Reexamining the Plus-One College Football Option

Utah Utes Alabama Crimson Tide Sugar Bowl

On a couple of occasions on this blog, I’ve argued in favor of an 8-team college football playoff system that uses the BCS bowls with their traditional conference tie-ins. While I still believe this would be the most viable solution to determine a national champion, I’m frankly getting completely sick of politicians trying to do anything with college football. Any sports fan that actually supports the federal government to get involved in this issue is completely insane. If there’s one system that’s guaranteed to be worse than the BCS today, it’s whatever convoluted format that Congress would come up with. Congressman Joe Barton needs to find a new issue to focus on, such as the economy, health care, or the multiple wars that our country is engaged in at this time. At the same time, the complaints from the bowl abolitionists such as the Mountain West Conference are getting as tired and worn out as Rachel Nichols’ campouts outside of Brett Favre’s Mississippi compound. The blind drumbeat that Utah was somehow disenfranchised last season has actually made me less sympathetic to the playoff issue since I wrote this post back in November largely supporting President Obama’s views on the matter. If you honestly can tell me that you would feel comfortable wagering your life savings that Utah would’ve beaten Florida, USC, Texas, and/or Oklahoma last season head-to-head, then you can go ahead and claim that the Utes deserved to be national champions. Otherwise, the fact that they went undefeated is irrelevant when compared to 1-loss teams from the much stronger SEC and Big 12. Besides, it’s incredulous to me that the Mountain West Conference and other fans are all of the sudden arguing how unfair the system is today even though the BCS expanded in 2006 to give the non-BCS conferences more opportunities to get into the top-level games and despite the fact those conferences bring very little of their own revenue (and definitely not many viewers as evidenced by the TV ratings) to the table. In the pre-BCS days, teams such as Boise State, Hawaii, and Utah would’ve never gotten a sniff of the Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, yet there were hardly any calls for a college football playoff prior to 1998 even though all bowls were completely about conference tie-ins and backroom deals.

Regardless, the college football playoff issue keeps coming back up like the Chinese water torture drip of baseball player names coming out from the 2003 steroid testing. The more that I investigate the issue, the more that I become convinced that even an 8-team playoff will never come to fruition (much less the extremely bad idea of a 16-team playoff). When the BCS bowls expanded to add a separate national championship game, thereby having 5 bowls with 10 participants, several things occurred.

First, it gave the non-BCS conferences a lot less incentive to push for a playoff. As stated before, those conferences were now getting access to revenue and bowls that they never did in the pre-BCS days, and that’s why all of those conferences opposed a playoff proposal in front of the BCS last week (except for the Mountain West, who submitted that proposal).  (Apparently, Senator Orrin Hatch didn’t realize that this automatic qualification existed for the non-BCS conferences in the Senate hearing on college football matters on Tuesday and actually openly speculated that this was some type of secret despite being published and written about everywhere.  This happens to be the Senator that called this hearing in the first place.  Once again, I don’t care how much you might hate the BCS – you don’t want these politicians anywhere near college football, particularly when you consider that Senator Hatch is relatively smart and thoughtful compared to the rest of that sorry lot.)  Therefore, those non-BCS conferences now have less incentive to mess with a system that they are now gaining revenue from (which they never would’ve had access to in the pre-BCS days).

Second, it clarified to the TV networks that the college football postseason is not like the NCAA Tournament. While the NCAA Tournament is partially about hyping Cinderellas in the first two rounds, the general public has shown year after year that it wants to sit down to watch the power teams in college football such as Florida, Texas, and Ohio State, even if they claim verbally that they want to see the Utahs and Boise States of the world. This is similar to when a lot of sports fans claimed to rejoice when neither the Red Sox nor Yankees were involved in the World Series last season, yet hardly any of those sports fans bothered to subsequently watch that World Series and drove the event to its worst ratings in history. Ever since the major conference realignments in the ACC and Big East that became effective in 2005, the only BCS bowl games other than the national championship games to have garnered over a 10.0 TV rating have all involved Big Ten schools (see historic data and this past year’s numbers). Meanwhile, the Boise State-Oklahoma 2006 Fiesta Bowl overtime classic that lots of non-BCS school proponents love to point out got trounced in the ratings that season by blowouts in the USC-Michigan Rose Bowl and LSU-Notre Dame Sugar Bowl. When ESPN, Fox, or some other network pays for sports rights, it cares about what people actually “do” as opposed to what they “say”, and what people keep doing is watch power programs in the major bowl games while ignoring the less sexy match-ups.

Third, the BCS expansion has better allowed the various bowls to retain their traditional tie-ins more often than not even if they lose a conference partner to the national championship game. The Rose Bowl has been getting its desired Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup even though Ohio State went to the national championship game 2 seasons in a row, while the Sugar Bowl has been able to always pick an SEC team despite the conference having sent its champ to the BCS title game for the past three seasons. This is an important point, particularly for the Rose Bowl, in terms of retaining the historical matchups that these bowls provide.

Finally, the Big Ten, SEC, and Big 12 have consistently established themselves as conferences that will almost always send 2 teams each to BCS bowls. Those conferences have teams from top-to-bottom with fan bases that both travel en masse to bowl games and bring in TV ratings. As a result, those conferences received even more benefits from the current BCS system since they are consistently receiving second BCS bowl game revenue shares to split among its members. Schools with horrific football histories such as Indiana, Vanderbilt, and Baylor now take in more bowl game revenue on a year-to-year basis than USC and Notre Dame. So, those 3 conferences aren’t ever going to vote for a system that would reduce their chances of sending 2 teams to the BCS.

The upshot is that even though the general perception is that a college football playoff would be a no-brainer money-maker, the fact is that the BCS conferences, TV networks, bowls, and even the non-BCS conferences actually don’t have much incentive to radically change the system that is in place today.  Team Speed Kills put together an excellent economic analysis of why it wouldn’t be financially rational for the BCS conference to alter the system (and this is coming from someone else that is on record as a playoff supporter).  This means that every sports fan out there needs to stop wasting their breath on advocating scrapping the whole system. You’ll see Sammy Sosa in the Baseball Hall of Fame before that happens.

However, we can still improve upon what we have now for everyone involved by implementing a plus-one model. For the uninitiated, the plus-one model consists of the BCS bowls all being played, having the national championship matchup being determined thereafter, and then a separate title game subsequently being played. I know that I have previously criticized the prospect of a plus-one as simply pushing off a #1 vs. #2 decision from December to January, but I’ve come around to it as a reasonable, if imperfect, alternative to today’s system. Here is how I would envision it working taking into account all of the financial and historical realities that are in place (which way too many fans either ignore or dismiss):

  1. The BCS would add the Cotton Bowl as a true 5th bowl game. As previously noted, there needs to be 10 total participants in order to maximize the opportunities for both the non-BCS conferences (to obtain single bids) and the largest power conferences (to obtain multiple bids).
  2. The BCS bowls will always have their traditional conference tie-ins. I know that this is anathema to a lot of fans that want to see straight seeding (or at least the top 4 teams seeded in a de facto 4-team playoff), but whether you agree with it or not, the Big Ten and Pac-10 aren’t going to give up the Rose Bowl. If the Cotton Bowl is added as a 5th BCS game, it would take the Big 12 champ if it’s from the Big 12 South (meaning any of the Texas or Oklahoma schools) while the Fiesta Bowl gets that conference tie-in if a Big 12 North team qualifies. This makes the most sense from both a historical (old Southwestern Conference connection with the Cotton and the Big 12 South schools) and traveling fan base perspective (Midwestern schools in the Big 12 North such as Nebraska and Missouri prefer going to Phoenix over Dallas). After that, the bowl of those two that doesn’t get the Big 12 auto bid gets the first pick of at-large teams using the same BCS ranking qualifications that are in place today (i.e. teams in the top 14 are eligible, top non-BCS conference school on top 12 must be picked by someone, a maximum of 2 teams can be picked from any one conference, etc.). After that, the bowls with open at-large spots will make selections from the BCS eligible pool in reverse order of the BCS rankings of the the teams that are already locked into those bowls. For example, the Orange Bowl had the lowest ranked team automatically committed to its game last year (#19 Virginia Tech as the ACC champ), so it would have been next in line with its selection, and so forth. This would be the mechanism to get as even of a distribution of teams across the bowls as possible (except that the Rose Bowl gets the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs no matter what). So, last year’s bowl matchups would’ve ended up like this (with BCS rankings after the regular season):Rose Bowl: #5 USC (Pac-10 champ) vs. #8 Penn State (Big Ten champ)

    Cotton Bowl: #1 Oklahoma (Big 12 champ) vs. #12 Cincinnati (Big East champ/6th at-large)

    Sugar Bowl: #2 Florida (SEC champ) vs. #6 Utah (non-BCS automatic qualifier/5th at-large)

    Fiesta Bowl: #3 Texas (1st at-large since Cotton got Big 12 champ) vs. #10 Ohio State (3rd at-large)

    Orange Bowl: #19 Virginia Tech (ACC champ) vs. #4 Alabama (2nd at-large)

  3. The day after the last BCS bowl is played, another set of BCS rankings will come out to determine the national championship matchup.  The title game will then be played on an open date thereafter (third Monday in January or one week before the Super Bowl).

Obviously, there’s still the prospect of controversy surrounding those final BCS rankings.  However, at least the outcomes of the BCS bowls provide some important information, such as whether a team such as Utah could handle Florida.  All of the catcalls about Utah last season were with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight after it beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.  Up to that point, reasonable college football fans wouldn’t have put Utah in the top 2 teams in the country, so it’s a bit disingenuous to state that they should’ve been in the national championship game based on the information that people had as of the final BCS rankings.  If the Utes were able to beat Florida in a plus-one system, though, then they would have had the marquee win necessary to have legitimately been in the championship discussion before the national title game (as opposed to after it).  Meanwhile, all of the BCS bowls become relevant to the national championship race as opposed to being glorified consolation prizes.  This is a throwback to the pre-BCS days when the first day of the year was one of the best sports days of the year.  The regular season also continues to have much more impact under the plus-one model.  Indeed, this is the biggest advantage of the plus-one system over any form of a playoff and why I’ve warmed up much more to the prospect of the idea.  We lose key historical moments like last year’s SEC championship game, the crazy last day of the 2007 regular season, and the 2006 Ohio State-Michigan game if all of those games become merely seeding exercises for a playoff.

So, the unseeded plus-one system is an option that the BCS conferences actually have a rational economic incentive to put into place.  Whether this could ever be put into place is obviously the continuing dilemma.

(Image from MSNBC.com)

The Presidential Commission on the Establishment of a College Football Playoff System

I will be the first to admit that I am one of the few in Chicago’s legal community that has a lot of issues with the political philosophy of President-elect Obama.  However, his apparent passion for the creation of a college football playoff system, as shown in the above video clip from his interview this past week on 60 Minutes, is admirable.  Indeed, as a fellow South Sider and White Sox fan, I would be more then willing to lead the Presidential Commission on the Establishment of a College Football Playoff System in the spirit of bipartisanship.  I can tell Obama has given this issue a ton of thought judging by the “You can’t remember to pick up a carton a milk from the store within 5 minutes of asking you to do it, but you can instantly recite the names, positions, and social security numbers of the 1992 Chicago Bears roster that had a 5-11 record” look from the future First Lady as soon as brought up the subject.  (Brad Muster, your table is ready.)  I have been on the receiving end of that look more than anyone in history assuming that the guy from “Stump the Schwab” hasn’t found a life partner yet.

The interest of the President-elect has brought back up one of the few posts that I have written that has aged relatively well: this “modest proposal” for taking the existing 4 BCS bowls, keeping the traditional conference tie-ins such as the Big Ten and Pac-10 always being in the Rose Bowl, and making it into an 8-game playoff.  (As horrific as the actual Rose Bowl game last year was for me as an Illini fan, once you’ve experienced the spectacular pagentary around Pasadena on New Year’s Day, you understand exactly why those two conferences don’t want anything to do with giving up that game.  President-elect Obama should be aware from a political standpoint that the all 8 of the Big Ten states and 3 out of the 4 Pac-10 states, with the lone exception being John McCain’s home state of Arizona, voted for him, making those conferences his strongest supporters in the BCS.  He should remember this when he starts hearing suggestions from SEC fans that believe that the winner of the SEC Championship Game should be automatically crowned the national champion, since Florida was the only Obama win among the 9 states in the conference.  On another note, I am sincerely humbled by the fact that Professor Michael McCann, Sports Illustrated’s legal expert, linked to my playoff proposal post on the Sports Law Blog.  I love my job, but I have certainly dreamed of becoming a sports law professor of Professor McCann’s stature.)  The only item that I’d alter from the original proposal from 2 ½ years ago would be the timing of the playoff so that it would be in line with the comment from Slant reader Richard Gadsden, such that the national championship game would be played one week prior to the Super Bowl.  It’s such an obvious open date on the sports calendar that I can’t see any downside to it (other than the faux bemoaning of how long the college football season would be at that point, which I addressed in my original proposal post).  That way, the Rose Bowl and the other BCS games would continue to be on or around New Year’s Day as they always have, while the semifinals would be one or two weeks later in prime time weeknight slots (so that they do not conflict with the NFL playoff games that occur on the weekends in January).  Otherwise, every single item that I brought up then would still apply today.

The main overarching point that I can’t emphasize enough is that the only reasonable way that we will ever see a college football playoff in my lifetime is if the process is driven by the BCS conferences as opposed to being imposed on them.  There are plenty of proposals out there that advocate an NCAA Tournament-style system with automatic bids to the non-BCS conferences and an abolishment of the bowl system, which might work if we were living in a theoretical vacuum, but pretty much removes any type of incentive for the BCS conferences, who are the ultimate decision-makers here, to actually agree to such a playoff.  If people advocate an “all or nothing” approach to a college football playoff system, then no one should be surprised when the BCS conferences reflexively opt for “nothing”.  The reason why I believe that my proposal would have a reasonable chance of actually being enacted is that it would simply add to the bowl system that already exists as opposed to taking anything away.

For his part, President-elect Obama has preached pragmatism to addressing America’s issues more than any Presidential candidate in recent history.  In this case, the pragmatic approach would be to provide an incentive to bring the BCS conferences to the table with a proposal that allows them to keep the same disproportionate share of television and postseason revenue that they currently enjoy while still adding a playoff system that the general public craves.  It’s very easy for people to throw out college football playoff proposals that they believe would be perfect for their personal purposes, but my proposal is aimed at instituting a playoff that the BCS conferences would actually agree to at the end of the day.  Otherwise, we’ll still be debating this same issue thirty years from now.

(Video from YouTube)

Decent BCS Conference Rankings, Hoops at the Olympics, and Helmets Galore: Land-o-Links for 8/12/2008

When John Danks throws over 6 innings of no-hit ball and the White Sox still lose to the Red Sox, it’s a day when I should avoid writing about baseball. Here are some links on other issues in the sports world today:

1. The Great Conference Debate (Sports Illustrated) – While these types of rankings that sports websites tend to run during the dog days of summer often carry many flaws (please see last month’s ESPN.com rankings of the nation’s college basketball programs), the methodology used here by SI to compare the BCS football conferences is on the better end. I do believe that national title game appearances should be distinguished from other BCS games (and the lack of such distinction partially explains the Big Ten’s drop from first to fourth), but it is a relatively fair assessment overall. As SEC fans continue to bloviate about how even the worst of their teams could dominate the Big Ten (other than what happened in that pesky game last New Year’s Day where Michigan beat Florida in the Gator territory of Orlando, which has been conveniently forgotten by everyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line), it’s important to note that the SI rankings themselves show that the Big Ten was considered to be by far the strongest league during the first part of this decade. College football goes in cycles and the Big Ten is going to be a much tougher conference this year with Ohio State returning almost its entire team and improved squads at Wisconsin and Penn State (and hopefully Illinois). It’s also refreshing to see a balanced assessment of the performance of the ACC (as opposed to a lot of writers that have been very quick to pile on the conference for taking teams from the Big East five years ago while proclaiming that Rutgers is all of the sudden some type of powerhouse after its first two winning seasons since the school gave birth to college football over a century ago) – Florida State and Miami have simultaneously performed about as badly as possible over the past few years, which has masked the increased depth of the conference (while also providing the ACC much more upside if and when those schools get back on track).

2. So far, so good for NBA at Olympics (Sports Media Watch) – For those of us real Americans that don’t live in the Pacific and Mountain time zones and are able to watch many Olympics events live, we know that the most important development from NBC’s Olympic coverage is the resuscitation of John Tesh’s NBA on NBC theme song for basketball games. (If there’s one thing that you should know about me, it’s that I will find every opportunity possible to post old NBA on NBC intros from the 1990s Bulls dynasty. This golden classic from 1991, where Marv Albert speculates whether Michael Jordan would go down as one of the greatest athletes to never win a championship, with footage of Ernie Banks and, of course, O.J. Simpson in the days when he was simply a high-profile Hertz salesman, is the sole reason why YouTube was established.) At the same time, with over one billion people watching the U.S.-China basketball game on Sunday, there’s empirical evidence that Asians love basketball almost as much as they love gambling. Being half-Chinese, I can attest to that fact since every time I see a pop-a-shot machine, my hands start to tremble uncontrollably until I’m able to spend twenty bucks on the game to win 5,000 tickets (which I subsequently redeem for a couple of Tootsie Rolls or, if I’m lucky, a plastic dreidel).

The interesting thing that Sports Media Watch points out is the irony that interest in Olympic hoops in the United States has probably increased because of Team USA’s losses to other countries over the past few years. This is right on the mark – I’m truly going out of my way to watch the basketball games this year for the first time since the original 1992 Dream Team and this is speaking as someone that’s a monster hoops fan. For all of the issues that David Stern has had to deal with over the past few seasons (the Tim Donaghy scandal, the Pistons-Pacers brawl, etc.), the one thing that he’s got going for him is that the NBA is the only American professional sports league that has made legitimate inroads on the international landscape in a broad sense. Baseball has been very popular in a few Latin American countries and Japan for a number of years yet has struggled to break out of those regions, while basketball is being more widely adopted as the second major team sport after soccer on all of the continents (as shown by the fact that five countries, including Yao Ming for the host nation of China and not including the United States, chose current or former NBA players to carry in their flags in the opening ceremonies). The other sports leagues talk a lot about international expansion and may play a game here or there overseas, but the NBA is really the only one that is positioned to become a truly global league as opposed to a curiosity in other countries.

And finally…

3. The Helmet Project – This site has supposedly been in existence for quite awhile, but I just stumbled onto it today (which resulted in me canceling all of my meetings during the afternoon). The comprehensiveness of this site is astounding, as it covers the helmets from all of the various professional sports leagues since 1960 (i.e. USFL, CFL, XFL, etc.) as well as all levels of college football. (Even Minneapolis Red Sox can check out his favorite St. Norbert helmets through the years). As much as I love the Illini, the helmet designs throughout our history have been pretty lackluster – our current helmet, which has been around since 1989 with some minor color adjustments, is essentially an orange version of the New York Giants helmet from the 1980s (which they wisely scrapped a few years ago). The old “Illini” written on the side used through much of the 1970s and 1980s was never really impressive, either. An orange helmet with a blue Block I would be simple, clean-looking, and an exponential improvement, in my opinion.

(Image from New York Times)