A Modest Playoff Proposal

The BCS has infuriated college football fans for years. Here's a better way.

It's that time of year again. Six worthy teams (Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, USC, Penn State, Texas Tech, Utah) all had claims at playing in the national title game, and when only two were selected, the BCS was once again vilified.

This, of course, is nothing new. Ever since its inception in 1998, the BCS has received almost annual criticism for how it selected the two teams to play in the national title game. The BCS's original formula was the average of a team's poll ranking and computer ranking, with a strength of schedule factor and one penalty point for each loss added in, but for years, the system has bought time by applying knee-jerk like adjustments over the off-seasons to correct whatever the perceived slight was the year before:

In 2000-2001, one-loss Washington beat one-loss Miami beat one-loss Florida State, who ended up playing in the national title game. In response to the outrage, a quality win factor was added in the 2001 offseason, with teams receiving 1.5 points off their score for beating the No. 1 team, down to 0.1 points for beating the No. 15 team. If it had been in place at the time, Miami, not Florida State, would have played in the national title game.

But in 2001-2002, Nebraska, not Big 12 Champion Colorado or one-loss Oregon, earned a national title berth, where they were summarily slaughtered by Miami. In response, the BCS computer rankings were purged of any rankings that looked at margin of victory, and the quality win adjustment was tampered down to 1.0 point for beating the No. 1 team, down to 0.1 points for beating the No. 10 team. If it had been in place at the time, Oregon, not Nebraska, would have played in the national title game. Ironically, Nebraska wouldn't have made the Title Game if the original formula had been used -- they only snuck into the game because of the quality win adjustment, implemented in response to a perceived BCS wrong.

In 2003-2004, USC was shut out of a Oklahoma-LSU Title Game, despite being No. 1 in both human polls -- and finished the AP National Champions after routing Michigan in the Rose Bowl. In response, The computers were determined to have altogether too much influence and the formula we use today was unveiled: 1/3 Coaches poll, 1/3 Harris poll (in place of the AP, which withdrew from the BCS after 2004-2005 given the controversy) and 1/3 computer poll to break ties.

This year, Texas wishes it were 2001-2002 all over again and quality wins were back in play. In light of this perceived slight, the BCS can't tamper with its formula anymore, however. A formula, like the BCS today, that's basically the human polls with a computer tiebreaker is as likely to agree with conventional wisdom (and thus be controversy-free) as any. Plus, for the BCS to go back to Square One and return to its 2001-2002 formula over the offseason would be admitting no real progress has been made and the last seven years have just been an extended game of three-card Monty -- not going to happen.

Besides, changing formulas could only mollify the public for so long. By now, an overwhelming majority of college football fans and analysts (and officials as high as President-Elect Barack Obama) have come to realize the BCS is inherently flawed and think a playoff system would be best for the sport. Plus, with every snub of the system, another head coach is being converted to a playoff proponent, this year Texas' Mack Brown.

To my eyes, the reason we have no change is that people are irrationally risk-averse when it comes to money. University Presidents and ADs have to realize they could potentially be earning double the television revenue with playoffs, but don't want to risk the multi-millions they're currently receiving. Plus, football culture, for whatever reason, seems to inherently look down upon change. The words "forward pass" were considered an anathema to masculinity 60 years ago, yet the game depends on the pass today. It's been mathematically shown that it's best to go for any fourth down of less than three yards, but no coaches do. Or look at the derision with which "traditionalists" lamented today's most dominant offense, the spread, upon its arrival five years ago (and some, notably Gary Danielson, still do.) The comfort of a flawed system we know, the BCS, is enough to forestall any switch to a playoff system, no matter how great it would be.

The NCAA and ESPN just signed a multi-year, multi-million BCS deal, so we're stuck with the current system for the foreseeable future. Still, I'm not going to let today's reality constrain tomorrow's possibilities: when college football playoffs inevitably come, here's what 10 years of history says they should look like:

A Modest Playoff Proposal

What people are starting to realize, after ten years of evidence, is that the fundamental problem with the BCS isn't the formula -- the present formula is the best I could imagine at choosing the same two teams as general consensus dictates. The issue is that some years there are exactly two deserving teams, but some years there are one, some years there are three or four or five, and some years, like this year, there are nine deserving teams. Any system that decides ahead of time how many teams are postseason worthy is bound to be imperfect.

I think, therefore, the absolute ideal playoffs would be a system with no predetermined size. Rankings wouldn't matter either -- imagine how absurd it would be if No. 11 New England made the NFL playoffs with a worse record than No. 13 Baltimore. Like every professional sport, the only factor that would matter is record. However many teams were tied atop the standings would make the playoffs. The beauty is in the simplicity. 

If there were only two undefeated BCS teams, that'd be your championship. If there were no undefeated teams and five one-loss teams, that'd be your championship. If there were only one undefeated team, it'd be your champion, no playoffs necessary, no matter how many one loss teams there were. However many teams were in the playoffs would be seeded on schedule strength and play it out over the subsequent weeks.

Teams from non-BCS conferences would be assessed a one-loss penalty, so this year Utah and Boise State would make the postseason on the same footing as all the one-loss BCS teams. The threat of that one-loss penalty and that seedings would be done on schedule strength would also ensure that BCS conferences stay tough and BCS-conference teams play tough out-of-conference schedules.

Some would argue that it would be logistically difficult to not know how many playoff games (if any) would be needed ahead of time, but if pro baseball and pro basketball can have as-necessary games that sometimes never get played, why couldn't college football?

Plus, playoff detractors talk about the sanctity of the regular season making college football special (which I completely agree with). I just care more about Oklahoma-Texas Week 5 than Dallas-Green Bay, because I know the latter two teams can still win the championship with a loss, and the first two may well not. Playoff detractors rightfully point out that if we create an eight-team playoff such that a team could lose a game or two and still get in, you're devaluing the meaning of the regular season.

With a flexible playoff structure, however, literally every game would matter. Say any of the one-loss BCS conference teams had lost one fewer game this year. They'd be our undefeated, undisputed national champions, no playoffs necessary. Say any of those teams had lost one more game this year -- they wouldn't be in the playoffs.

Finally, just look at the history. Here's how many teams would have made an ideal playoff system each year:

2008: 9. In: One-loss Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Alabama, USC, Texas Tech, Penn State, undefeated Utah and Boise State. First team out: two-loss Ohio State

2007: 3. In: One-loss Ohio State, one-loss Kansas, undefeated HawaiiFirst team out: two-loss LSU

2006: 1. In: Undefeated Ohio State. First team out: one-loss Florida

2005: 2. In: Undefeated USC, undefeated Texas. First team out: one-loss Penn State

2004: 3. In: Undefeated USC, undefeated Oklahoma, undefeated AuburnFirst team out: one-loss Cal

2003: 1. In: One-loss Oklahoma, one-loss USC, one-loss LSU. First team out: two-loss Michigan

2002: 2. In: Undefeated Ohio State, undefeated Miami. First team out: one-loss Iowa

2001: 1. In: Undefeated Miami. First team out: one-loss Nebraska

2000: 1. In: Undefeated Oklahoma. First team out: one-loss Miami

1999: 2. In: Undefeated Florida State, undefeated Virginia TechFirst team out: one-loss Iowa

1998: 1. In: Undefeated TennesseeFirst team out: one-loss Florida State

In 11 years, we would have had a nine-team playoff, two three-team playoffs, three two-team playoffs and five years with no playoffs at all. Obviously there's no magical size for a playoff field that will work every year -- and by installing such a playoff we'll just be passing along the fundament problem of the BCS onto the next generation, an inflexible playoff size.

Let the seasons speak for themselves, and let's install a flexible playoff system.

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