College Football Analysis: Conference Champions Would Still be Important in a 4-Team Playoff

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In the aftermath of the late-April commissioners’ meeting in Florida where they discussed college football’s post-season, three key questions emerged going forward. Will there be a playoff? Where and when will the games be played? How will the teams be selected?

The first was seemingly answered. There will be a playoff, and it will include four teams.

The second will be debated for the next few months and will likely be answered in mid-June when the commissioners reconvene.  The semifinal games will be played either on the higher seed’s campus, at the traditional BCS bowl sites, or at a neutral site which rotates yearly. The championship game is likely to be bid out to any city like the NFL’s Super Bowl.

The third question though includes a far more dynamic debate, one whose essence made the BCS the thrilling and infuriating entity it was for nearly two decades. Who gets in? Who is left out? And how do you decide?

The Three Proposals

One proposal is to use conference champions only. (The Pac-12’s Larry Scott most vocally preferred this.) This is somewhat objective, as everyone can clearly see if a team won or lost its final game. However, with more than four conferences in play (six if you consider the current BCS conferences and eleven if you consider all FBS conferences), even this proposal would need some kind of poll to sort out the best champions.

Another proposal (like the one the Big Ten’s Jim Delany mentioned last week) is to only include conference champions in the top 6 and then admit teams who aren’t champs by highest ranking. Again, this system requires a poll and is a little less easy to grasp for the casual fan. The spirit of this proposal is to reward conference champs but not to exclude exceptional teams who can’t win their conference.

The other major proposal puts all the emphasis on the poll. It begs for a straight top 4, without any confusing exceptions or snubs of higher-ranked teams. This system seems to be most popular currently (especially with the SEC and Big 12, who believe they could place multiple teams in the top 4 regularly).

To simplify the zeitgeist of the debate, those who prefer the conference champs models believe that being the best in your league should hold sway. “If you can’t win your own league, how can you win the entire national title?” they ask. Those who prefer the “top 4” model believe that being ranked as a top team matters more than having one team ahead of you from your own league. They ask, “Isn’t it possible that the two best teams in the country do indeed come from one conference?”

I think they’re both right. And I think both sides will get their way when all of the new playoff’s questions are answered. How can that be, you ask?

The common denominator in all of these scenarios is a poll, and a poll ain’t nuthin’ but the criteria that people want to put in it.

Power to the People

Before we get deeper into discussing the playoff poll, there is another potential set-up. The commissioners did remain open-ended about the possibility of a committee deciding the final four teams for football. Few pundits have given this scenario any chance. This isn’t basketball, and the debate isn’t over which team is the 30th or 40th best in the country (and which probably won’t make it out of opening weekend of the NCAA tournament to begin with). We’re debating the 4th or 5th best team in the country, and millions of dollars are at stake. A few guys in suits can’t hold that much power.

A poll, on the other hand, is impersonal and (theoretically) objective. Oklahoma State fans who felt snubbed last December with their #3 finish in the BCS poll didn’t throw darts at Jeff Sagarin (originator of a famous computer poll) or even Bill Hancock (the spokesperson for the BCS). Their furor largely was aimed at faceless system, a complex series of numbers that were spat out of a machine and told them they were .0086 of a point worse than Alabama.

A poll may be impersonal, but it’s created by persons. In 2003, when the AP poll (consisting of voting people) vehemently disagreed with the impersonal system, which anointed LSU and Oklahoma as #1 and #2, by giving USC the top spot in its final ranking, the persons in charge changed the formula. The current poll remains mostly mysterious in its criteria, but it’s produced tolerable (although not popular) results.

The creators of the new poll to determine the four top teams will likewise choose each criterion very carefully. Strength of schedule? Win-loss total? Margin of victory? Whatever they want to emphasize, they can. And this is where the compromise will come.

The SEC and Big 12 (and most of the major media) will get their strict top 4 requirement to get in the playoff, but the Big Ten and Pac-12 will demand that conference championship is a criterion in the poll formula.

A Poll with Preference for Conference Champs

Now, I’m not a numbers guy. I don’t know how the BCS formula works, and you probably don’t either. But that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss the ideas that will fuel the new poll’s formula. And for the Jerry Palms out there, please forgive the naivete of my argument. I’m going to keep things simple.

Why can’t points be awarded in the final poll for a conference championship? Or maybe even a conference championship game win?  The two aren’t the same, after all. The Big 12 and Big East currently don’t have the 12 teams required by the NCAA to run a conference championship game, and a few teams aren’t even in conferences. Shouldn’t a reward be in place for teams who don’t just play a 12-game schedule, but who also have to overcome one more talented opponent in the post-season?

A simple addition of .05 for a conference championship and  .05 for a conference championship game victory would stress those components of a team’s resume.

In 2011, #3 Oklahoma State would have been bumped up to #2, but Alabama would have stayed right behind them, remaining in the 4-team playoff field but losing home field advantage (or home bowl advantage, if that’s the eventual semifinal scenario). Also, Oregon would have gotten a .1 bump (.05 for beating UCLA in the Pac-12 game and .05 for being the Pac-12 champion), pushing them past #4 Stanford by approximately .05 (a team they beat soundly during the regular season, by the way).

Other impact on the final 2011 BCS poll with our “championship points” tweak would be: Wisconsin to #8 (from #10), ahead of Kansas State and South Carolina (neither of which won their conferences) but behind Boise State; and Clemson to #11 (from #15), ahead of Virginia Tech (the team they thumped in the ACC championship game). Although the BCS poll is largely irrelevant past the top 2 currently (and the top 4 in the future), these additional adjustments seem wholly appropriate to me.

In at least eight of the past fourteen seasons, the extra points would have made no difference in the final top four. For example, if you remember 2007, you’ll remember how many upsets happened week after week down the stretch. The bump wouldn’t have done anything that year that didn’t happen otherwise. After #1 Ohio State, the #2-#4 teams all ascended after winning their conference championship games.

But, on occasion, a conference champ who sat just outside the top 4 would have been helped into the playoff. In 2010, a .05 boost would have pushed Wisconsin (winner of a championship-game-less Big Ten that year) ahead of the Pac-12’s runner-up, #4 Stanford, a team that didn’t make its conference’s championship game. In 2006, the bump would have pushed Pac-12 champ USC past #4 LSU (who didn’t make the SEC championship game—Arkansas did and lost to Florida). In 2004, Urban Meyer’s undefeated Utah team (ranked #6 in the real BCS poll) would have leaped conference runner-ups Texas and California with a MWC championship bonus. Since a poll is a subjective thing to begin with, can anyone argue quantitatively that those changes would have been unfair?

The 2008 season is particularly puzzling when debating a 4-team playoff. An argument could be made for any of the top 8 to be deserving of a shot at the national title (a three-way tie in the Big 12, two strong conference champs outside the top 4, and an undefeated mid-major). For this hypothesis though, Pac-12 champ USC would have benefited from the league championship reward. Rather than have two Big 12 and two SEC teams in the playoff, (in a straight top 4 system), the Trojans (who finished #2 in the Coaches’ Poll and #3 in the AP poll in actuality) would have supplanted SEC championship game loser Alabama.

The "champs vs. top 4" debate is going to rage on for at least the next two months. And maybe longer.

It’s possible that our first two questions (will there be a playoff? where and when will it be held?) are answered in the short-term, with haggling about the construction of a poll to take a year or two before implementation begins in 2014. Many fans and media will soapbox about the advantages of this one and the injustice of the other. It will all get rather heated, and we might see another Civil War erupt over it.

Just remember. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; it can be both.

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