Saturday, December 10, 2011

College football playoff a risk, but a worthy one

How about Braxton vs. Oklahoma in a future playoff?
Bowl season is upon us carrying its usual air of controversy and discontent. This year's kerfuffle over an all-SEC title game carries a hint of good news, at least for supporters of football games that aren't mere post-season exhibitions, in that league athletic directors are considering adding a "plus-one" four-team playoff to crown a national champion.

A plus-one system would not be enacted until the current BCS format expires after the 2013 season. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney, whose conference gets that comfortable, big-money Rose Bowl appearance every year, is on record as opposing any kind of bracketed playoff, especially one that could put Division I college football on a path toward a full-fledged, NFL-style playoff of eight to 16 teams.

Indeed, the plus-one model would be the first dangerous step toward an uncontrollable, many-tentacled playoff octopus, a quivering Delaney said in a Chicago Tribune interview this week.

“Our view is we’d like to stay where we are,” Delany said, leaving out the part about the metaphorical octopus but probably thinking about it. “We do believe in the slippery slope theory.”

Playoff dissenters like Delaney are essentially nixing a sporting event that would rival March Madness in terms of buzz and football fan Q rating. A college football playoff would likely be bigger than the basketball lover's favorite fortnight. People may enjoy their hoops, but in the U.S., football is the undisputed king.

Some kind of large scale college football playoff should be seamless in its infallible awesomeness, but like the Ponzi scheme your hapless Uncle Earl got caught up in, there is also a catch. A 16-team post-season blowout, say detractors, could very well make college football's regular season as meaningless as D1 hoops' regular season is today.

It's difficult to argue that point, at least. There's no sport that feels so disconnected from its essential parts than big-time college basketball. March Madness is undoubtedly great. The opening days of the tournament are my favorite in all of team sports ¬ a beautifully controlled chaos that lasts through the night and is guaranteed to offer at least a handful of justifiably remarkable moments.

The Madness is great, but the season is a bore.
However, those giddy first days of tournament action render the four months of competition that come before virtually null. Ostensible marquee matchups like Duke v. North Carolina are mere curiosities during the regular season. How much does a big-school "rivalry game" mean in December when it has virtually zero impact on the bracket seedings we all love to study come early spring?

While it was fun watching Ohio State smack around Duke a couple of weeks ago, the win didn't feel like anything more than it was - an early season litmus test between two schools sure to be among the favorites to win it all in March. It was forgettable because it felt so far removed from the title picture. Same deal with today's game pitting the Buckeyes against Kansas in Lawrence. Like the Duke contest, it's an exhibition dressed up in coat and tails.

In the current college football environment, meanwhile, most every game is meant to feel like an "event." Out-of-conference money-makers, like the Ohio State-Texas home-and-home series from a few years back, can end a school's championship hopes before the season has scarcely begun. The apocalyptic nature of those games is what give them their cachet. A playoff, depending on its scope, could potentially mute the regular season thrills D1 football has manufactured.

Sounds logical, but this party line anti-playoff rhetoric does not justify what is an antiquated and fundamentally flawed BCS system. Ty Duffy of Big Lead Sports puts it eloquently:

"The BCS did not work this year. It does not work any year there are not two conclusively best teams. The system is illogical and unfair. It’s a constructed cartel serving at the behest of power conferences. It exists for profit and the perpetuation of a skewed balance of power. Teams from the lesser conferences are not placed at a competitive advantage. They, simply, are not permitted to compete."

Duffy goes on to posit his very own Fair Unbiased Championship System (or, ahem, the FUBCS), which would include 11 conference champions and the five highest ranked at large teams. Winning your conference or finishing in the top 10 would get you into the tournament. A reconfigured ranking system would eschew voting and instead be based on margin of victory and strength of schedule, meaning big-name schools would hypothetically be less likely to schedule early-season tilts against cupcakes. The first two rounds of the playoff would serve as home games for the higher-seeded team.

By involving every conference, the regular season would grow instead of shrink in importance, maintains Duffy. If his playoff set-up were in place this season, football fans would get such tantalizing first-round matchups as Michigan at. Boise St. and TCU at Wisconsin, followed by potential second-round ratings-busters like Alabama vs. Oklahoma in Tuscaloosa.

Duffy's system is not perfect. Sixteen teams is a bit of overload, and while fans and television networks would love a long, dramatic playoff season, one wonders what the athletes themselves would think about playing these extra games.

Still, the football fan in me salivates at the prospect of an elaborate post-season, especially when college football's current means don't justify its ends- a bowl month that in an odd bit of reversal feels just as perfunctory as college basketball's regular season.

A true post-season may or may not water down the football season, but it's worth taking the risk. Do it the right way, and fans can have their playoff cake and eat it, too.