The Best of Both Worlds: A Modest Proposal for a College Football Playoff That Keeps the Bowls

Sports leagues and teams enact measures all the time that make them more money yet are detrimental to fans, such renaming ballparks for corporate sponsors (Comiskey, despite being the last name of the cheapest bastard in baseball history, should still be the namesake of wherever the White Sox call home forever) to stretching out postseason play to last two months (I seriously love David Stern and the NBA Playoffs, but we do need have some parameters in place). Yet, if you ask the average sports fan how he or she would like to have the champion of college football be determined, the overwhelming response is that there needs to be some type of playoff system. At the same time, the television networks would fall all over themselves in writing checks that would dwarf what CBS currently pays for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (which hopefully won’t be screwed up) to broadcast college football’s “December Madness”.

Despite such a rare confluence of interests between the fans and the financially-driven institutions, however, the college presidents seem to get more stubbornly deadset against a playoff system every season while backing the less-than-satisfactory Bowl Championship Series. This continues to be one of the world’s great mysteries, right up there with the location of the Holy Grail and how “Two and a Half Men” is not only still on the air, but is a certified top 10 hit.

Therefore, I propose the following relatively simple solution that ought to appease the fans’ clamor for a playoff system, keep the bowls intact for the college presidents, and has a realistic chance to be actually implemented: take the 4 BCS bowls, keep the traditional matchups (i.e. Big Ten vs. Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl) with the at-large bids given to the two highest ranked teams that didn’t win their BCS conference or were champions of a non-BCS conference, and make those games the quarterfinals in a national championship playoff that will be played on a weekend in the middle of December. The winners would then advance to semifinals that are played on New Year’s Day and the championship game would be played a week later.

From my perspective, this playoff/bowl hybrid would address all of the most frequently cited reasons and impediments against having a playoff system. Let’s go through the reasons why I believe this hybrid model would work and have a reasonable chance to be put in place:

1) BCS Schools Keep Control – Forget about all of that lip service about academics or the season being too long (although I’ll touch on those subjects later). The largest reason, by a landslide, as to why there isn’t a playoff system in place right now is that the BCS schools receive wildly disproportionate financial benefits under the current bowl arrangements. Thus, they have little monetary incentive to have an NCAA Tournament-style playoff for football.

Under the playoff/bowl hybrid, the BCS schools would be able to retain their financial advantage, or even add to it, while finally giving the fans what they want. This might not appease the supporters of the smaller conferences that want more access to the top tier games, but they would at least have an equitable chance at an at-large spot under my proposal (as opposed to having Notre Dame get invited as long as they win 9 games regardless of their ranking because of the school’s popularity). The reality is that the BCS schools will never willingly go to a completely NCAA Tournament-style open playoff system or give up their automatic bids (they would seriously secede from the NCAA before that ever happens). If a playoff for college football is ever going to be put into place, the BCS schools are going to insist upon receiving similar advantages that they currently have. In the end, a playoff/bowl hybrid, even if the BCS retains its power, is a whole lot better option than what’s in place now.

2) The Season Wouldn’t Be Extended Any Longer Than It Is Now
– I have always felt that the detractors of a playoff citing that the season would be too long were always full of bunk. The lower divisions of college football all have playoffs, while BCS bowl participants currently have a layoff of a month or more between their last regular season games and the bowls. Not only that, the national championship game will be played on January 8th beginning next season.

There’s no reason for such a long layoff between games (don’t give me academics as a reason – Division 1-AA teams play in playoff games that go straight through December), so that’s why I proposed moving the quarterfinals to a weekend in mid-December. That would allow the semifinals to be played on New Year’s Day (with the added benefit of having the games being played on that holiday mean something again) and the championship game would be played no later than it is now. As a result, the “season would be too long” argument carries no water here.

3) Regular Season Would Mean More Rather Than Less – The small number of fans that are against going to a playoff system almost always argue that they do not want to diminish the importance of the college regular season (i.e. they say that the season is already a 12-week playoff). I sympathize with those thoughts. The beauty of the playoff/bowl hybrid is that every BCS conference regular season championship race now also has national championship implications as opposed to having just one or two games that matter across the country by the end of October.

A perfect example of the problems of the current system is how last season played out, where by the middle of the year the only games that had national implications were the ones involving USC and Texas. In my opinion, spending half the season where 60 games per week don’t really matter isn’t a great way to have a strong and interesting regular season for fans across the country. By using the playoff/bowl hybrid, however, the regular season will have more meaningful games involving more teams and conferences up until the last week since winning a BCS conference championship automatically means a chance to play for the national championship.

4) No More Judgment Calls Regarding Championship Participants – One of my biggest pet peeves over the past two seasons is hearing people state that the BCS system has “worked” since the best two teams have been placed in the National Final. This is a ridiculous notion – the BCS got lucky by having two straight years where there were only two teams at the end of the season that were undefeated. Did all of those current system supporters suddenly forget the previous seasons when there were multiple one-loss teams vying for a spot in the championship game based upon a convoluted formula? That is anything but a system that works.

Now, my proposal keeps the BCS rankings, but they are instead used for the two at-large spots as opposed to determining who should play in the final. While there would inevitably be controversy regarding which teams deserve those at-large spots, that would be no different than arguing about the last at-large spots to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Besides, if a team takes care of business during the regular season and wins its BCS conference, that school is going to have an automatic chance for the national championship. Having controversy over a team that didn’t win a BCS conference getting into the playoffs is a lot more acceptable than what has happened under the current system, where top teams that did win their conferences have been denied a spot in the national final. It’s not perfect, but I believe that it’s a solid trade-off that’s on par with what is in place its college basketball counterparts.

5) Tradition of the Bowls are Kept Intact – As a Big Ten alum and fan, there is definitely something special about the conference’s relationship with the Rose Bowl and the Pac-10 that I would never want to see go away. Under the playoff/bowl hybrid proposal, the paegentry and tradition of each of the BCS bowls would still carry on. Not only that, all of those bowls would matter again as the quarterfinals to the national championship as opposed to being the glorified consolation prizes that they are now.

There you have it – a proposal to create a college football playoff that also keeps the bowls and addresses all of the arguments that have been levied against a normal playoff system. The vast majority of sports fans want to see this happen and the BCS would make even more money than they do now. So, the only question is how much longer the presidents of the BCS schools continue to be stubbornly tied to a position that makes no sense. Judging by what little advancement there has been on this issue over the years, it will probably a lot longer than I’d care for.