winning the conference a requirement.

If there is a playoff, I say take the top 4 teams. This avoids the entire conference champion argument since you are going to leave out a BCS conference no matter what. The issue comes in with the mid-major conferences and the potential lawsuit.

I will say that the only argument against a playoff that carries much legitimacy is the extra number of games taking its physical toll on the youngsters. The "academic" argument does not hold water since 1) the # of games in other sports and 2) that the lower tiers have a playoff. Yes, the extra games take their toll on the players, but I am going to be a bit elitist and say that the pounding at the lower levels is not what it is at 1-A.

Anonymous said...

Call me crazy, but I do like a system that allows teams from weaker conferences at least CHANCE at winning the National Title. College football is the only sport (that I know of) that does not give the "little" schools a change. I would've liked to see BSU continue on after beating OK or Utah after beating Pitt. Having George Mason or Davidson advance in basketball is entertaining. With the current system, the only way that a BSU or a Utah could win the MNC is if all heck breaks loose. As far as the Dawgs, I agree with those who state you have to win your conference. Sounds fair especially since Cash Mag points out the UGA would've had a shot 3 times in past seven years. And yes, the regular season would matter. Your example of UGA getting shut out because of their losses to UT and So Car only proves that the regular season games matter. If UGA can sell out games during some of those 1990 years, then they could sell out games with a playoff at the end of the season.

S-Dot said...

I still believe that last year's UGA team would have been part of a plus-one playoff. Just because they were ranked 5th in the BCS under last year's system does not mean the ranking would have been the same under the plus-one. If you remember, we were in 4th place in the BCS going into the last week of the season, behind Missouri, WVU, and Ohio State. The top two teams lost, and people started flipping out at the possibility of a team playing in the BCS Championship Game without winning their conference. The voters moved multiple teams ahead of UGA to assure that they wouldn't make the game (which part of me can understand, although Herbstreit's flip-flopping from year to year is unforgivable). In a plus-one system, however, I don't think the voters rush to get UGA out of the game. The inclusion of the plus-one almost certainly changes the votes for the final BCS poll. I believe the voters would have kept Ohio State and LSU in the top two spots, but I think they would have felt comfortable having UGA in the #4 spot, behind either OU or Va. Tech. Obviously this is all based on a hypothetical which never took place, but remembering how UGA went from media darlings to the team that couldn't even win their own division as soon as Missouri lost leads me to believe we would have made a plus-one playoff in 2007.

Holla said...

It isn't JUST about selling out games. It's about the games losing some of their intensity and importance, even if people still show up to watch them.

I agree with you PWD and Senator. I will add one consideration about last year, though. If we had a 4 team playoff, I think people would have kept Georgia in the top 4. Georgia fell (from 4 to 5), even though 2 and 3 lost, because people over-reacted and over-compensated for their desired result, which was making sure that UGA DIDN'T end up in the top 2. If people weren't on a witchhunt about it b/c they're not trying to pick the title game right then and there, then UGA probably would have been voted more "naturally" where they belonged and would have held the top 4. Hypothetical and unprovable, of course, but my suspicion.

anonymous said...

I'm attracted to the idea of a "plus-one" (four-team) playoff format, but I really can't argue with the "mission creep" argument against such a system. I mean, look what's happened with the bowls.

My overall philosophy, though, is not so much driven by a desire for a playoff as it is contempt for the present BCS system. I mean, we've still got basically as much disagreement as we did before the BCS was implemented, and we haven't gotten rid of "split" titles; the only practical difference is that we've added an incredibly complex, arbitrary mathematical formula into the mix. If an average math-averse Joe like me can't sit down with the sports section and figure out the two contestants for the "BCS National Championship" game after less than 60 seconds of perusing the conference standings -- and currently I can't -- then I'd rather just go back to the pre-BCS, every-bowl-for-himself situation. Were split titles really so bad that algorithms and something called the "Colley Matrix" were the solution?

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

Sorry, that above comment was me. I still haven't figured out that multiple Gmail addresses = chaos now that Gmail and Blogger are part of the same monolith.

Anonymous said...

An 8 team playoff can be done like this:

The six BCS conference champions get an automatic bid.

There are two at-large bids.

Any Non-BCS team that goes undefeated gets an automatic bid.

If there are no undefeated non-BCS teams, two BCS teams will be selected based on BCS rankings.

Notre Dame will be extended an offer they can't refuse. "Join the Big Ten(11) or go undefeated. Your BCS priviledges as an independent are hereby revoked."

Same goes for the Big Ten(11). Take Notre Dame or add some other team to get your conference to 12 teams.

I didn't feel the least bit bad about Michigan in 2006. It's not like they did everything asked of them and then got screwed. They lost to Ohio State on the road. Boo Hoo. National Champion-caliber teams win big games on the road.

LSU in 2006 fumbled their chances away. They were the best team at the end of the year IMO but Florida made things happen when they had to.

Under this system, Boise State would have gotten in and Michigan, too. LSU had two losses. Hard to argue your way in then.

Basically, it comes down your conference if you're a BCS team. Go undefeated if you're not. Otherwise, don't bitch.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty playoff neutral myself. Most good teams only play 4 or 5 losable games each season anyways so I don't mind a playoff because it gives major teams more peers to play. On the other hand, I like the bowl season and would hate to see minor bowls go away in the wash of a playoff. Mid-majors playing their peers is also pretty entertaining.

One thing I do suspect is that if there is a playoff and winning your conference is a ticket to the big dance, major football programs are going to try a lot harder to schedule better games during the season to prepare for the playoffs. Especially since out-of-conference losses would not be that big a deal.

I think if I had to pick, I'd take a 4+1. I just like the idea that nobody goes to the national championship game without beating a top 4 team.

Anonymous said...


Not trying to be nitpicky, but the Big T(elev)en only plays eight conference games - just like the SEC. To my knowledge, the PAC 10 is the only BCS conference to play nine conference games...

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

- 16 teams
- Automatic bids for all conference champions with 3 or fewer losses. The rational for this criteria is a playoff team should be championship caliber team and that typically means 3 or less losses. Teams eliminated because of this criteria would be eligible for an at large berth if deemed worthy. This would typically only eliminate 1, maybe 2 conference champions a year.
- Remaining spots filled by at large berths to be decided upon in a fashion similar to what completes the NCAA Basketball bracket. AD's and conference commissioners meet to select the remaining teams and seed all of the teams from 1 to 16.

I wrote about this issue last December. You can view the rest of the details for my playoff system by following the link.

Anonymous said...

Comparing the growth of the college basketball tournament system to a potential one in college football is like comparing apples to oranges.

As we all know, football is a completely different animal and is the kind of sport that you can only play one game a week. A 32-team playoff or really any playoff bigger than a 8-team playoff would take longer than 3 weeks to complete.

With final exams, the regular season and conference championship games involved, the tournament really could not get any bigger than 10 teams in my opinion (with the top 2 teams getting a BYE).

A Top 10 system would not be perfect, but it would be a lot better than what we have.

JasonC said...

Is this "Get the Picture"?

Anonymous said...

The whole idea of using polls to pick a winner is flawed and having the top two or top eight in the polls play off is still flawed. The champion in most sports is determined by head to head play. When you say it's unfair if Michigan, LSU or Wisconsin didn't make the playoffs, that's like complaining that the Braves didn't get a wild card slot in the playoffs after they didn't win the pennant. In MLB, win your division, you make the playoffs. Otherwise, you compete with all the other teams for a wild card slot.

Check out a proposalthat adds playoffs, doesn't make the season longer, increases end of season excitement for teams not making the playoffs.

Anonymous said...


Georgia would not have won the National Championship in 1980 if there was a playoff.

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