Let’s get this out of the way: In college football, the ideal of a truly meaningful regular season was lost 20 years ago. Let’s stop wasting our time worrying about it, OK?
Nothing did more to hurt the regular season than the creation of the BCS. Everything changed when the major conference commissioners (and Notre Dame) agreed deciding the national champion in college football was important enough to designate a game for doing so every year. That was an acknowledgment that simply voting on a champion at the end of the season wasn’t enough. With that out of the way, we may as well do it right. Two teams aren’t enough to do it right. Four is not a high enough number, either, but the fifth team will generally have done more to hurt itself than No. 3, so the damage overall is less.
The creation of the BCS forever shifted the gaze of fans to the end of the season. That genie is never going back in the bottle.
Within this world we’ve been living ever since, a reasonably sized playoff actually enhances the regular season because it could be made to make conference championships important again. As of now, they mean nothing.
Thus, in anticipation of future cries of bracket creep, let me declare now that four teams is not enough. (I did not expect to so quickly realize this until I read Bill Connelly’s excellent look at how the coming system might have applied to each season in the BCS era. Do read it.)
Eight would probably do, but the best number is 16, so if the newly hatched four-team job expands (which seems like no certainty but certainly a possibility), it should be viewed as water reaching level, much like the expansion of the NCAA basketball tournament was* in the 1980s.
A 16-team Division I FBS tournament would include about 13 percent of the division’s teams, still a lower percentage than make the Division I basketball tournament.
From a competitive standpoint, 64 (let alone 68) teams is probably too many for the basketball tournament, but I suspect they reached that number at least in part to balance the bracket once they established every conference would get an automatic bid and there should be some number of at-large teams as well. Both of those are common sense elements to constructing a postseason. Now, could they have settled on a smaller number than 64? Sure, but the balanced bracket is preferable I think to say, a 48-team tournament with however many teams getting byes in the first round.
Sixteen represents a perfect number for college football in a lot of ways. It includes every conference champion and then a small pool of at-large teams. It’s not a perfect system, but such a thing does not exist.
The two biggest potential problems would be too many games and the watering down of the regular season.
The former is in the eye of the beholder. NFL teams play 19-20 games (plus preseason) if they reach the Super Bowl. The finalists in a 16-team college football tournament would play at most 17. Is that too many? Tough to tell. They’re already playing 15 in the lower divisions of the NCAA. They play 15 in Ohio high school football (plus preseason intersquad scrimmages), too. It would appear 17 falls neatly in between, wouldn’t it?
The latter could again be viewed as water reaching level. I’d argue this format would actually make the regular season about as important as it is now as opposed to the perception some of the anti-playoff zealots hold.
If there were a 16-team playoff that rewarded a conference championship and offered a select few at-large bids, how much different would it be from what we have now on a local level?
Winning one’s conference would still be a major carrot for every team, regardless of conference, because it would mean an automatic bid. You know the best way to win a conference? Go undefeated, particularly with divisional play muddying the waters with tiebreakers and unbalanced schedules. Would a loss be the end of the world in the SEC or Big Ten? Probably not, but it isn’t now, either. That’s the thing people tend to forget when they talk about the sanctity of the regular season now. It exists selectively at best. That wouldn’t really change.
On top of that, what’s the best way to earn an at-large bid? Well when going undefeated is no longer an option, resumé becomes the most important issue. How does one build a strong resumé? Play a competitive nonconference schedule, something that would would become more appealing if an at-large bid were a real and tangible secondary goal to pursue and a nonconference loss had no bearing on earning an automatic bid.
If we have eight one- or two-loss loss teams vying for five at-large bids, it’s not hard to envision the chosen few being the ones with the most good wins and then the best loss, as we do now in somewhat haphazard fashion given the size of the pool from which to choose.
At any rate, going undefeated that first month of the season would remain very important because it would set up teams for the stretch run knowing a loss would still drop them out of the top tier but leave them better positioned among the second tier.
And going undefeated in the conference season would remain very important lest a team fall victim to the random happenings within the standings. This again would not actually be a change from the current system as we have already eliminated even winning one’s conference division from the prerequisites for making the championship game.
So what would we be left with? Well, fans of an individual team would still find it pretty damn important that they see a win every week. That is going to be true regardless of the system. This seems obvious, but some people seem to forget it in their arguments. Nationally, we’d likely get more appealing games at the beginning of the season and definitely at the end. In the middle, we might lose a little of the life-or-death feel from, say, The Red River Shootout, but I’m pretty confident people are still going to tune in and talk about it if Oklahoma and Texas are highly ranked teams. And besides, we’ve already seen the life-or-death feel all be misguided in that game in the past as the loser went on to play for the national title anyway. You know, just like last year’s Game of the Century between LSU and Alabama.
Put two good teams with large followings together and it’s going to be big. Kansas-Missouri basketball was Saturday afternoon destination viewing last season even though neither team had much to lose from a postseason standpoint. The idea we’d lose much from the college football season is really laughable.
But we would add relevance to about eight conferences, and we would (if common sense is applied) add home games to the docket for the top eight teams every year.
The MAC champion might not win many games against the Big Ten champ, but it would be fun to see such a David vs. Goliath scenario with everything on the line like we do now in basketball.
Then when the first round is over, we’d see the blue bloods of the sport get it on regularly, instead of, you know, like almost never.
How exactly is it that we have a meaningful regular season when teams can lose their last game and still play for a national championship?
So forget that and realize we can have a playoff that includes every conference, makes every conference race meaningful and leaves a couple of very precious and scarce spots for the cream of the rest of the crop.
*I’m aware of the financial implications of expanding a playoff, but let’s leave those aside for now. The BCS commissioners seem to have done that to a large extent in creating this four-team playoff anyway considering the money they are leaving on the table by continuing to include the bowls in their system instead of playing home games to start the tournament.