Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thoughts on the inaugural college football playoff

It's been over a week since it ended - congratulations are in order for the Ohio State Buckeyes - and I'm finally getting around to gloating writing about how successful it was. So successful, in fact, that it made believers of former skeptics:
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany spent the better part of two decades pooh-poohing any talk of a possible college football playoff. He wasn’t alone. When his SEC counterpart Mike Slive first proposed a four-team model at the April 2008 BCS meetings, it never even reached a vote.

On Monday night, however, Delany struck a much different tune as he stood on the AT&T Stadium sideline watching Ohio State and Oregon warm up for the first College Football Playoff National Championship. Beyond the fact his conference’s school would soon hoist the trophy, the postseason event he and his colleagues finally approved in June 2012 exceeded even their own expectations in terms of fan interest, the selection process and the on-field drama itself.

“You’d have to say those who advocated for it early on were right,” Delany told FOX Sports. “You’d have to say it was great that we all came on board with it.”

That Ohio State, the No. 4 seed and most debated participant, wound up winning the tournament served as a fitting testimonial for why the sport needed to scrap the BCS. All those years we were so sure who the No. 1 and 2 teams were? This year it would have been Florida State and Alabama.

“[The playoff] certainly matched my hope for it, which is teams get to prove it on the field rather than through some of the measures that were used to select the [BCS] top two teams,” said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. “It certainly fell in the right direction to validate the playoff this year.”
Emphasis added. Oh, and it was the highest-rated event in ESPN history as well. Those of us who have been advocating for a college football playoff for years feel rather vindicated, especially now that the defenders of the previous BCS system have been proven to be utterly full of shit.

While the very first college football playoff was a success, there are still some adjustments that could be made to make it even better. Stewart Mandel argues that, while the playoff made the regular season more exciting (playoff opponents had argued that it would ruin the importance of the regular season), it “rendered almost everything else irrelevant:”
A year after recurring epilepsy put his coaching future in doubt, Jerry Kill led Minnesota to its first winning Big Ten record since 2003 and the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl since 1962. It should have been one of the best stories of the season. But Minnesota’s success mostly got mentioned only because it impacted the playoff resumes of two Gophers opponents -- TCU and Ohio State.

But Minnesota got Alabama-like coverage compared with the Group of 5 schools. Marshall, which finished 13-1, and Boise State, eventual 12-2 Fiesta Bowl champion, might as well have been playing in the FCS for as far as they flew off the radar. And you can expect the sport’s focus to only narrow further in coming years as the playoff increasingly dominates all college football conversations.
I’ve afraid I’ve come to terms with the fact that the Power Five (aka the "superconference") and the Group of Five are in the process of splitting apart. That’s neither fair nor good for the sport, but at this point the momentum is unstoppable. The only hope for Group of Five schools with higher aspirations (the University of Houston included) is that the Power Five's current makeup of 65 schools is not set in stone and that another round of conference realignment will occur in the future. (In that regard, I’m glad Houston replaced Tony Levine before he could drag the Cougar program down any further during this critical time.)

Mandell also praises the way in which the four playoff teams were selected:
TCU and Baylor fans might not agree, but somebody had to miss the cut. More important is that the 12-member committee fulfilled its intended purpose of performing a more nuanced evaluation process than the simplistic AP and coaches polls. Florida State became an unwitting poster child for the new model, with the committee continually ranking the undefeated Seminoles lower than the traditional polls due to their repeated struggles against largely mediocre competition.

“Forever in college football, its been about wins and losses -- you win, you move up, you lose, you move down,” said Hancock. “It wasn’t that way with the committee, and that’s what we wanted. We wanted that deeper dive and we got it.”

Also encouraging, though possibly accidental: The committee delivered an important message about non-conference scheduling with its exclusion of No. 5 Baylor, which intentionally played all cupcakes. While Ohio State’s extra game, a 59-0 Big Ten title game rout of Wisconsin, ultimately gave the Buckeyes an edge over both Baylor and TCU, a source with knowledge of the discussions said the Bears might have fared better if they had beaten even one decent Power 5 foe.
Yes, it was fun watching Art Briles whine because his Bears, whose out-of-conference schedule consisted of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo, and whose conference is the only Power Five that doesn't play a championship game, were excluded from the playoff. The strength-of-schedule issue, however, may in fact prove to be yet another nail in the Group of Five coffin, as Power Five schools avoid scheduling schools from perceived "lesser" conferences in order to burnish their credentials.
Perhaps the best bigger-picture gauge of the playoff’s success is the collective mood of the public coming out of it. For so many years with the BCS, the day-after discussion was full of angst and vitriol, of columnists, talk-show hosts and politicians screaming to burn the thing down.

While plenty of people had gripes with various stages of the process, and while the calls to expand to six or eight teams have already begun, for the most part, college football fans generally seem . . . dare we say it? . . . pleased.
Which brings us to the big issue regarding the playoff: expansion. As it stands, the folks running the playoff claim that they have not even discussed expanding the current four-team format. And I'm certain that we'll see the existing four-team format for at least a few more seasons. Oliver Luck, the former West Virginia athletic director who was on the playoff selection committee, believes that four is the right number because "it should be hard to get into the playoff." He has a point: four out of 120-something teams is a high hurdle to clear, and there's something elegantly simple about a four-team, two round playoff.

That being said, I think an expansion of the playoffs to eight teams is inevitable. This is because the current arrangement requires that at least one of the Power Five conferences be left out of the dance (it is simply a coincidence that the champions of the other four Power Fives made the playoff; it is theoretically possible for the four playoff teams to come from a single conference); this season the odd conference out happened to be the Big XII. I don't think this arrangement is sustainable, given the stakes involved; sooner or later they will decide that all five conferences need a guaranteed place at the table. Furthermore, both the Power Five conferences as well as ESPN have to be looking at the television ratings this playoff generated and be seeing dollar signs flash before their eyes. More playoffs equals more money, and money talks.

If it were up to me, it would go to eight teams, and this is how it would work:
  • The participants would be the champions of the five Power Five conferences (provided they reach a certain ratings threshold; the playoff should not be forced to accept a conference champion that is exceptionally weak), and three at-large berths. Ideally, one of these at-large berths would be reserved for the highest-rated Group of Five school (again, provided they reach a certain ratings threshold); if this format ever actually came to pass, however, I doubt the Group of Five would be included.

  • The first round games would continue to be the "New Year's Six" (Rose, Fiesta, Cotton, Orange, Peach, Sugar) bowl games. This will increase from two to four the number of  these bowls with championship relevance, which is something both the bowl's organizers as well as ESPN will like. 

  • Second round (semifinal) games will be played at the home stadium of the higher-seeded team. This is to combat the travel fatigue that would result by requiring fans to travel as many as three times in a row to playoff games. This would also give more importance to the seedings (as well as the regular season results that decide playoff seeding); right now, all the games are neutral-site games, which creates little advantage for a higher seed over a lower one. 

  • The final would be a neutral site game, as it is now. It would just be a week later - likely the weekend before or evening of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. 
There are some drawbacks: this schedule may bleed into the spring semester for some participating schools - as it is, classes at Oregon resumed the week before the championship game and at Ohio State the day of - which creates issues for the players as well as students who want to attend. Furthermore, there may be a conflict with NFL playoffs, especially if they, too, expand their field from 12 to 14 teams. An alternative is to play the first round games at the home of the higher-seeded team a week or two before the new year and then use two of the New Year's Six bowls for the semifinals (as is the case now), but that would have an impact on the earlier (pre-holiday) bowl games and negatively impact the other four New Year's Six bowls (who would have to feature matchups of schools outside the top eight) And, of course, if the playoffs did expand from four to eight, there would immediately be people demanding that it expand further, to 16 or even 32 teams.

Okay, so a 32-team college football playoff would probably be a bit too unwieldy; even a 16-team field presents complications. Eight is probably enough for a playoff; going back to Oliver Luck's comment, the playoff should be hard to get into, and I think eight is where you draw that line. Anything larger than an eight-team playoff, furthermore, and you begin to have an adverse impact on the traditional bowl system which I don't think college football is ready to do away with just yet.

At any rate, we're still a few years away from an eight-team field. Right now, I'm just enjoying the fact that college football finally has a playoff of any sort.

Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples likes the four-team format for the time being, but hazards a guess as to what an eight-team bracket would have looked like this season. ESPN's David Hale has an evaluation that is worth reading as well.

Finally, while I am going to miss college football, there are two things the playoff gave us that I am not going to miss: the endless repetition of "Centuries" by Fall Out Boy, which ESPN (unfortunately) chose as the "theme song" for the playoff, and those truly annoying Dr. Pepper commercials featuring Larry the soda vendor.

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