This time of year, there is almost an incessant clamor against the BCS. People forget that its central focus is to maximize the likelihood that the two highest rated teams will play each other for the "mythical" D-IA national football championship. Beyond that, it doesn't "guarantee" anything.
A 4- or 8- or 16-team playoff is often debated, even if those who favor a playoff system admit that the NCAA is not at all very interested. They simply assume that the best teams will get in and downplay the fact that such a playoff will still be fraught with the very same issues that plague the BCS. And chief among them is this -- just which teams are the best? As rated by the AP or USAToday/ESPN coaches poll? How about the Sagarin Ratings? No matter how many teams get invited, while it may be a very trivial exercise to identify the top-selections, it will be increasingly more difficult to pick the rest of the field.
What would meaningfully separate team numbers 3 and 4 in a 4-team field from team numbers 5 (or 6 or 7, etc.) that get left out? Most likely -- using today's subjective polls and esoteric computer programs -- very little. It gets even harder to differentiate between numbers 16 and 17 (or 18, etc.) in a 16-team playoff.
In other words, fans and the media will complain just as loudly as they do now, and justifiably so.
But I believe there is a means by which the NCAA can have its proverbial "cake and eat it to" -- a way to establish a meaningful playoff that would rival that of the NFL, render the regular season hugely important AND leave the existing bowl system (which has undoubtedly been very successful and profitable for the NCAA) largely intact!
After the close of the 2001 season, I sent a letter to the NCAA proposing the following post-season format. All I received was a note of thanks. I really didn't expect that much. Heck, I'm sure the NCAA "Brain Trust" had already thought of it.
The essential premise is this -- only conference champions qualify for the national championship tournament. Think about it for a moment. If a team can't even win its league -- forget about it! -- they haven't earned a shot at the national title! Proponents of a playoff like to say, "Decide the championship on the field." This does just that, better than the polls because there is no ambiguity; no subjectivity. Only conference champions can be a national champion.
Texas and Colorado might have been very good teams this season, but they weren't good enough to be the Big 12 champ -- so why should they have a shot at the national title? Sorry Longhorns and Buffs, you're out!
Now admittedly, this premise also includes an assumption, and a doozy at that, especially for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. There can be no D-IA independents. Too bad South Florida, Utah State, UCONN and Troy State -- you'll have to join a conference. [Note: South Florida will be joining C-USA and UCONN will be joining the Big East.]
There are presently 11 D-IA conferences: the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Pac 10, SEC, Sun Belt and WAC. But, you will no doubt agree that not all conferences are equal. Therefore, each conference champion would be seeded for the tournament. And because there are an odd number of conferences, we have no choice but to reward some with first-round byes. It would work this way. The bottom 6-seeds play in the first-round, with:
6 vs. 11;
7 vs. 10; and,
8 vs. 9.
The 3-winners would join the top-5 seeds in the second-round, where they would be reseeded to set up match-ups between:
1 vs. 8;
2 vs. 7;
3 vs. 6; and,
4 vs. 5.
This would result in a total of 10-games played in the tournament (3 first-round; 4 second-round; 2 third-round, and then the title game for all the marbles.) If you used this season as an example, the 5-byes would go to the champions of the Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10 and SEC, leaving the ACC champ (with 4-losses) as one of the bottom 6-seeds.
And where would these games be played? Well, I have two schools of thought here. My preference would be to site the 10-tournament games in the cities where the 10 most prestigious bowls are now played; thereby giving them all due incentive to support a playoff. And just as now, the site of the national championship game could rotate between those sites on an annual basis. The second option is an intriguing one -- site the games just as the NCAA now does for its basketball tournaments; that is, let prospective host sites bid for the opportunity. Imagine Mountaineer Field as a first-round site!
Now you might asked, "Why place the MAC or Mountain West on equal footing with the ACC or Big East?" Well, why does the NCAA impose scholarship limits? Isn't it to help spread the talent pool to increase the overall competitiveness throughout D-1A football? This proposal furthers that policy. More of the highly-regarded recruits will consider "mid-major" programs because they will know they have a shot at the national championship if they can just win their conference.
Heck, under this framework, Notre Dame might just want to join the MAC! [OK....ok, all joking aside.]
You might also say, "But...but...the best 11-teams don't get in the tournament!" Well, the top-16 teams don't necessarily get into the D-III, D-II and D-IAA tournaments either. Granted, the difference is a select few at-large teams do make those tournaments along with the conference champions. Furthermore, because of the NFL's divisional format, it is very often the case that teams with better records than some of the divisional champions get left out of the playoff field. And yet the NFL's playoff is enormously successful.
I admit this format could be altered and expanded to a 16-team field with 5 at-large selections. But then you reintroduce controversy and subjectivity, because the question will be asked, "What differentiates the 5th at-large team which gets in, from the 6th or even 7th team which gets left out? In other words, is that team truly the next best? You also accept the possibility that a team that couldn't even win its conference could end up as the national champion.
To my way of thinking, there's just something unpalatable about that. It's so clear cut if you only allow conference champions to enter the tournament -- either you're the champ and you're in, or you're not and you're out! Simple and neat.
But what of those teams that have winning records and thus bowl eligible under the current system but who fall short of their league championships and thus the tournament? And what about the rest of the current bowl lineup? Well, nothing would change here. These "lesser" bowls would still be played. They have no impact on the national championship now and they wouldn't here either. Indeed, there would be no change from the existing format. These bowls would still be a fine reward for a good (if not stellar) season, an opportunity for additional practices, and of course, bragging rights for fans and an economic boon to the host cities and the participating schools.
As Stone Cold Steve Austin is prone to say, "And that's the bottom line!"
My friends, it's the best of both worlds.