“If only there were an eight-team playoff, college football would be so much better.”
We who support the Bowl Championship Series have heard that message before, and we know we’ll hear it again. But we believe fans support a playoff partly because they haven’t been presented with all the pitfalls, hitches and glitches of a playoff.
This blog is part two in a series of articles that explore various playoff proposals. Last time, we examined what would happen to college football if a 16-team playoff were created. Today, we look at an eight-team plan.
We have studied the issue in great detail and remain convinced—while acknowledging that television ratings and subsequent revenue would be substantial—that a 16-team playoff or an eight-team playoff would come with many blemishes and ultimately would not be in the best interests of the student-athletes, the coaches, the universities or their fans.
A playoff would bring myriad problems that would affect the quality of the game of college football, which we believe is unique and not comparable to other sports that end their seasons with playoff systems.
Try creating a formula for an eight-team college football playoff which doesn’t diminish the regular season or end the bowls as we know them.
In all sincerity, we don’t think it can be done.
First of all, picking the participating eight teams and then deciding when and where they would play would be far more controversial than the current system of selecting the top two teams.
Top Eight in BCS? …
Some playoff proponents advocate taking the top eight teams in the BCS Standings after the regular season. Those teams would be playoff-bound.
Sounds simple enough—until the proposed playoff moves to the actual field.
For example, the top eight teams in the final 2009 BCS Standings were Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU, Florida, Boise State, Oregon and Ohio State.
That would be highly controversial for (No. 9) Georgia Tech, which had two losses just like Oregon and Ohio State. Plus, under this playoff scheme, Georgia Tech’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship and 11-victory regular season don’t count for anything.
For that matter, Iowa, Penn State and BYU would not make the playoffs, despite finishing 10-2 just like Oregon and Ohio State. Every season, the teams ranked fifth through 15th have almost virtually indistinguishable differences, which means picking eight teams will lead to massive contention among those teams that don’t make the cut. True, it’s not a controversy over who is playing for the national championship, but given the importance of making the playoffs, it will be a significant controversy nonetheless.
Finally, any large-scale playoff that doesn’t guarantee spots for all conference champions will never pass muster.
Going to eight teams won’t reduce controversy; it will increase it.
… Or Conference Champs?
If you say that taking the top eight teams of the BCS rankings isn’t fair, how about a system where the conference champions from the Pac-10, Southeastern Conference, Big 12, ACC, Big East and Big Ten automatically qualify and then two at-large teams are selected to fill the field?
Be prepared for the firestorm that would come when a three-loss or even four-loss conference champion automatically qualifies for the playoff while a one-loss, much-higher-ranked runner-up in a different conference is left out of the mix.
The current BCS structure is subject to the same issue. But with 10 teams selected for the BCS bowl games, the controversy is limited. If there had been an eight-team playoff with conference champions getting bids along with two at-large schools in 2009, Florida or Boise State would have been left out of the playoffs entirely.
An eight-team playoff is not the cure-all some of its supporters think it is.
Home Fields or Neutral Sites?
Once you come up with what you believe is a fair system (if there is such a thing) to choose the participating teams, now try to tackle the big elephant in the room …
Would the quarterfinals and semifinals be played at home stadiums and then a championship game be held on a neutral site, just like the NFL and the three playoffs in other NCAA divisions?
Or would all three rounds of the eight-team playoff be played on neutral fields?
Neutral fields would pose serious attendance issues. The two teams that advance to the championship game would play three games in three cities, perhaps in three weeks—in addition to the 12 or 13 games they already played during the regular season.
How would fans, students and alumni—enough to fill an 80,000- to 90,000-seat stadium—be able to attend each of those games? The fact is, they wouldn’t. They would be forced to pick and choose, because most could not afford to travel to all three games, and thus neutral-site playoff games might be played in half-empty stadiums.
As it is, fans and students can easily plan to attend one bowl per year. Hence, the majority of the bowls enjoy large, enthusiastic crowds for days on end.
For that matter, think about the difficulty that the teams’ marching band members, cheerleaders and other students would face. How could they miss classes to attend all three games?
On the other hand, holding playoff games at home stadiums might ease the attendance problem but would create a severe fairness issue. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament once was played in home arenas—but no longer, because the host team had an unfair advantage. And imagine Southern schools traveling to northern locations to play games on frozen fields in the snow of mid to late December.
If you took this season as an example, Nippert Stadium (home of No. 3-ranked Cincinnati) would have hosted at least one game and maybe two. The game might be played not only in freezing weather, but also in front of a capacity crowd of only 35,000 fans.
You want controversy? Just picture Florida playing a quarterfinal playoff game in the cold of the Queen City in front of half as many fans as annually attend the Gators’ spring game.
Resting Starters, Diluting the Regular Season and Hurting Rivalries
Here’s another crucial drawback rarely mentioned by playoff proponents—the likelihood that teams would rest key starters after clinching a playoff berth.
Ask Indianapolis Colts’ fans about resting starters. Many are still upset that their team rested quarterback Peyton Manning and other starters in 2009, realizing the playoffs were approaching. Or ask the New England Patriots why they didn’t rest Wes Welker, whose late-season injury dealt a severe blow to the Patriots’ playoff fortunes.
It’s one thing to do it in the NFL, which is a business, but can you imagine coaches taking this approach during a rivalry game such as Auburn-Alabama; Ohio State-Michigan; Florida-Florida State; Utah-BYU; or USC-UCLA? Rivalries such as these are a large part of what makes college football unique in the first place.
Likewise, college football’s regular season is also unique.
Even the BCS’s harshest critics agree that this sport’s regular season is the most riveting and most meaningful of all. We believe it is that way for one glaring reason—there is no playoff waiting at the conclusion of the season. This assertion is backed up by record attendance (up 35 percent since the BCS was created in 1998) and television ratings that continue to climb annually.
The End of the Bowls?
Lastly, the seven playoff games of an eight-team playoff would overshadow the more than two dozen remaining bowls. Eventually—if not immediately—those bowls would face dramatic financial problems and would close down.
Based on the 34 bowls this season, that would mean the 60 other schools whose teams enjoyed the bowl experience would be left out in the cold—and they would stay home for the holidays. More importantly, that’s more than 6,000 college football players without a final, celebratory game to play and without a bowl week to experience.
But that’s OK, the playoff proponents say, because they can watch the eight-team playoff on television and think, “What if …”