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So last night, No. 2 Alabama trounced No. 1 LSU and won the BCS National Championship game. But are they really the best team in college football? This seems like a ridiculous question and a complete contradiction in terms, but it is a question that you will hear asked for the remainder of the day and the remainder of the week, if not the remainder of the college football off-season. That's because the system for determining the best team in college football is so completely flawed and blatantly inadequate, that it has become the laughing stock of American sports. In no other major sport do conjecture and opinion weigh so heavily on the crowning of a champion, because every other major sport has made the logical and obvious decision that a playoff system is the only fair and just way to give fans, players, coaches, and universities a satisfying outcome to a long and grueling college football season.
The issue of what to do about college football's national championship has many subtle and complex features and no one solution will ever solve the many ills that exist in the sport's current post-season incarnation, but it is abundantly clear that what the NCAA and BCS are doing right now does not work, will not work, and needs to be changed as soon as humanly possible. Why? Because the National Championship Game is over and done with and could not have been decided by a more clear and obvious margin of victory (Alabama - 21, LSU - could have just stayed at the team hotel) but there are still murmurs throughout the sports media that the national title should be "split". And not just between the two teams that played last night, but possibly with No. 3 Oklahoma State, who had the same record as Alabama entering last night's game and actually won its conference title in more than convincing fashion in the Big 12.
Of course, all of this opinion and second-guessing of the outcome of the game comes from the fact that Alabama and LSU already played earlier in the season in a game that LSU won 9-6 in overtime. But because college football relies on polls of sports writers and coaches, blended with the statistical analysis of a computer ranking system, Alabama finished No. 2 in the final BCS Rankings (notice how BCS.org links you to ESPN for that info? Who says the mothership isn't controlling sports...) and got a second chance to play the undefeated and clear No. 1 team in the nation, LSU. Now I'm not going to sit here and tell you that rankings aren't necessary in college athletics, because they are. With so many teams involved you have to sort out the chaos some way. This isn't professional sports where teams can play the majority (or all) of the other teams in their sport during the regular season and enter a manageable playoff bracket.
But while rankings are necessary to help determine the quality of a team's stock, they should not and cannot be the sole factor in determining who gets to play for college football's national championship. If this is going to continue to be the case, then college football will lose its designation as an according-to-Hoyle sport. I spent a previous post on just this very subject and deemed anything that relies on judges and opinion and cannot determine a clear-cut victor by means of wins and losses athletic competition and not a true sport. Sports are defined by a winner and a loser, a champion and everybody else. This is not something that college football can claim to have under its current system.
It is in danger of becoming no better than gymnastics or figure skating or diving--and that is not an assault on the merit of the athletes that take part in those forms of competition--where judges and their opinions determine a champion. How is that any different than how college football currently operates? Sure, the individual games during the regular season have a winner and a loser, but what does that matter if at the end of the year their wins and losses might not mean anything? What does it matter if a team like Oklahoma State can lose as many games as Alabama, but not even have a chance of playing for the national championship? Heck, why do we even have a final score in the National Championship Game? Why not just play four quarters, then have a group of judges and pollsters look at the game and decide who they think actually won. That way if a team loses on a last-second hail mary touchdown pass, but actually played a better game of football than its opponent, they get the win because they are better and deserved it more.
That sounds foolish right? Well I don't see how the BCS and its ranking system and this anachronistic reliance on the bowl system is any less foolish. The bottom line in college football is money and revenue, but that is true in every other sport as well. And the plain fact is that a playoff system is more lucrative in every other sport, but fans have continually been told that this is not the case in college football. So because of the bottom line and the long tradition of the bowl system, teams, fans and coaches are forced to be continually unsatisfied with how their sport determines its champion. And don't even start with the whole "most coaches want to keep the current system as-is". Yeah, most coaches that coach for a team that has a chance at getting into the National Championship Game under the current system feel that way. They are like anybody else: when a system is set up to benefit you, the last thing you do is question whether or not it's the way things oughtta be.
So what's the solution? Well, for me it has to be a playoff that also kowtows to the BCS and their continued proclamation that the bowl system must be left intact. Fine, let's do that. All of the lesser bowls and their meaningless outcomes can stick around. The only thing I'll touch in my playoff system are the top 6 teams in the end-of-the-regular-season BCS rankings. Here's how I think it should work:
What we need is a short, but effective playoff bracket that will still reward teams for ending up in the top two slots of the BCS rankings, and not shatter the bowl system completely, something that BCS will try to convince you would happen if a playoff system were implemented. The most agreed upon and logical next step in the eyes of many is the so-called "Plus-one" format. This would be analogous to the "Final Four" in college basketball, where the top four teams would advance to have a shot at playing in the championship game. The No. 1 team would play the No. 4 team, the No. 2 team would play the No. 3 team, and the winners of those two games would play for a shot at the "Crystal Egg" in the National Championship game.
This simple addition of one game solves many of the problems with the current system, but in my eyes falls just a bit short. I would instead put forth a six-team playoff system that would work exactly like the playoff system in the NFL, if instead of two conferences, there were only one. In the NFL, six teams make it into the playoffs in both the AFC and NFC, with the top two teams receiving first round "byes". They sit at home while No. 3 plays No. 6 and No. 4 plays No. 5. After those games are played, No. 1 gets the lowest ranked team remaining, while No. 2 would play the next highest team remaining. Then you would basically have the "Plus-one" or "Final Four" and things would play out according to the manner I just mentioned in the previous paragraph.
I consider this to be the best way to do things for a few reasons. It would still give the BCS what it currently has: marquee match-ups for the teams that sit atop the BCS rankings, and an opportunity to keep all of the other bowls as exhibition games for teams that played well enough to be bowl eligible. At the same time this six-team format is at once far more lucrative and attention-grabbing, making for 3 (or at most 4, if an off-week is included before the championship game) weeks at the end of the year that would be among the most exciting in the world of sports. Not only that, but the new system is short enough that players would not miss an egregious amount of school time because of holiday schedules and it would not interfere with any other major sport's playoffs or regular season in a significant way. The way things are now, the regular season is over by the first week of December, but the National Championship is not played until the second week in January.
This playoff structure would actually shave some time off of that timeline and give fans what they want: a legitimate process for determining a champion.
It would also prevent a lot of bellyaching by teams like this year's Oklahoma State squad, who have just as good a claim on being in the championship game as Alabama, but are left out in the cold. Sure, the pollsters might have cost the Cowboys a first-round bye, but they would be "in the tournament" that decides who is champ and could play their way into the National Championship Game the same way the other 5 teams involved with the playoff could. It's certainly a lot better than telling the Cowboys, "Great job guys, you lost only one game all year, an overtime road game that came on the heels of learning that two of your women's basketball coaches died in a tragic accident. You fought hard and have as many losses as Alabama, and unlike them, actually won your conference title, but by the weight of opinion only, you will not get a chance to prove you are the best team in the country. Instead, you get to play a meaningless game against fellow heavyweight Stanford (which you will win) and go home thinking about what might have been had you been given the shot to play LSU in the National Championship Game."
Mike Gundy is a man, but I don't think he's taking his team's ranking in the final BCS standings and narrow (we're talking percentage points of percentage points here) third place finish behind the Crimson Tide like one, certainly not after Alabama's manhandling of LSU last night. The six-team system makes so much sense because with that many teams, the chance of leaving out a truly deserving squad is mitigated greatly, the prestige and position of the current BCS Bowls is maintained, and the remaining bowl games don't lose any of their current, rather dull, luster. It seems to me that under this system, everybody wins and finally and at long last, college football could identify a true and clear-cut national champion without any of the speculation and controversy it is currently forced to endure each and every year around this time. Hopefully this time next year, the BCS and the NCAA will have both gotten their respective acts together, and I will be able to whole-heartedly congratulate the national champion. That's something that as of right now, I simply cannot do.