Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why Leach's 64-Team Playoff is the Health Care "Public Option" of College Football

Mike Leach frames the college football playoff debate correctly: Playoffs are "mainstream." To not have a playoff is not mainstream.

But I think everyone agrees that college football needs a playoff. Where Leach proves himself even smarter is when he advocates a 64-team playoff. This is the bold innovative thinking needed to reform the system.

A widespread playoff is the college football equivalent of a "public option" in health care, the transformative step that would break the chokehold that the special interests have on something so necessary to us: College football.

Folks who propose a 4-team, 8-team or 16-team option are mere incrementalists who don't really want to see a playoff, because in all those scenarios, they end up with as many problems as they claim to solve. "It's better than nothing" is, in this case, not better than nothing.

Let's start with this: The "Plus-One" idea -- a title game after the bowls are over, re-ranking the teams -- is ridiculous, unless you can match 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 in a "semifinal" bowl pairing. That would be, I suppose, the "4-team" playoff option.

So let's look at the 4-team option: Even assuming you could match 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3, let's take an easy example: What would happen last year? Let's say Florida is 1. I guess that makes Oklahoma No. 2. Who's No. 3: Texas? So we get a rematch. OK. And who's 4? Alabama, you say? We saw that game a week earlier. Maybe USC has a claim. Or, oh right, there's unbeaten Utah, which proved itself to be a Top-4 team when it was all said and done. So Plus-One and/or the 4-team option doesn't really help.

How about the 8-team playoff? More teams involved? Great. Let's be naive and think that we would be able to select the 8 best teams, rather than the champs of 6 conferences, plus two "at-large" teams -- maybe from the power conferences, maybe from the non-power conferences. So that's one issue: Good luck when 4 of the Top 8 are from the SEC or Big 12 and a bunch of conferences are shut out. Even if you could pick your Top 8, it's easy to know that Florida, Oklahoma and Texas should have been part of an 8-team playoff field a year ago; once you get past those obvious choices, the decision-making is a LOT murkier, even if you have your choice of any team, regardless of conference.

(If we were going to do an 8-team playoff, it would need way more innovative thinking, such as the plan I proposed here, to "open source" the playoff. I actually loved this idea.)

How about the 16-team playoff? First, every power conference would insist on being given an automatic bid -- and the not-so-power conferences would probably demand the same treatment, which would be insane in a 16-team field -- too many great teams left out. (Try this thought experiment: Eliminate the 31 at-large bids of the NCAA basketball tournament and see how enjoyable it is to have the "small school" factor.) Meanwhile, if you thought picking between teams 4th-12th was hard for 8 spots, try picking between teams 12th-30th for 16 spots.

Which is where Leach comes in: The 64-team playoff makes sense. Every conference can have an automatic bid, but we can include enough at-large teams that it would be very hard to claim you were "snubbed" (and, like the NCAA Tournament, most folks would have no sympathy for you). Reduce the regular-season and put the games at neutral sites -- let cities bid for them and let local fans join die-hard travelers the stands for a playoff game, like they do at NCAA sub-regionals.

But I'd even be willing to walk it back: How about 32 teams? You can play the first three rounds in between conference-championship weekend and New Year's Day, then the semis and finals in the two weeks after New Year's Day. Every conference can have a slot, with plenty of room left for great at-large teams. Because every non-power-conference has a guaranteed spot, there will be no griping when every at-large bid goes to a power-conference team. And no guarantees for Notre Dame; join a conference or earn your way as an at-large.

The fact is: 4-, 8- and even 16-team playoff scenarios just won't solve the problem -- worthy teams being left out, the debate continuing to rage.

In the end, I would still stick with my old "everyone-in-the-pool" concept that proposes we let EVERY team into the Tournament -- like Indiana high school basketball used to be.

But the truth is that Leach is closer to being right than other playoff proponents, who just don't go far enough.

College football needs its "public option."

-- D.S.


Andy said...

"Reduce the regular-season and put the games at neutral sites . . ."

This is a problem. Would a team like South Carolina, which draws 70,000 a game despite being consistently mediocre, be willing to give up home games for a playoff which the may not even participate in every year?

Andy said...

i disagree. college football was pretty much relegated as a regional sport with regional interest. the BCS has done far more to advance the fans' interest of college football on the national level in the past 11 years than anything before it...primarily through open debate through the media / internet forums on which two teams really are the most deserving to be in that title game.
i, for one, stand by the regular season in college football as being the best. a playoff would ruin college football...and i say this as a person who grew up loving the NFL as a child but now shuns it until January when the games actually matter (i'll admit though that i'm quite biased towards college ball as a graduate of Florida).