NCAA Football Tournament: What Should Have Been


In the spirit of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, which is set to get underway tomorrow, I thought I'd look at some possible scenarios should a similar format be introduced to college football where computers and voters currently play a way-too-big role in determining which teams ultimately play for the national title.

Don't get me wrong, the 2010 Auburn Tigers were an excellent football team who very well could have won a playoff if one existed. The point, though, is that without a playoff at the end of the season, there is really no way to know that Auburn deserved the title any more than the TCU Horned Frogs, who also finished the season undefeated after a Rose Bowl win over the Wisconsin Badgers. Opponents of a playoff and/or supporters of the SEC can shout about the SEC's conference schedule as much as they want, but with two teams that nobody was able to beat in Auburn and TCU and, therefore, nobody was able to prove were not the best team in the country, the BCS title lacks something important.

So what are the alternatives? What playoff formats would implement a more equal manner of determining the national champion? There are flaws in every system; that's inescapable and the sooner we accept this, the better off we'll all be. But there is very, very little to support the notion that the BCS is the best way to determine the national champion. The national champion must be determined on the field of play and cannot allow any ambiguity i.e. there cannot be more than one team left undefeated at the end of the year. Otherwise, why not allow ties in the Super Bowl?

Eight-Team Playoff Fielded by BCS Rankings

Let's begin with an eight-team playoff. In this system, the BCS rankings carry on as normal; except at the end of the season, instead of taking the top two teams and sending them to the championship game, the top eight teams embark on a three-round tournament to determine the champion.

The four major bowl games (Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar) could be fielded with these teams depending on their finish. One bowl game serves as the championship game, another takes the losing teams from the semi-finals and the other two take the losing teams from the quarter-finals with one game taking the higher ranked of the four teams and the other taking the lower ranked of the four teams. The bowl games would rotate on a yearly basis.

In this scenario, based on the final 2010 BCS rankings, the field would have looked like this:

Sixteen-Team Playoff Fielded by BCS Rankings

Next, let's look at a 16-team playoff fielded by the top 16 in the BCS rankings at the end of the year. As with an eight-team playoff fielded by the BCS rankings, the first couple teams on the outside (Texas A&M, Nebraska) could have their complaints, but they have much less of an argument than, say, an undefeated TCU, Boise State or Utah. In this scenario, the field would look like this:

* Bowl games would carry on separate of the playoff, but the four major bowl games may still use the top eight finishers in the playoff to field their teams as outlined previously, although this would mean one more game for the top eight.

Sixteen-Team Playoff Fielded by Conference Winners and At-Large Selections

Finally, as outlined by the book Death to the BCS by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan, another postseason option for NCAA football is a system in which all conference winners are invited to a 16-team playoff with the remaining five spots determined by a selection committee. Because a selection committee does not currently exist, the five highest-ranking teams (according to the final BCS rankings) that did not win their conference are included below as at-large selections. Teams are seed based on their final record with their BCS ranking used as a tiebreaker. The seeding for this system would look like this:

1. Auburn (13-0) SEC Champions
2. Oregon (12-0) Pac-10 Champions
3. TCU (12-0) Mountain West Champions
4. Nevada (12-1) WAC Champions
5. Stanford (11-1) At-Large
6. Wisconsin (11-1) Big Ten Champions
7. Ohio State (11-1) At-Large
8. Michigan State (11-1) At-Large
9. Boise State (11-1) At-Large
10. Oklahoma (11-2) Big 12 Champions
11. Virginia Tech (11-2) ACC Champions
12. Arkansas (10-2) At-Large
13. UCF (10-3) Conference USA Champions
14. Miami (OH) (9-4) Mid-American Champions
15. Connecticut (8-4) Big East Champions
16. Florida International (6-6) Sun Belt Champions

There are clear flaws to this system in that teams like FIU at 6-6, Connecticut at 8-4 and Miami (OH) at 9-4 would compete in the same tournament as undefeated Auburn, Oregon and TCU, while leaving 10-2 LSU and Missouri behind. However, including conference winners would give conference races real meaning and would help preserve the intensity of the regular season as teams compete for a spot in a playoff. Last year, the bracket would have looked like this:

* Bowl games would carry on separate of the playoff, but the four major bowl games may still use the top eight finishers in the playoff to field their teams as outlined previously, although this would mean one more game for the top eight.

The best playoff system seems to be the third option that was outlined in Death to the BCS. The fact that the national championship would be open to any and all competitors at the beginning of the season brings the championship greater validity and meaning, and ensures fairness across the college football landscape.

Want a fair shot at the championship? No longer would teams battle their on-field opponents in addition to off-field battles with the computers and voters that currently determine who has access to the championship game. Teams would have to win their conference or impress a selection committee enough to earn an at-large spot. As pointed out in Death to the BCS, this would likely mean fewer cupcakes against FCS and Division-II schools, thus eliminating creampuff games in favor of more challenging and more exciting non-conference games as teams look to impress a selection committee at the end of the year. That is how you implement a fair system for determining a national champion while maintaining the integrity of the regular season.

NCAA basketball and baseball have it down, as does just about every other collegiate sport including other levels of college football. Now if only FBS college football could do the same.

Some further reading on the topic:

Danny Hobrock, a sports journalist covering NCAA Football and MLB is the editor of our college football content. His work for Xtra Point Football has garnered national attention and is critically acclaimed. You may email Danny directly @ or follow him on Twitter @ DannyHobrock

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