Monday, May 26

Solving the playoff predicament:
The Old School Plus One.

I know y'all may be tired of the college-football playoff debate, and I'm sure that at some point in the recent past I promised I wasn't going to hash it out anymore -- but a few weeks ago, shortly after the major-conference commissioners gave the thumbs-down to the idea of a four-team playoff, Tony Barnhart floated the idea of a simple plus-one system that would place 10 teams in five elite-level bowl games (the current Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta BCS bowls, plus a newcomer) and then, after those five games have been played and the rankings have re-sorted themselves, take the #1 and #2 teams in the BCS rankings and pit them against each other in an "official" national-title game. Barnhart readily admits this isn't a new idea -- he says Vince Dooley was talking about it way back in the Bowl Coalition days -- and honestly, when the BCS first announced the implementation of a fifth game starting with the 2006 season, I thought this is what it was going to entail (rather than just being an extra game to squeeze in two more teams).

Barnhart's off to a nice start here, but I've still got a big problem with it -- namely, that the BCS formula, with its tidal wave of decimal points and obscure computer rankings, is apparently still involved. I've made no bones about my distaste for this system, to the point where I'd be perfectly happy if we just went back to the old days when bowls could invite whomever the hell they wanted, no computer rankings, decimal points, selection orders, automatic berths for any team ranked at a certain level or higher, or any of that. However, I think there's a way to have something that traditional and still throw a bone to the folks who think, and not without reason, that some kind of playoff is the only gentlemanly and proper way to pick a single national champion.

I call it the "Old School Plus One." Once all the regular-season and conference-championship games have been played, the bowls get to make the same mad dash for teams that they did in the pre-Coalition days. They can maintain any conference tie-ins they find desirable, but beyond that it's every bowl for itself. And with the BCS system obliterated, no bowl is forced to take any team -- from either a major conference or one of the "mid-majors" -- just because it's achieved a certain ranking. And nobody has to take turns as far as inviting "at-large" teams, either. This means that two bowls could conceivably offer invites to the same team, so it'd be up to that team to decide which one it wanted to go to.

Sometimes a difficult decision like that isn't such a bad situation to be in.

Then, after all the bowls have been played, the top two teams in the country, as ranked by the AP, face off in the national-title game. That game would be administered by a body independent of any of the existing bowls, so it could be held anywhere in the country; theoretically, the NCAA could handle it like the Super Bowl, with cities, as opposed to bowl organizations, bidding on "hosting rights" years in advance.

There are tons of advantages to this system, and doing away with the infuriating BCS formula is just one of them. Bowls would be freed up to arrange the best and most lucrative matchups, instead of being locked into the BCS's arcane selection process. The bowls could make more money by bidding out their TV rights individually rather than as a "package." And teams that don't win their respective conference championships can still have a shot at the national title -- but they first have to earn that shot by beating someone who did win their conference. The downside -- if you choose to look at it that way -- is that high-ranked "mid-majors" wouldn't get the automatic berths they enjoy today, but the way for them to solve that problem is the same as it is for any other team: play a formidable out-of-conference schedule, win every game you can, and line up a bunch of people to buy tickets. Some of the people who read this site probably have me pegged as a borderline communist, but with the Old School Plus One, I'm lettin' the free market rule, baby.

Over the next couple weeks, I'll be showing how this system would've worked in each of the past 10 years since the BCS was implemented in 1998. For the purposes of these simulations, I'll assume that the four bowls that comprise the BCS in real life would retain their conference tie-ins -- i.e. the Rose gets the Big 10 and Pac-10 champions every year, the Fiesta gets the Big 12 champion, and the Sugar takes the champion of the SEC -- but beyond that, anything goes. I'll plot out which teams I think would've gone to which bowls and project who would've won each game; in some cases the games will feature the same matchups that they did in real life, which will make predicting the outcome pretty simple, but other times, when the matchups are purely hypothetical, I'll simply be making my own guesses. From there I'll settle on which teams would've ended up #1 and #2 and therefore ended up in the national-title game -- and you'll have the opportunity to vote on whether you think that outcome is better or worse than what actually transpired that year (and, of course, give more detailed opinions in the comments threads).

Everybody up to speed? Then let's start with 1998, the inaugural year of the BCS system.

Here I'm just throwing a bone to Holly, 'cause she probably isn't gonna like what's coming next.

Tennessee (12-0) -- SEC champion
2. Florida State (11-1) -- ACC champion
3. Ohio State (10-1) -- Big 10 co-champion
4. Kansas State (11-1)
5. Arizona (11-1)
6. UCLA (10-1) -- Pac-10 champion
7. Florida (9-2)
8. Texas A&M (11-2) -- Big 12 champion
9. Wisconsin (10-1) -- Big 10 co-champion
10. Tulane (11-0) -- Conference USA champion
16. Air Force (11-1) -- WAC champion
18. Syracuse (8-3) -- Big East champion

Going into the last week of the regular season, there are three undefeated teams (Tennessee, Kansas State, and UCLA), and the big question is who's going to be left out of the national-title game. But then all hell breaks loose (UCLA gets stunned by unranked Miami in a game postponed from the very beginning of the season; K-State loses the Big 12 title to Texas A&M in double-OT), and the question becomes which of seven one-loss teams will be matched up against still-undefeated Tennessee.

Rose: #6 UCLA (10-1) vs. #9 Wisconsin (10-1)

Same as the actual 1998 game; Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin all finished 7-1 in conference play, and Ohio State and Wisconsin didn't play each other, so the Big Ten invokes its rule that in case of a tie for league champion, the Rose Bowl berth will go to the team that last got invited to Pasadena the longest time ago.

Orange: #2 Florida State (11-1) vs. #18 Syracuse (8-4)
I don’t know whether the Orange would’ve actually taken Syracuse in this scenario, but I think they would’ve taken an actual conference champion (even if the Big East was a subpar conference that year) over Kansas State or a Florida-FSU rematch.

Sugar: #1 Tennessee (12-0) vs. #3 Ohio State (10-1)
Grabs a Buckeye squad that brought a ton of fans to see FSU-OSU at the Superdome the previous year.

Fiesta: #8 Texas A&M (11-2) vs. #5 Arizona (11-1)
Has a tough choice between Arizona and tOSU; opts for Arizona because they're closer.

WHAT (I THINK) HAPPENS: Wisconsin beats UCLA 38-31, and then all hell breaks loose a second time as the top two teams fall on consecutive days — first the Chris Weinke-less Seminoles fall in a shootout to the Donovan McNabb-ful Orangemen, and then Tennessee’s extraordinary and well-documented luck runs out as the Buckeyes, more specifically their defense, boot the Vols from their perch as the nation's last unbeaten team. After that, Arizona’s victory over an offense-challenged TAMU squad in front of what effectively amounts to a home crowd seems almost anticlimactic.

With #4 Kansas State getting embarrassed by Purdue in the Alamo Bowl, Ohio State and Arizona advance to #1 and #2, respectively. And the Buckeyes beat the Wildcats in the title game, 31-20.

ANALYSIS: I don’t think a lot of people would’ve quibbled with Syracuse getting a spot in one of the major bowls, nor with fourth-ranked Kansas State being left out of the party (particularly given that they didn’t end up making much of a case for themselves against Purdue). Probably the biggest thing people are likely to argue with here is the predicted outcomes for these games, but I think the upset projections are valid. Remember, Syracuse came within a point of knocking off the eventual national-champion Vols that year; they beat Michigan by 10 in the Big House; and they absolutely destroyed a 7-2 Miami team 66-13, so I think Donovan McNabb could’ve led them to an upset of the hobbled Seminoles. Meanwhile, Tennessee struggled to outscore that same hobbled FSU team in the actual Fiesta Bowl, so I think a case can be made that Ohio State — who really hadn’t even been played close all year, save for the stunning upset to Michigan State near season’s end — would’ve finally handed them a loss.

And again, this wouldn’t be a case of the national title getting "stolen" by a team that didn’t win its conference, since Ohio State was a Big 10 champion that year.

So I know the Tennessee fans out there are going to hate this outcome, but . . . how about the rest of you?

Once again, feel free to leave any suggestions, dissents, criticisms, or whatever in the comments thread; I'm looking forward to seeing how this system plays itself out over the next few seasons.


Anonymous said...

The decision to leave the ultimate choice to the AP is a fatal flaw because many newspapers with knowledgeable sportswriters prohibit their writers from voting. This leaves the decision to the NTACs who work at places like The NY Daily Post, for example.

Anonymous said...

How are you going back to a bunch of bowls with no conference tie-ins? Bowls are independent of the NCAA; the NCAA will not be able to tell the Sugar it can't invite the SEC champ every year. The bowls themselves were the ones who saw it in their best interests to initiate conference tie-ins; they did it for a reason. What will you use to persuade them to reject something they thought necessary?

That is the inherent flaw in the reasoning of those that want to impose some new structure while retaining the fun of a bowl trip. If you want the Sugar Bowl with all that is fun about it, you have to accomodate the needs of the Sugar Bowl folks.

Hobnail_Boot said...

You had me until you said 'AP'.

Those self-important idiots have proved their incompetence and biases so often that they're no longer credible when it comes to ranking college football teams.

Holly said...

You left out the fifth poll option that just says, "HISSSSSSSSSSSS."

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

Anonymous@11:45, there's nothing in the plan that says the bowls can't retain their conference tie-ins if they want to. In fact, it's assumed that all four of the major bowls will do that.

Anonymous said...

Yes, please. Can we got back and rewrite history?

Anonymous said...

Clearly, that would be "go"...

X said...

I'm a fan.

And with Jerry Jones' new Palace in Dallas (well... Arlington), I would expect the Cotton Bowl to become a glamor bowl again.

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

I was thinking about the Cotton Bowl, too, as I was putting this together -- I'd love to see the Cotton Bowl regain the luster of games like the '84 Texas-Georgia matchup. The problem is that the Cotton Bowl was the annual home of the Southwest Conference champion, and when the SWAC collapsed in the early 1990s, the Cotton Bowl's prestige took a big hit with it.

Most of the SWAC's marquee programs, of course, found a new home in the Big 12, but the Fiesta Bowl now has the automatic tie-in for that league's champion. And while the Cotton Bowl will soon have a venue that's on a par with the Fiesta's -- in addition to far, far more history and heritage -- they'd have a hell of a fight on their hands trying to strike a deal that would entice the Big 12's automatic champion bid away from the Fiesta Bowl.

j.leonardjr said...

You've got one conference tie in wrong. The Big XII(formerly the Big 8)was tied to the Orange Bowl. If you are going back to the "Old School" way you need to send the Big XII Champ to Miami.

Anonymous said...

I hold navel lint in higher esteem than I do the University of Tennessee but I found no problem with their NC in 1998. They deserved to be there. The BCS worked that year - UT could have beaten any of those teams you mention (and would have been favored against any of them). I think if you make conference championship a qualifier - no co-champions or non-champions - then the problem is solved all but the year that Auburn didn't get a shot in '04 (I can't believe I just wrote that). Nice try, but based solely on this example I am not a proponent of your system.

Anonymous said...

Football is meant to be decided on the field. If the NFL went to a vote, the Patriots would have been crowned Super Bowl Champs last year and the media would have given Rex Grossman a ring over Peyton Manning in 2006.

If UT & FSU were to lose their exhibition games that year, then they would not deserve the national title. In your scenario, tOSU runs the table and earns it. I like the system, but putting it in the hands of the media could be dangerous. Going back to 2004, if USC won the Rose Bowl, OU won the Orange Bowl and Auburn won the Sugar: You are left with the same problem.

Until there is a 16 team playoff incorporating all 11 conference champions, the national championship will always be mythical.

Anonymous said...

You know me: I work for the world's oldest and largest and won't be satisfied until AP crowns the national champion, piped-in music ala the NBA is not allowed in any 1-A stadium and acrylic nails are once again strictly verboten among marching band twirl lines. OK, the last one can apply to Georgia only. I think maybe the Auburn, Alabama, economy might totally collapse were the Tiger Eyes prohibited from ordering up a few dozen acrylic French manis every Thursday afternoon during the fall.

Anonymous said...

UT played one of the toughest schedules and beat them all, including Syracuse at Syracuse. Ohio State lost to Michigan State. UT deserved to be in the championship. The problem, as you stated, was picking who to play against them. You let your anti UT homerism get in your way. UT was the champion in 98 because they played football better than any other team that year.

Unknown said...

Doesn't it seem funny 10 years down the line when you're using the words "hard game" and "Syracuse" in the same sentence, and you're not being totally sarcastic?

It's kinda' creepy how far that program has fallen.

Juan Grande said...


the same can be said for "Arizona Wildcats" and "title game."

Anonymous said...

C'mon, Doug. Ohio State beat an SEC team? You know better than that.

In any case, I do kind of like the premise. And I'd also forgotten that Arizona used to be a good team. It might be that this system and a time machine is their only chance to win a championship for a long, long time...