I am a fair weather college basketball fan. When my team is playing well in February I start to pay attention. If they are playing in March I become addicted. The beauty of March Madness is that you get the “top” 65 teams into a tournament and winner takes all. What makes it even more exciting is when your bracket is completely busted (usually by Saturday of the first weekend for most…or Thursday afternoon for me) and you get to cheer for an underdog. In the last 10 years we have seen three teams with a seed of higher than 5 make it into the Final Four. #11 George Mason in 2006, #8 Butler and #11 VCU in 2011. None of those teams won the title but Butler lost to Duke in a great finals game after beating VCU to earn that right.
What I find entertaining is that despite the fact that college basketball teams play over 30 games during a regular season, and then get a conference tournament to play their way into the NCAA tournament, the 66th best team is always upset that they did not get an opportunity to go to the big show. The fact that no #16 seed, and only six #15 seeds have won a tournament game (the lowest seed to win the tournament was #8 Villanova in 1985) does not bode well in favor of the argument for the 66th best team.
Now let’s switch the conversation back to the point. In 2014 college football will institute a “playoff” that is nothing more than a +1 format. In my opinion there are several things that we lose by switching to this format. First of all, and by far the most important, is the impact this format will have on the regular season.
In 2012 when #1 Alabama lost to Texas A&M and fell to #4 there was absolute devastation in Tuscaloosa. Not because of the loss as much as their chances at a title were “destroyed.” Then the impossible happened the following week. #1 Kansas State lost to unranked Baylor, and #2 Oregon lost to #14 Stanford. All of a sudden, after one week of despair Alabama is back in it at #2. All they had to do was win out.
But let’s say that the 4 team playoff was implemented this year, what would happen? The selection committee has been told to focus more on Conference Champions and tougher out of conference schedules. I think this will certainly help the integrity of the system but no matter what, #5 will be left out, and in many cases a team ranked higher than #5 will be left out. Based on the “encouraged” selection criteria this season it most likely would have been #1 Notre Dame vs. #6 Stanford and #2 Alabama vs. #5 Kansas State. That’s three conference champions and one independent. (Stanford would get in over #4 Oregon due to their head to head win over Oregon, and #3 Florida would be left out because they did not win their division, let alone their conference)
Let’s look at each team’s credentials:
- Notre Dame - Undefeated, wins over #10 Michigan State (unranked in the final polls), #18 Michigan (#24), #17 Stanford on a controversial call at the end which probably should have given Stanford the win (#7), and #8 Oklahoma (#15). Not a bad schedule… they’re in.
- Alabama - One loss to a very hot Texas A&M team, Conference champion (despite some terrible game management at the end of the SEC Championship Game by Georgia), their most impressive non-conference win was a neutral field, 27 point beat down of Michigan (ND beat UM by 7 in South Bend). Their remaining non-conference slate was unimpressive and the total scores of those three games were 124-7. Ok… I agree, they’re in, because of the way they played against LSU and Georgia.
Here’s where it gets interesting:
- Stanford - Conference Champion, two losses. One to Notre Dame (see above) and one to unranked Washington (although, Steve Sarkisian is good for one or two big upsets every year, but this is still a bad loss). Most impressive non-conference win is a 3 point victory at home over San Jose State. I’m not sold on this entry in the playoff.
- Kansas State - Co-Conference Champion (although they did beat Oklahoma head-to-head in Norman), one bad loss to unranked Baylor (who did get hot and looked better at the end of the season). Most impressive non-conference win was over Miami by 31 points. Least impressive was a 14 point win over North Texas and UNT had opportunities to win this game. I’m not sold on this entry either.
That’s two of the probable entries that most would not have agreed with (other than Stanford and Kansas State fans). Since the bowl games have been played it is certainly easy to second guess my inclusion of Kansas State here (and possibly Notre Dame), but this is what it probably would have looked like had the playoff been implemented for 2012. Or, if Ohio State had not had the tattoo parlor incident that would have been worse, especially without the playoff!
This system will still have the same problems that we face with the current BCS system. Stanford is rewarded as a two loss team that won its conference with a “bad” loss on its resume. While Oregon stays home with one “good” loss because they are not a conference champ. Kansas State is rewarded for winning a weak conference, with no Conference Championship Game, and a very “bad” 28 point loss. While Texas A&M stays home with two losses to two top 8 teams after having beaten Alabama in Week 11. And finally, timing matters too. Alabama’s Week 11 loss to #15 (at the time) Texas A&M was “better” than Oregon’s Week 12 loss to #13 Stanford.
Here is my solution:
First we need to establish what the objective of a playoff would be. Is it to crown a National Champion? Because the danger of a large playoff system is that you may not necessarily get the best team from the entire season. You could get the team playing the best “right now.” For example, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers were 7-5 and in a 3 game losing streak. They had to win their last four games in order to make the playoffs. They limped in as the #6 seed and ended up winning the Super Bowl. Where they the best team all season, or when it mattered most? The 2007 New England Patriots… a 16-0 regular season ended with a thrilling defeat of the New York Giants in the Meadowlands by three points. The Giants were the #5 seed and beat the Patriots to win the Super Bowl…by three points. Were the 14-6 Giants (including the playoffs) an all around better team than the 18-1 Patriots? I would argue no. But on February 3, 2008 they most certainly were (at least David Tyree was and the Giants defensive line were!).
Back to a college playoff scenario:
A: If we want the thrilling playoff games and Super Bowl matchups like we have seen in the NFL, or even a few underdogs to win a title then we need at minimum an 8 team playoff.
B: If we want the best team from the entire season then we need to make the whole season a playoff! No non-conference games. No rankings and no seeding necessary. Play everyone in your conference once and then conference champions battle it out in a 6 team playoff.
Personally, I definitely prefer option A so I will not elaborate further on option B. Option A will most certainly dilute the regular season just a bit allowing several teams to make a playoff having lost 2 or 3 games. Here is the way I would have liked to have seen the playoffs this year, with seeding (I gave higher seeding to conference champion’s, and no limits to the number of entrants from each conference), explanations and matchups:
#1 Notre Dame – they were undefeated, great defense and a good schedule. Not to mention the fact that they were #1 in every poll.
#8 Georgia – surged late and were very impressive in the SEC title game. Only loss (prior to that game) was to #10 South Carolina
#4 Kansas State – Big 12ish Champions with one bad loss.
#5 Oregon – only loss was a good one to Stanford. #4 in most polls
#3 Stanford – PAC 12 Champions and a two loss team, one of those to #1 Notre Dame.
#6 Florida – only loss was to a surging Georgia team who only got better as the season went on. #3 in all polls.
#2 Alabama – SEC Champions with one loss to a surging Texas A&M.
#7 Texas A&M – after the week 8 loss to LSU no one was playing better football than Texas A&M. Even Texas announced that they would decline an invitation to play A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Let’s take this scenario one step further knowing now what we know from the bowl games, or matchups that actually happened.
Obviously Oregon beats Kansas State and plays the Notre Dame vs. Georgia winner. I take Georgia in that game. They gave Alabama a great game in the SEC Championship and I think were as good as anyone towards the end of the season, not to mention the way ND played against Bama in the actual championship. So that leaves Oregon vs. Georgia in a semifinal. Based on two factors, the way Oregon made big plays against Kansas State in the actual Fiesta Bowl, and the way Georgia was not able to prevent big plays against Nebraska in the actual Outback Bowl, I go with Oregon in Bracket 1.
In Bracket 2 I will certainly get some hate mail for this… But we did see Alabama lose to Texas A&M earlier in the season. The argument in favor of Alabama would be “did you see them manhandle an outmatched Notre Dame team?” Yes, I did. I also saw Texas A&M manhandle an outmatch Oklahoma team in the Cotton Bowl. I also saw Johnny Manziel beat Alabama IN Tuscaloosa. Argument over. Texas A&M already won that game and would probably win it again. That leaves Stanford against Florida. I would have loved to have seen this game, but look at the actual bowl results… Stanford played well against Wisconsin in the actual Rose Bowl. They were up 14-0 early but Wisconsin made adjustments, like any good coach does, and almost came back to win. Great defensive battle. Florida had the opposite situation. They made mistakes and got down early (and fast!) in the Sugar Bowl. They did not make adjustments and could not contain Teddy Bridgewater. The advantage here definitely goes to Stanford.
Could Stanford’s defense matchup and slow down A&M’s offense? More importantly, could Stanford’s offense score any points on A&M’s defense? My bet is no on each count. A&M wins.
National Championship: this leaves #5 seed Oregon vs. #7 seed Texas A&M. I am not even going to make predictions regarding what might have happened here, but how much fun of game would this have been? Manziel vs. Mariota. Dion Jordan vs. Luke Joekel and Jake Matthews. Chip Kelly vs. Kevin Sumlin. Aggie fans vs. Duck fans.
In the 2014 playoffs this would not have happened. Neither of my two predicted Championship game projections would even have had a chance to compete, let alone win. I am willing to bet that when the NCAA, the conferences, and the University Presidents start seeing how much money the new 4 team format brings in, and the interest it generates they will have no choice but to expand. Disagree?? The NCAA basketball tournament has expanded ten times in its 72 year history. It started with 8 teams, then went to 16, 22-25, 32, 40, 48, 52, 53, 64, 65 and now 68. I think anything greater than a 16 team football playoff dilutes the regular season too much, but I am now on the 8 team bandwagon.
But then again…beggars can’t be choosers.
* Side note, I did not include LSU in my 8 team scenario because I think had this scenario actually occurred Texas A&M would have gotten in over LSU based on how they finished the season and the popularity of Johnny Manziel's Heisman run. Selection committee's tend to take those factors into consideration when making selections.