Thursday, November 20, 2008

College Football Playoff? Yes We Can

The following was submitted -- and summarily rejected! -- as an Op-Ed piece off of Obama's interview on "60 Minutes" this past Sunday. It was meant for a wider, non-avid-sports-fan audience. On Monday, there were several clever reactions to Obama's interview (this one I particularly liked), but they were more along the lines of "I want to be your Playoff Czar!"; none really offered a new direction for discussion. That's what I was hoping to do here. I openly recognize that there are lots of holes to shoot in this, but consider the larger point of populism.

College Football Playoff? Yes We Can.

"We should be creating a [college football] playoff system. So I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit." -- President-elect Barack Obama on "60 Minutes," November 16

To: President-elect Obama
From: The Head of College Football Playoff Transition Team

Nothing needs more of the "change" you talk about than college football's system for determining a national champion.

Your support for a long-desired 8-team playoff system is achievable. However, the existing institutional inertia -- even resistance -- is substantial. To create a college football playoff, you will have to answer two key questions: Which schools are included? And who gets to
decide which teams make the playoff?

The answers lie in the same populist, "bottom-up" solutions you used so effectively on the campaign trail.

Let's review the existing system: The two top-ranked teams in the Bowl Championship Series ("BCS") play for the national title.

The BCS comprises the teams represented by the six "power" conferences who negotiated the original BCS deal: The SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10, Big East and ACC, plus Notre Dame. Upon annual review, a lone representative of non-"power" teams may be allowed into the group,
with an unbeaten season (and some luck).

The system is, by its very definition, exclusionary. This season, two non-"power" teams -- Utah and Boise State -- are both undefeated and ranked in the Top 10 nationally. Only one will break through the class ceiling, and even then, there is no talk that either would be one of two teams selected to actually compete for the national title.

An even larger source of contention is the process to select the two teams that play for the national title. The top two teams are derived from a combination of two "human" polls (conducted among college football coaches and select outside experts) and the average of a
batch of rankings determined by computer algorithm. (Google, it ain't.)

The polling is opaque. Coaches are inherently biased. Experts can only watch so many games at once. Numbers baked into a computer program can never tell the whole story. Ultimately, sorting among half-a-dozen -- or more -- worthy contenders is perennially maddening to fans. The Associated Press thought so little of the BCS process that it removed its own poll of college football writers from the formula.

So how to bring the country together and deliver the playoff everyone wants? The solution is to "open-source" it.

It starts by curbing the current BCS cabal. Mandate a one-time opt-out of the current system for any school or conference interested in a playoff.

From there, create a pool of willing playoff participants. But it can't be based on the same old power-conference politics.

Open the playoff system to any team that wants to be a part of it. That allows any conscientious objectors to a playoff -- university presidents or conference commissioners -- to opt out, for any reason. Their teams will simply not be eligible to participate in the playoff. Left intact are the schools with a commitment to a playoff.

Next, we need a more structurally sound and sustainable system to determine the 8 playoff teams. For starters, eliminate the current bloated bureaucracy of ranking teams through a hazy mix of conflicted coaches, so-called experts and soulless computers.

Instead, tap into the renewable energy of the fans themselves. Replace the current convoluted ranking system with a nationalized "Fan Poll," open to any registered fan to submit their own Top 8 ballot. Give fans themselves the biggest stake in this new process and its outcome; trust their interest in taking it seriously. These results would create a self-fulfilling mandate -- what outraged coach or pundit could seriously disagree with a nation of fans weighing in?

If your campaign proved anything, Mr. President-elect, it was that the power of the Web to efficiently enable the actions of a massive collection of motivated, individual people. Harness that again: The sheer volume of participants will ensure that no single constituency will dominate; a free market of fans -- with limited, helpful regulation from your National Office of College Football Playoff -- will deliver the wisest, fairest, most transparent group of 8 playoff teams each season.

A college football playoff powered by populism inclusively puts the process in the hands of whoever wants to create the change they want: Whether you are a university trustee or a fan on the couch, only participate if you care to -- but, in the end, everyone choosing to take part is motivated by a vested interest in the best outcome possible for the sport.

After that, it's easy: Three rounds, three weeks, one champion: In a way you and the country might recognize, a "Champ We Can Believe In."

-- D.S.

(Update: Smart overview of the landscape from Josh Levin at Slate. Wilbon weighed in Tuesday.)


Steve said...

I could go along with this. It's certainly better than your every team in the playoffs idea.

Luke Bell said...

Fans wouldn't take it seriously. Have you ever been on a college football message board? Read the comments on any college football post you made yourself. Fans are worse than the coaches.

Otherwise, I am ok with it, and I am an "obstructionist" Big 10 guy.