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Why College Football Is Destined For A Playoff System

Updated on January 23, 2011

America's New Favorite Pastime

Well, the college football season is officially over. The coaching carousel is well under way, and star athletes have decided whether or not they will enter the draft. Before you know it, summer will be here and the Associated Press will release their preseason rankings of all the college football teams in the FBS. Just another year of college football right? Maybe not for long.

College football is one of the most popular sports in the country for several years running and it stands to good reason as to why that is. In this league, the athletes play football not for money (well, not legally anyway), but for the chance to get to the NFL so that they CAN play for money. That means that they have to work hard and play to the best of their ability in order to outshine their opposition and make a name for themselves. There is no pre-signed contract that guarantees a future in the NFL. Combine that with the number of different colleges across the nation in a variety of climates and regions, with the great rivalries that date back over 100 years in some cases, and the constant influx of fresh young talent and the reason for the sport's popularity is easy to see.

Former UGA running back Knowshon Moreno exhibits power and speed in a diving touchdown against top rival Florida.  The GA/FLA rivalry is one of many in the South.
Former UGA running back Knowshon Moreno exhibits power and speed in a diving touchdown against top rival Florida. The GA/FLA rivalry is one of many in the South.

A Complicated System

At the head of this great sport is the BCS Committee. This governing body mandates the rules for college football and works with college conferences to invoke punishments and issue judgments on an array of topics and situations involving players, coaches, and even schools. Basically, they're the pilots of this 747 we call collegiate football. Unfortunately for the BCS, the decision to continue using the current ranking system with "bowl games" to cap the season has been met with some "turbulence".

As it stands, the national championship is decided in one of the oddest fashions in modern sports. In virtually every other team sport, an elimination-style playoff system is used in order to determine which team is truly number one. If you can beat the best of the best, you are crowned the champion. Not so with college football. And for this reason, the sport is under heavy scrutiny from fans, players, and even coaches. Currently, the sport uses a voting based system that combines a coaches poll, media polls, and a computerized poll and averages the three together to determine the top 25 teams in the nation from week to week. At the end of the season, the number one and number two teams will meet to play for the national championship while the other "qualified" teams play in bowl games for nothing more than money for their respective universities and an oppurtunity to play one more game.

What Once Was Is Now No Longer

If history has taught us anything, it is that change is inevitable. In economics, the market is cyclical and resistance to change is counter-productive. The same can be argued in this situation, as many teams in recent history have gone undefeated in the regular season only to be excluded from the national championship due to a lack of votes. And while strength of schedule and perennial power is definitely something to consider, it is not something that should decide the fate of a football team's season. One of the most compelling aspects of college football is the parody that occurs week to week. We tune in to see if the underdog can bring down the superpower, or to see our team demolish a cross-state rival. Each year, we see more and more top ranked teams knocked off on a weekly basis by foes that aren't even on the radar. This proves that on any given Saturday, just about any game has the potential to end in an upset.

It's for this reason that a revision of the system is desperately needed. Gone are the days when a team from a power conference lines up against the Mountain West or the WAC for a guaranteed win. With better athletic facilities and coaches around the nation, the talent level at smaller universities has risen dramatically. The days of college football dynasties are quickly becoming extinct, and it is not uncommon to see a Boise State, TCU, Nevada, or Utah knock off a Pac-10 or SEC team. Most conferences have exhibited their increased desire to determine a clear-cut conference champion with the 2012 restructuring, which has the Big 10 and the Pac-10 both increasing to 12 teams in order to have a championship match at the end of the season.  There is no reason the national championship shouldn't be determined on the field as well.

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Auburn Head Coach Gene Chizik with the 2011 National Championship Trophy.  The Tigers were denied the opportunity to play for the 2005 National Championship, even though they compiled an undefeated 13-0 season with an SEC Championship that year.
Auburn Head Coach Gene Chizik with the 2011 National Championship Trophy. The Tigers were denied the opportunity to play for the 2005 National Championship, even though they compiled an undefeated 13-0 season with an SEC Championship that year.

The People Have Spoken

The fact of the matter is, people like playoffs. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. You can look at almost any sport and see a significant increase in popularity and in ratings around playoff time. It's just the way it is. Viewers that never watch a single regular season game will tune in to the NBA Playoffs or March Madness, just to see who's getting eliminated this week. The intense pressure of a single game deciding whether or not your season is over is compelling television. Win or go home, it's the American way.

Each year, we see new underdog teams in college football pulling off amazing seasons and knowing that they have absolutely no chance of making it to the national championship game, no matter how many games they win or how dominating their wins are. You can guarantee these teams all want to see a playoff system instituted. The only teams who are happy with the BCS system are the teams who are favored in the polls each year, such as USC, Ohio State, and a few other select "darlings" of the BCS. And while it does make sense for these schools to want to stay with a system that they have personally experienced success with, it does an injustice to the rest of the college football world when you lose two games and are still ahead of unbeaten teams.

A sample 16-team single elimination seeded bracket.  Winner take all.
A sample 16-team single elimination seeded bracket. Winner take all.

My Solution

While there are many suggestions floating around as to how the playoff dilemma could be best solved, I will now throw one more (and no doubt the best one yet) into the mix. My personal solution to all the mayhem and drama that is Division I College Football. One of the main arguments against a playoff system is that it would involve adding too many extra games, which increases the potential for injury to the student athletes. While I agree the potential is there, you can just as easily get injured the first game of the season as the last game of the season. With conditioning and training as good as it is today, the addition of a few extra games is not going to affect the athletes that much. Not to mention the majority of these guys have NFL aspirations, which will most likely be playing an 18-game regular season, with at least two preseason games and the potential of 4 additional playoff games depending on their record at the end of the season, in the very near future. That's a 24-game season for the AFC and NFC Champions.  It seems to me the extended season would only better prepare the athletes for their rookie season in the NFL.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to power. The BCS doesn't want to lose control of who plays in the championship games. Under the current system, they can all but hand pick the two teams if they really wanted to. But in the interest of fairness to all, I will throw them a bone and agree that the voting polls can and should be integrated into the playoff system to allow some influence over which teams make the playoffs.

And so without further ado, I present to you a sixteen team single elimination playoff bracket. The teams will be comprised of the eleven conference champions, along with five at large entrants. It is my belief that no matter how small or weak your conference is, if you can win your conference championship, you should be allowed to play for the national title. Period. Next, if your team went undefeated and you didn't win a conference championship (which allows for those teams that do not belong to a conference), you will be given an automatic at large slot in the playoffs. The remaining spots will be filled using the current BCS polls, going in ranked order to teams not already selected by either a conference championship win or an undefeated season. The stipulation is that only two teams from any conference can compete in the playoffs. This allows for a broader representation of quality programs around the nation and ensures that the best of the best get a chance to play for the title while maintaining equal representation of all conferences.

This system also eliminates the postseason arguments and complaints over teams who should have gotten in, but didn't. If you wanted a spot in the playoffs, you should have either won your conference championship or beaten every opponent on your schedule. It's that simple.


Playoff Rules

As with anything in life, there are rules to follow. The conference champions will be seeded one through eleven, based on overall wins. This gives teams that play thirteen games a deserved edge over teams who do not participate in a conference championship game and therefore face one less quality opponent. In tie-breaker situations, conference wins will be used to determine seeding. If there is still a tie, the BCS poll position will be used to determine the higher seed. The at large entrants will be seeded twelve through sixteen, based on the above criteria. The teams will then compete on a 1 seed vs 16 seed, 2 seed vs 15 seed, etc. until two teams are left standing, who will compete for the national championship. Current college game rules will be used to ensure there is a clear cut winner in each game and no ties.

Breaking Down The Bracket

If you haven't already viewed the playoff bracket link listed above, please do so now. I don't have to tell you that it would have posed some very compelling matchups to say the least. Funnily enough, two of the first round games were actual BCS bowl games that were played, those being Stanford v. Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl and Connecticut v. Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, with the potential to see the other three BCS bowl games if the cards fell just right. While I do feel that the outcome of the tournament would have resulted in an Auburn victory, I'm not 100% sure that Oregon would have made it past the first round against Boise State, which is one of the most dangerous teams in the nation any given week. Regardless of whether you favor the current BCS system or my playoff system, you have to admit that it would make for some very compelling television.

Now comes the other part of the argument, what about the bowl games? My theory is that the bowl game system should be used, with a few slight revisions. For example, each game of each round of the playoffs could be sponsored by a different bowl game, with the BCS bowl games being the last seven games played.  Basically, everything after the first round in the playoffs (this allows for two more bowls to become BCS bowls, possibly the Cotton Bowl and the Capital One Bowl?)  Instead of bowls having conference loyalties, they would have contracts for Round One - 1 seed vs. 16 seed game, for example. The remaining schools who did not make the playoffs could participate in the remaining bowl games under current standards. This allows for seven new bowl games to come into the mix, to replace the eight current bowl games which are now part of the playoff system with the BCS bowls.

This also provides an increased incentive for schools to compete to the best of their abilities and go as far in the playoffs as possible, as each bowl game they play in will increase funds to their university and their football program. This allows for the best two teams to compete in four bowl games and receive four times as much money as a team that didn't make the playoffs, which makes perfect sense to me.

Final Analysis

After analyzing my own system, I can see one additional argument that will probably be used against this format, and I'm not afraid to attack it head on right now. Some may say that the automatic berth of conference champions from weaker conferences such as the WAC, MAC, Sun Belt, C-USA, etc. isn't fair because it gives no incentive for these teams to compete at the same level as an SEC or Big 10 team has to each and every week. They can schedule cupcakes every week and make it to the playoffs. That's very true, if they win the most games in their conference, no matter who the opponents, they would make it to the playoffs. My defense is simple: Just how far in the playoffs do you think that team, which hasn't faced decent competition all year, will really go? It is in their best interest to face good opposition in order to prepare them for the playoffs. After all, practice makes perfect. 

Another aspect that would likely happen over a period of several years under this system would be a gradual shifting of power throughout the conferences.  Since all conferences champions would have an automatic playoff berth, it makes sense for some of the SEC, Big 10, and Big 12 powerhouses to realign with weaker conferences such as the MAC, WAC, Sun Belt, etc. in order to take advantage of an easier road.  Over time, the system would lead to the elimination of perennial domination by the SEC, Big 12, and Pac 10, with all conferences having at least a few very quality teams. 

In the end, this debate is far from over. I can easily see this issue dragging on for several more years before a playoff system is finally instituted. It's gonna take a truly groundbreaking event in the BCS system to trigger the inevitable change of format. It may be two years, five years, or maybe even ten years away. But I promise you one thing, it will happen, sooner than later. And on that day, college football will become better for it.


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      huskerfan 7 years ago

      Nice article. College football really does need a playoff system. If you get a chance check out my top 5 college qbs.

    • Josh Wiley profile image

      Josh Wiley 7 years ago

      Great Hub with lots of good details. I am definately in favor of a playoff system for college football and hope they go to it soon.