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A 12-Team College Football Playoff Proposal

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We are now in the midst of bowl season, so it is that time again: time to gripe about the BCS.

With five teams finishing undefeated this year, the idea that one game could decide college football's undisputed champion is not only laughable, it is ludicrous. No. 1 Alabama may be playing No. 2 Texas on January 7 in the BCS National Championship Game, but for my money the Fiesta Bowl on January 4 between undefeated No. 4 TCU and undefeated No. 6 Boise State has as much legitimacy.

Additionally, No. 3 Cincinnati also went undefeated. Not only that, they were perfect in the Big East, an AQ conference. Yet, they still do not get a shot at the title. If anyone thinks the BCS still works, they need their head examined.

The Bowl Subdivision needs a playoff. Some pundits think adding one extra game after the bowls are played or having a four- or eight-team playoff is what should be done. I do not think that those suggestions would be completely fair to all the teams, so this is my proposal.

The FBS playoff should be a four-week, 12-team playoff. All 11 conference champions would qualify as well as the highest ranked Independent. The BCS standings could be still be used to decide the seeding. I know many people would like to still use the rankings alone to decide the playoff teams, but I do not. If the non-AQ conferences' quality of play is so much worse than the BCS conferences, they should not be in the same division.

To make this fair, every conference should be required to have a championship game. This will even out the schedules and possibly create a mini-bowl atmosphere on the first Saturday in December.

Reserving a spot for an Independent is not ideal, but it is better than granting a spot to a runner-up. Under the current BCS eligibility rules Notre Dame becomes eligible for a BCS Bowl if they finish in the top eight in the rankings.  This would continue that tradition. Admittedly, this is not fair.  I think that eventually a 12th conference should be added and the number of teams in each conference made more comparable.

This is the schedule of play I would propose:

First Weekend in December: Conference championships

Second Saturday in December: First round of playoffs. Seeds 5-through-12 play and the top four teams sit out on a bye week

Third Saturday in December: Quarterfinals

New Year's Day and Weekend: Semifinals, bowls

Second Week in January: Championship game

If this playoff was in place this year the seeds would have been:

1. Alabama (SEC)
2. Texas (Big 12)
3. Cincinnati (Big East)
4. TCU (Mountain West)
5. Boise State (WAC)
6. Oregon (Pac-10)
7. Ohio State (Big Ten)
8. Georgia Tech (ACC)
9. Central Michigan (MAC)
10. East Carolina (Conference USA)
11. Navy (Independents)
12. Troy (Sun Belt)

And the schedule with the matchups would have been:

December 12th – First Round

#12 Troy at #5 Boise State
#11 Navy at #6 Oregon
#10 East Carolina at #7 Ohio State
#9 Central Michigan at #8 Georgia Tech

Byes: #1 Alabama, #2 Texas, #3 Cincinnati, #4 TCU

December 19th – Quarterfinals

Ohio St./ECU at Cincinnati
Oregon/Navy at Texas
BSU/Troy at Alabama

January 1st – Semifinals

(GT, CMU, or TCU) vs. (BSU, Troy, or Alabama) at top seed location
(Ohio St., ECU, or Cincinnati) vs. (Oregon, Navy, or Texas)

January 7th – Championship Game

This could result in a Texas and Alabama title nonetheless. But that is not the point. This would give all deserving teams a shot as well as eliminate a lot of the AQ conference bias.

Here are the advantages to this proposal:

A More Legitimate Champion.  Whatever team comes out on top at the end of this tournament would have to have beaten some of the best teams in the nation.  If a #1 or #2 seed wins the championship it would prove their raking was correct. If a #5 seed or lower won, then they still beat four conference champions.  

Notre Dame would (could) be relevant again. The Fighting Irish have arguably the most storied college football tradition in the NCAA.  However, the last few years have been up and down for Notre Dame and they have not won a national championship since the 80s. Despite their woes the Fighting Irish remain one of the visible college football teams on national television. Although Navy would have qualified in this proposed tournament the last three seasons, UND was in contention until mid-November, when they lost their last four games beginning with … Navy. Yet a tournament would give Notre Dame a chance to be in the playoff hunt every year. This would justify some of this particular school's media saturation.

Quality Nonconference Play.  More inter-conference games during the playoffs could actually help strengthen the weaker conferences.  The weaker conference teams would be going up against  stronger conference teams in games that would be competitive and not just a way for big schools to pad their schedules.  A playoff appearance could also make a school from a weaker conference more appealing to the top prospects.

Many will grouse that a playoff will cause more problems than it solves. I disagree, and I think that many of the problems it will create are tolerable. Here are some common arguments against a playoff and my explanation of why they may not be as big a deal as some would tell you.

Bowl Changes. Would a playoff wreak havoc on the bowl schedule? There will certainly be some adjustment, but it may not be that disruptive.  They can still play all the bowls. In this proposal, we can use the six most prestigious bowls for the quarterfinals and semifinals. (The National Championship game would still be just that.) I think the actual bowl schedule could remain largely unchanged except perhaps dates, so that they don't overlap with any playoff games.

A playoff would disrupt academics and their winter break. This is a common argument against a playoff and it is true in many ways. A playoff would take student athletes out of school and away for their scheduled break. But March Madness also does this. It lasts three weeks and the Final Four teams end up playing in three different cities.  It's almost as much a distruption as this football tournament.  Also, many college football teams participating in bowl games are already practicing during winter break.

Second place teams still won't get a chance. For example, Florida was undefeated and  #1 until falling to Alabama in the SEC Championship game. This could be solved by going to a 16-team tournament and adding four wild cards, filled by the four highest ranked nonconference champions.  This year, that would mean Florida, Iowa, Virginia Tech, and LSU. Many consider those teams stronger than what would be the bottom four seeds this year.

But then the top 4 seeds would lose their bye. The way I see it, if you are not the best in your own conference, you are not the best in the nation.

There are a number of problems that would be caused by moving to a playoff system, but I think they are far outweighed by the benefits.  This would be a big change, but it is needed. The BCS is a sham of system that has far too much bias to ever really give the fans an legitimate champion. I believe a 12-team tournament would not only give the FBS postseason legitimacy, it would be one of the most exciting sporting events of the year.

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About Mark Kalriess

  • I’ve been meaning to reply again to this.

    El Bicho, March Madness games don’t have trouble selling out because they’re not meaningless. Bowl Games that meant something toward a National Championship would appeal to football fans even if their school wasn’t in it.

    I think giving every conference a championship gives each school a fair shake. In the case of a tie, I would say that the tiebreakers in place are pretty good. I might add Points Against and Points For to Head-to-Head,Division Record and Overall Record; but I think that last year was a rare case.

  • JM

    One problem… you must have at-larges… which is why I like a 16 team playoff idea… yeah include all the conference champions… but what about last year when oklahoma, texas, and texas tech all finished tied in the big 12 south and had all beaten each other? Any three teams in such a situation would need to be included in the playoff.

  • 5) Students can not travel for most of those games

    Yeah, because March Madness games have such trouble selling out

  • Robert,

    I believe I addressed some of your points in the article but:

    1) I’m assuming you cannot require a Conference Championship. There are 120 teams in the FBS, that could easily be 12 conferences of 10 teams. And then the NCAA can change the rules. That’s the whole basis for the article, rule change
    2)Yes it doesn’t completely remove the bias but there has to be some way to seed the teams. The alternative is to of course set which Conference Champions play each other similar to High School playoffs.
    3) The 12 team limit is based on Conferences. The whole purpose of choosing the 12 Conference Champions is to eliminate the AQ qualifying bias. As I said in the article if the other conferences are so weak they should be in a different Division.
    4) I can’t argue that Cincinatti is better than Florida. But Cincinatti won their division and Florida didn’t. You can’t start giving certain divisions extra spots because that just opens up more controversy. Nearly every playoff system is based on Division winners
    5) and 6) The whole purpose of the bye is to reward the top-seeded teams. If the seeds hold (which is unlikely to always happen) no team would play more than 3 weeks. March Madness is 3 weeks. Do you think that should be shortened?
    7) This would actually help remove the 1 loss stigma that the current rankings have. A team could lose early in the season, and still win their Conference Championship and get into the playoffs.

    You see no reason for a change? How about the fact that two undefeated teams are playing in the Fiesta Bowl and don’t even have a chance at the championship?

  • my problems

    1) you can not require a playoff, as the NCAA requires a conference to have 12 teams
    2) What happens with bias in the polls, which is obvious
    3) How is a 12 team limit any better than a 2, as it creates the exact same issues
    4) Can you really argue that Cincinatti is better than Iowa? Why should runner ups not have a chance, when they are so good (or Cincinnati over Florida)
    5) Students can not travel for most of those games
    6) 16 teams makes so much more sense, as byes are crap
    7) Say a team lsot their starting quarterback the first week, but then became great. How can you argue that they dont deserve to be in this, when that might have cost them their championship

    frankly, i have seen no good reason to change, and pleanty to stay the same

  • Tim

    I think there should be a four team playoff, seeded by the BCS, with the winner of the #1 vs #4 game playing the winner of the #2 vs. #3.

    Play the national semifinals on New Year’s Day, and the Championship game a week later. Rotate the BCS bowls for the title game, like they do now.

    It seems like the easiest compromise.

  • Thanks for your comments.

    I mention the possibility of a 16-team tournament. The purpose of limiting to Conference Champions and the Independent with the best record was to eliminate as much subjectivity as possible.

    I would be afraid that the pick for the 4 wildcards could end up being just as controversial as the current BCS. For example in the final BCS rankings this year Penn State was 13 and would just miss a wildcard spot to LSU. But Penn State is ranked higher in the AP,Harris, and Coaches Poll.

  • Justin

    Amen, Mark — another great article. Let’s give the BCS the finger!