The slippery folks who rule college football are toying with new ways to distract the mob. After years of unpardonably rooking fans, they hope to placate us by considering a four-team playoff for 2014. The system has been so corrupt for so long, we are supposed to be grateful for the smallest possible concession. But lets be real: What they are proposing is just a blueprint for another sewer line.
The superpower conferences held their annual spring meetings last week, and they were a peepshow into the inner workings of empire, from the Southeastern Conference to the Big Ten. We saw the forces that really control them: quaking fear and jealousy. A four-team playoff is inadequate, and everyone knows it, and the only reason theyre considering it is so they can continue to direct the lions share of revenue to themselves.
The Bowl Championship Series is an exercise in rabid self-interest that unfairly excludes nearly half the teams in the country from playing for a championship. Now an even more severe choking point for cash is proposed, disguised as a playoff. Just listen to the arguments coming out of the conference meetings. These guys are so busy trying to maintain an unfair advantage and kill each other off, they cant even agree on how to select four teams.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany insists the playoff should be restricted to four conference champions. Forget rankings, or mid-majors. Just reward the teams that sit atop the four most popular leagues. How very convenient. Its a cold hard fact that no Big Ten team has played for a national championship since 2008, but Delanys format would guarantee a Big Ten team in the national championship semifinals every year.
The SECs proposal sounds more reasonable – at first. Commissioner Mike Slive says he wants four teams chosen strictly on rankings, with no guaranteed spots to anyone.
The best four teams ought to be selected to play for the national championship, he says, and he doesnt want to gerrymander who they are. Yet how should we decide who those best four are? Rankings can be notoriously weighted in favor of larger leagues. How convenient: If you go strictly on rankings, there is a smaller chance an underdog can carry a winners check off to Boise, Idaho.
SEC schools, which have won the past six national championships, have zero motivation to create a seat at the table for anyone else. You can bet that any ranking system they participate in would reward the SEC teams disproportionately for their strength.
Good luck forging a fair system or a broad consensus based on either format.
The solution is plain: Adopt a true playoff format of eight teams. Make the postseason into a genuine tournament, instead of a rigged sham that favors the favorites. Only trouble is, it means letting more schools have a seat at the money table.
Heres how it should work: Convene a selection committee like the one used in NCAA basketball. Give automatic bids to six conference champs instead of four and give two more berths to qualifiers who play their way in, based on various criteria overseen by the committee. This allows for the underdog, the Cinderella, the late bloomer.
If you insist on preserving the New Years Day bowls, put the first-round games on campuses and then use two of the bowls as Final Four sites.
An eight-team playoff would relieve some, if not much, of the underlying pressure driving administrators to make decisions that harm the game. The frenzy of realignment has resulted in nonsensically overlarge conferences in which members share no history or geography. Its purely a result of anxiety that they will be left out of the game of BCS musical chairs.
But instead of being so concerned about hoarding postseason shares, administrators ought to be worrying about ruining their product. The biggest danger to college football isnt poverty. Its homogenization. The most attractive, telegenic feature of the sport has been the intensity of its regional flavors, and diversity, its pitting of opposites and flowering of champions in some of the poorer and less-likely places.
When Texas ends up playing West Virginia more often than it plays Texas A&M, is college football really better? When its impossible for a Cinderella team to make the playoffs, is the game really stronger commercially? In trying to modernize the sports economy and protect the rich, administrators should be careful.
A four-team playoff is no solution. Its just another step toward killing the character of the game.