Thursday, June 21, 2012

Great googly moogly: It's a playoff-type thing

The thing I said had a 0.04 percent chance of happening yesterday actually happened: There is a consensus on a four-team playoff-type thing.

CHICAGO -- The BCS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick on Wednesday endorsed a seeded four-team playoff model for college football that would begin for the 2014 season.

All that stuff about the presidents having to get involved and be all presidential in the process has been rendered moot; all they have to do now is officially approve this thing next Tuesday, which should be a formality since the Oversight Committee's only real participatory role throughout the existence of the BCS has been to sign off on whatever tweaks were being recommended. In other words, it should be a formality, although ESPN says they'll still nominally discuss other options (specifically the plus-one) since they want to be "full and complete."

Whatever. It's happening.

A probably-obvious-but-important observation: This is not a plus-one, which would just add one layer of games in between the regular season and the championship game and unquestionably still result in some scenarios with more than two deserving teams at the end. The thing that's being implemented is essentially an extension from a two-team playoff (which is what exists right now) to a four-team one, which means (a) the team that wins will, by definition, have the strongest resume of anybody in the country by virtue of beating at least two other top-four teams to end the year and (b) it's much, much less likely that somebody will get screwed.

I went back through the history of the BCS and found the following teams that could have been considered legitimately deserving (at least as deserving as one of the top two, in other words) but would've been left out of a four-team bracket:

2009: No. 6 Boise State, 12-0 (Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati and TCU were all unbeaten)
2008: No. 5 USC, 11-1, and No. 6 Utah, 12-0 (Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and Alabama all had one loss)
2007: The year of chaos; there were six two-loss teams behind No. 1 Ohio State, so differentiating between the fourth team in and the three teams out wouldn't have been easy. No. 10 Hawaii went 12-0 but wasn't that great and proved it by getting utterly destroyed by two-loss Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
2006: No. 8 Boise State, 12-0
2004: No. 6 Utah, 12-0, and No. 9 Boise State, 12-0
1998: There were four relatively comparable one-loss teams that would have been shoehorned into the three spots behind No. 1 Tennessee.

It's also worth mentioning that Tulane, Miami (OH) and Marshall had undefeated seasons in there but at no point even entered the BCS discussion since ... I mean ... yeah. The Hawaii thing. I'm not sure exactly how that fits into a limited playoff format but would have a hard time arguing for those teams' inclusion when they really did nothing to demonstrate being elite (that's the difference between those teams and the above-listed Boise and Utah teams).

Anyway, that list demonstrates why a four-team bracket is not entirely perfect: There have been some seasons featuring more than four potentially title-worthy teams. FWIW, my personal preference would be a six-team playoff with byes for the top two (woo regular season!) and on-campus siting for the first two rounds. I don't ever want anything bigger than that; the regular season really starts to lose its value when the top 16 teams (teams that went 8-4, in some cases) are getting thrown into a blender at neutral sites. In that scenario, there's literally no benefit to having gone 12-0 rather than having gone 10-2 (other than a nominally easier path based on seeding that may or may not be very accurate). But the four-team playoff-type thing preserves almost all the value of the regular season and still takes care of a large majority of the really egregious BCS ridiculi (that's plural for ridiculousness), most notably Auburn in '03, Florida State/Miami/Washington in '01 and Florida/Michigan in '06. I can find only three seasons (1998, 2007 and 2008) in which at least major-conference one team that could've made a reasonable argument for inclusion in a title-determining playoff wasn't included. That's improvement, especially with Boise and Utah now in major(-ish) conferences.

As I explained in a Facebook post earlier today, what I really want out of a playoff is this: determine the national champion only from the teams that proved deserving over the course of the regular season without de-emphasizing said regular season in any way. It's pretty obvious that there's no system that'll be perfect since (a) perfect is an entirely objective thing and (b) the circumstances vary significantly from year to year. Still, the four-team thing -- from a format standpoint, specifically -- is closer to my version of perfect than most of the realistic alternatives are. So that's nice.

That said, the siting plan sucks. Details:
The two national semifinal games would be played within the existing BCS bowl games (Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar) on a rotating basis, with the host sites being predetermined before each season. The national championship game would be offered to the highest bidding city. 
Bleh. The lack of on-campus semifinal games is really inexcusable given the difficulty of traveling twice, sometimes cross country both times, in the span of just over a week if your team of choice actually makes it that far. Rhetorical question: Who's gonna pay for a flight, a hotel, a $200-a-pop ticket and various other expenses for a semifinal game knowing that the two possible outcomes are (a) a devastating, season-ending loss and (b) a win that leads to another game that you now don't have the money to attend since you just blew your proverbial load? An answer to that rhetorical question: Almost nobody other than possibly the alumni who are local to the bowl site.

And I'm not sure what happened to the tie-in hosting plan, which was supposedly the favorite and at least would have created some tenuous geographical/historical connections by allowing the top two seeds to host at their affiliated bowl sites (Big Ten/Pac-12 at the Rose Bowl, SEC/Big 12 at wherever the Champions Bowl will be played, etc.). I liked that proposal a lot better than the one that's being recommended, which basically just rolls the playoff-type thing into the BCS rotation and will eventually result in USC playing Boise State in the Orange Bowl or something. Requesting seat fillers in Aisle Miami, plz.

It can't possibly be that difficult to coordinate the hosting of a playoff game rather than a regular BCS game on short notice (and there'd be about a month between the end of the regular season and the semifinals); what's the difference? And if there is none, why would anybody (other than the bowls, which should have no decision-making power) consider this an optimal arrangement? I just don't see the benefit to a rotational plan and saw plenty of benefits to the various other plans.

As for the selection process ...
Sources told that under the recommended model, four participating teams would be selected by a committee, which would consider certain criteria such as conference championships and strength of schedule.
... one exists.

I kinda like the idea of a selection committee (due to the potential for bracket/seeding flexibility based on common sense) but have some concerns about its size and potential biases. Hopefully it bears no resemblance to the coaches poll or the Harris Poll, which is filled with random people with tenuous connections to college football and 85-year-old former coaches who might be senile. The scary thing: I'm not exactly sure what would be better. I suppose I wouldn't mind an assortment of national media dudes (Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Andy Staples, Ralph Russo, Dennis Dodd, Dan Wetzel, et al) who presumably get to see a ton of games and get some insider-y insight as to the relative quality of the relevant teams.

I also wouldn't mind some sort of subjective component -- computer ratings, basically -- but only in the event that the restrictions on margin of victory and whatnot get removed. I've been saying this for a while: There's no point using computer polls but mandating that certain useful data NOT be included. Remove the restrictions and the result would be FEI-type numbers -- adjusted for strength of schedule and efficiency -- that would be of some undeniable value in the selection discussions (kinda like how RPI used by the NCAA tournament committee). Just to be clear, I don't expect that to happen due to all the yammering about transparency, etc.

Anyway, I'm curious to see some detail on the whole committee thing. There's gotta be some specificity as to what exactly "considering certain criteria such as conference championships and strength of schedule" means given the aforementioned transparency talk; I'm not sure this is something I want left open to interpretation. And on a somewhat-related note, aren't conference championships and strength of schedule inherently built into the voting process? The redundant application of two arbitrarily selected factors won't somehow produce a more "accurate" or "representative" top four. I could see that being an issue for everybody outside the Big Ten/Pac-12/Big 12/SEC/ACC if/when it becomes apparent that the process is weighted and the Boise States of the world are still getting left out almost entirely because of conference affiliation. Whether that will be negated, at least to some extent, by whatever benefit is provided to conference champions remains to be seen.

So that's a concern. The siting thing is more of an annoyance than a concern; I will not like it and will openly campaign against it in favor of on-campus playoff games, which would be utterly awesome. Probably my biggest concern (this is from Ivan Maisel and pretty well summarizes my long-standing feelings about a playoff):
For years, the presidents and BCS proponents have told us that it is a law of nature that playoffs expand, that four teams will become eight, eight will become 16. If you think this is a good idea, you haven't paid attention to the state of the college basketball postseason, which is, of course, the very problem with the health of the college basketball regular season. ...

The playoff is not a panacea. Playoffs don't identify the best team of the season. They identify the best team at the end of the season. It well may be an incremental change in the game, but it is a sea change in the philosophy of the postseason.
Yessir. I have always wanted and will always want a season champion and not a playoff champion. The four-team playoff-type thing works for me in that regard in a way that a 16-team PLAYOFF EXTRAVAGANZA would not. I'm hoping the talk about preserving the value of the regular season actually means something in terms of limiting the scope of the postseason; it apparently has thus far, which is an indicator that the "law of nature" in terms of bracket expansion is not necessarily a law but rather an eventual likelihood. An eight-team setup would be suboptimal in terms of preserving the relevance of the regular season but not untenable; a 16-team bracket would induce so, so much ANGAR. It literally hurts me to imagine a scenario in which last year's LSU-Alabama game and the '06 Michigan-Ohio State game mean nothing other than seeding and temporary bragging rights that will be negated by playoff results. Do not want

But I probably won't have to worry about that until I'm at least 50 and have a perfectly manicured lawn; the present is for going "WOOOO" (exclamation points would be added if not for the uninspiring bowl-rotation compromise and the selection-related uncertainty). A playoff-type thing featuring the hypothetical top four teams in the country: We will haz one. I literally can't believe I just typed those particular words in that particular order.


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