A playoff is coming to college football, not eventually but probably sooner than the moneyed-establishment wants to admit.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, the Vladimir Putin of college sports and the key figure preventing a playoff, can stem the tide for only so long.
Unfortunately, we're stuck with the current Bowl Championship Series for the time being. But that doesn't mean we can't dream about what a real playoff would entail and the magic it would produce each December and January.
If you think you like Saturdays now, understand that this is just college football lite; one day to be looked back on as a quaint and confusing era.
Here's how the playoff will eventually work – and this isn't just my idea, it's essentially the exact scenario the NCAA (which will eventually run it) uses to run the football playoffs at the former Division I-AA, II and III.
We even made up a mock bracket for you to salivate over.
(Please note, whereas some conference title games still need to be played, for the sake of argument we assigned victory to the higher rated team in the current BCS standings to place and seed the field).
A 16-TEAM FIELD
Just like in what used to be Division I-AA, the tournament would feature four rounds with teams seeded one through 16. Just like the wildly popular and profitable NCAA men's basketball tournament, champions of all the conferences (all 11 of them) earn an automatic bid to the field.
Yes, all 11. Even the lousy conferences. While no one would argue that the winner of the Mid-American Conference is one of the top 16 teams in the country, there are multiple benefits of including champions of low-level leagues.
First is to maintain the integrity and relevancy of the regular season. While the idea that the season is a four-month playoff is both inaccurate and absurd, there should be a significant reward for an exceptional season.
The chance for an easier first-round opponent – in this case No. 1 Missouri would play No. 16 Central Michigan or Miami (Ohio) – is a big reward for a great regular season. Earning a top-three seeding would present a school a near breeze into the second round. Drop to a sixth-seed in this year's scenario and you are dealing with Florida.
On the flip side, it brings true Cinderella into the college football mix for the first time. Is it likely that Central Florida could beat Ohio State? Of course not, but as the men's basketball tournament has proven the mere possibility (or even a close game) draws in casual fans by the millions.
Last season the most memorable college football game was Boise State-Oklahoma, in part because Boise was the unbeaten underdog that wasn't supposed to win. When it did, in dramatic fashion, it became arguably the most popular team in America.
But it had no shot at a national title because the system says Boise can't be any good in 2007 because it wasn't any good in 1967. As illogical as this is, that's the system.
For even lower-rated conferences – the Sun Belts, the MACs – allowing annual access to the tournament would not only set off celebrations on small campuses but it would encourage investment in the sport at all levels. Suddenly, there would be a reason for teams in those leagues to really care. This would improve quality throughout the country.
With the bigger conferences, a championship would take on greater value. Does anyone without direct rooting interest really care if USC wins the Pac-10 Saturday? How about the Virginia Tech-Boston College ACC title game? You would now.
In addition to the 11 automatic bids, there would be five at-large selections made by a basketball-like selection committee. Most years, those would come from the power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC).
While the selection process would still draw complaints from the teams left out, those schools often would have two or three losses or significant flaws. Gone forever would be the days of an unbeaten Auburn in the 2004 season not getting a chance at the title or the bizarre 2003 season where nearly everyone thought USC was the best team but got left out anyway.
HOME GAMES FOR HIGHER SEEDS IN FIRST THREE ROUNDS
The strangest part of the BCS is that outside businesses – the people who own the bowl games – get a cut of the revenue. It would be unfathomable for a league such as the NFL or NBA to allow independent promoters to stage its playoffs.
College football is leaving millions on the table by staging top games in far-off locales. Ohio State, for instance, earns an estimated $5 million-plus for each home game. And that is just direct revenue. Forbes estimates Buckeye football games generated $42 million for the Columbus area in 2005.
The 14 hugely profitable home games from the first three rounds would create a huge revenue stream.
There is simply no need to include the current bowl structure. Obviously no fan base can afford to travel week after week to neutral-site games. But they wouldn't have to. In what used to be Division I-AA, the playoffs are home field until the title game. That's the way it should be.
The competitive value of home-field advantage would also help maintain the importance of the regular season because the higher the seed, the more home games.
This would also be a boon to teams in the Midwest, which build their teams to deal with the predictably harsh weather only to play postseason games in generally warm, calm environs.
So how would say, USC fare if it didn't get a Big Ten opponent in Pasadena each January, but rather had to slip and slide around Ann Arbor or Columbus for a change? And who wouldn't want to see the Trojans invade one of those historic old stadiums, snow falling, and proving they have grit not just skill?
That's the best part, of course, the games. As heart-thumping and pulse-stopping as college football is and always has been, we aren't even scratching the surface in our plan. We currently have nothing even close to this. Week after week of building excitement, tension and stakes.
A byproduct of the BCS has been a devaluing of competitiveness in college football. There is no longer an incentive to play games against other big-time opponents. It's not just intra-regional games that are all but gone but most non-conference games of any significance. Teams just load up on patsies to grab the home gate and maybe play one local rival.
Amazingly, the BCS rewards them for this.
Because of human voters' tendency to favor record over all else – unless the school is from outside the BCS – the goal of the season is simply not to lose. The easiest way to do that is to play as few teams as possible that are capable of beating you.
The BCS favors teams that load up on cupcakes early and play in a weaker BCS conference that ideally doesn't have to deal with a 13th game (for the league title).
Consider Kansas, which is rated No. 5 in the BCS (and was No. 2 last week) despite owning wins over opponents with a combined record of 45-63 record (.417 winning percentage). Maybe the Jayhawks are a great team that was capable of beating other great teams. But no one really knows. And the BCS didn't care.
The playoffs return the big-time games between teams from different conferences. Even better, it puts them on campus – not some far-flung NFL stadiums – in historic venues with all the pageantry.
Oklahoma-USC in the Coliseum in the first round? Florida-Ohio State in the Horseshoe in the second? How about the Buckeyes at West Virginia in a national semifinal? Every week of every year would be incredible.
BOWL GAMES COULD STILL EXIST
Understanding that there really isn't anything wrong with most bowl games – it's not like innocent people are dying because the Meineke Car Care Bowl exists – we'll allow them to stick around.
One bowl could serve as the championship game, giving college football its neutral, Super Bowl-style site to conclude the tournament.
As for all the other bowls, they can go on as they wish. The NIT still operates, doesn't it? It's not like most bowl games have any direct bearing on the championship now.
There is value to the smaller bowls in smaller communities. If the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, still wishes to stage a game, it by all means should. It just won't have access to the 16 playoff teams. But it doesn't have access to teams of that quality now. It still can host a meaningless game between two moderately successful schools. For most bowls, nothing changes.
The lack of 16 "bowl-qualified" teams would filter down, of course, and run a couple of minor bowls out of business since there won't be enough bowl-eligible clubs. But if the reason college football is not staging a playoff is the need to save the International Bowl in Toronto, then the current system is more corrupt than we think.
While the former Division I-AA plays all four rounds in four weeks and stages the title game before Christmas, football’s top division might be better served playing the first one or two rounds in December, breaking for final exams and staging the semifinals just after Christmas and the title game in early January.
The schedule is a minimal concern. Something can be worked out. Whatever it is, it would allow teams and stars to become familiar to the American public, for momentum to build and excitement to grow.
The college football playoffs would have a chance to rival the NFL playoffs (Super Bowl included) as the biggest sporting event in the country. Fans would love it, players live for it and a game deserving of a real playoff finally enjoying it. It would capture the imagination of the nation.
Right now it's only a dream, but the day is coming. There is only so long the dictators can stop it.
- college football