University of Alabama Crimson tide, 2015 National Champions (Photo from NCAA.com)
So it happened. Again. What happened you ask? The NCAA Football Championship and the outrage over the selection for who should be the best in college football. Ironically, the NCAA does not actually crown an actual NCAA champion in collegiate football. That right. Basketball, Volleyball, Soccer, Lacrosse…they all have an NCAA Champion while football does not. Why is that? Lets look at the history.
From about 1920 to 1998, coaches and sportswriters voted for who they thought was the best teams and at the end of the year the team at #1 was declared the champion. For obvious reasons, you can see why that could be problematic, but because different polls produced different number one teams, there were disputes in some years about who was actually the best team. To fix this, they looked to computers and the BCS was born.
The dirtiest three-letter word in college football, the BCS (or Bowl Championship Series) attempted to use formulas to combine human and computer polls to determine the best two teams in the country. Hence, those best two teams would play for the national championship. But there was still controversy as the AP poll sometimes differed from the BCS, resulting in different top rankings and making this “fix” look worse than what was originally in place.
Playoffs??? Don’t talk about playoffs!
So in 2014, the football conferences with their schools and the six richest bowl games came together to form a playoff with 4 teams and setting a ranking system using the BCS-style of computer math and human selection. But instead of the top 2 teams, it chooses the top 4 and makes them play each other for the defacto national championship.
Notice I said national championship. That’s right. Its a national championship not an NCAA championship. What is won through the playoff is not a sanctioned NCAA champion and therefore still subject to debate if one wanted to do so. Why is that? It all has to do with the money. There is lots and lots of it and many people are reaping the benefits, though not all. Its very reflective of our society actually. The rich (schools) get richer and the poor (schools) get poorer.
A sanctioned NCAA Championship (Photo from NCAA.com)
Those schools that make the playoffs get a higher payoff and can afford better coaches, better facilities, and in turn better players, making them more competitive to keep getting paid. The poorer schools can no longer compete, lose their coaches, local players don’t want to stay home, and their situations just get worse and worse. But, I digress. I could go into the NCAA being a metaphor for the United States but maybe that will be another post.
Back to the original question, what happened? This is what happened: 1. Clemson, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Georgia, 4. …Alabama. The outrage comes because Ohio State, a conference champion, was left out of the playoffs for an Alabama team that didn’t even make their conference championship.
2017 College Football Playoff (Image from Fox News)
While I don’t agree that you can come in third in your conference and still make the playoffs, they are the better team. The way that I was taught to think about it was to look at both teams, playing on a neutral field TODAY (meaning taking into account current roster, injuries, weather, etc), the winner of that game is the better team. Okay, okay, any given Sunday, blah blah blah. But it has to come down what you expect to get from the team having seen their body of work. In my mind, Alabama is the favorite on any neutral field against any team in the country. In fact, Clemson and Alabama are the top two teams in the country so it will be a good game and very well may determine the national champion. My prediction? Alabama vs Oklahoma, with Alabama getting it back to back. This will just add fuel to the controversy fire, and I’m okay with it.
I say that because no one will ever be happy under this system, its just as bad as the BCS because it is the BCS. If they wanted a true national champion (and a true NCAA champion), they would institute something like the NCAA Division 1 Football Championship Series (FCS) playoffs. This arrangement includes 24 teams in which all 10 of the conference champions get an automatic bid and the other 14 teams are selected by a committee. The 8 highest ranked conference champions receive a first-round bye with seeding done by the committee.
An example of how the FCS playoffs work
The playoffs start with 16 teams and 8 games, with the lowest two conference champions needing to play in the first round. The 8 winners move on to play the next round against the conference champions with another 8 games with the winners moving on to the next four games, then the semifinals, and then the championship game. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy right?
This would add 3-4 more games to a schedule. Teams already play a 12-13 game schedule as it is (+2 if they get into the playoffs at most, so 14-15 games for the top schools). Instead of elongating a season, you have each conference play within its division once (5-6 games) + 5-6 games outside its division + Conference Championship = 11-13 game season + 3-4 games for playoffs = 14-17 game season. The non-conference/division games should also be rotated among the different conferences as well (to provide equity in strength of schedule, etc.)
If FBS used the FCS system, this would be the teams in the playoffs (in no particular order):
|Ohio State (Big10)
|Boise (Mountain West)
|Florida Atlantic (Conference USA)
|Appalachian State or Troy (Sun Belt)
(has no championship game, flip a coin)
* denotes those teams that receive a first-round bye
Alabama would have to play an extra game since they weren’t the conference champs; but they are good so it shouldn’t affect them right? Most of the teams in the At-Large category aren’t national champion material but there are a few teams on the list that could be. And there is the dilemma. Do you award good teams that don’t win their conference? Or do conference championships even matter? If no, then why do they even exist? Its all about the Benjamins.
Its the NCAA being greedy and not wanting to lose all that money they receive from bowl games and scholarships. Right now there are 6 major bowl games and 33 other bowl games. That is almost 40 more games that the NCAA (and 80 schools/states/cities) can use to derive income.
A real bowl game that was sponsored by bitcoin (now the Gasparilla Bowl) that fielded unranked teams NC State (7-5) vs UCF (9-3)
In any proposed playoff scenario, those bowls could be used as part of the playoffs. Make it permanent, rotate it, or create a bidding for those games, it doesn’t matter. While this would mess up the traditional bowls (like Rose on New Years or Hawaii on Christmas) it opens it up for other bowls to compete to host these playoff games. The other bowls that don’t get to host a playoff game can go ahead and host their own game if they want, but really, who wants to see the 30th ranked team in the country play the 45th ranked team in the Taco Bell Doritos Locos Bowl? (not a real game but may be a tasty dish if Taco Bell had any sense)
Dan Wetzel, the guy who literally wrote the book (“Death to the BCS: The definitive case against the bowl championship series”) about this whole thing that instigated the move from the BCS to a “plus-one” type of playoff, provided his own thoughts today
. While I agree with the sentiment and his change would probably be better than what we have now, I can’t endorse removing the conference championship game or rewarding only the power 5 conferences. There is no sense in having all of the other conferences if its not fair and equitable for all of them to have an opportunity to be the National Champion. This is probably the main reason for why its not a sanctioned NCAA Champion as well. They might as well relegate the non-power 5 conferences and teams to the FCS.
The more that they try and change things, the more it stays the same. Why? it all comes down to money. While they spout “student athlete” and “providing education” the NCAA is not about educating these kids. Its a business to get more money for the schools to keep operating and lining their pockets. Wetzel’s article insinuates corruption and cronyism. While I don’t think he’s wrong, hopefully some of that money is going back into other university programs such as medicine or science that will fund a cure for a disease or a discovery that changes the world (or even in the arts). Instead of getting upset, maybe we should see what we REALLY want out of this whole playoff system. For some its a share of the pie. Others want to see players compensated for all this entertainment beyond the normal scholarship/living allowance they receive. Still others want to see a level playing field for all of the teams and schools. Me? My university didn’t have a football team so I don’t have a dog in this fight. But if I did, I’d probably want all of it. Change comes at a price and sometimes we are more comfortable staying where we are. It looks to me that those comfortable seats are getting less comfortable every year and change is coming.