- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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At the Pac-12 meetings last week in Phoenix, it became clear that conference coaches and athletic directors as well as commissioner Larry Scott favor a potential four-team college football playoff including a requirement that each of the four participants wins its respective conference championship.
The reasoning for that is logical and unassailable: A national title contender should first prove it's the best team in its conference. College football folks -- coaches, administrators, etc. -- frequently talk about preserving the value of the regular season. Not requiring a playoff team to win its conference directly contravenes that.
On the other side of the playoff debate are the folks who don't want any such requirements. They say introducing one muddies things up. They say it's important to pick the "four best teams." Keep it simple and credible!
Four best teams? Er, how will we determine that? The ole BCS rankings? A selection committee?
There needs to be give and take here. If the Pac-12 and Big Ten are going to sacrifice their automatic tie-in to the Rose Bowl, that means they need to get something in return. Thankfully, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany already has proposed an equitable plan that allows for both sides of this debate to get most of what they want.
It's the top-six plan: Conference champions would be required to be ranked in the top six of the final rankings in order to earn automatic berths in the four-team playoff. If four conference champions aren't ranked in the top six, then the highest ranked at-large teams would fill however many voids there are.
CBS Sports' Brett McMurphy went through all the scenarios. He found that, since 2004, only seven top-four teams in the final BCS standings would have missed the playoffs with this top-six plan.
Under this format, in the past eight years, 30 of the 32 teams in the playoff would have been conference champions. Only two teams -- No. 2 Alabama (in 2011) and No. 4 Ohio State (in 2005) -- that weren't a conference champion would have qualified for the national semifinals.
Using the conference affiliation for the schools for each season and not their future affiliation, the SEC would have had the most schools in the playoffs from 2004-11 with eight, including seven conference champions. The Pac-12 and Big 12 would have been next, each with six schools, followed by the Big Ten with five (four conference champions, one at-large), the Mountain West with four, the Big East with two and the ACC with one.
Of the Mountain West's four representatives, two were by Utah, now in the Pac-12, and two by TCU, which joins the Big 12 this fall.
That sounds about right.
The teams left out? Stanford and Texas, both twice, and Alabama, Michigan and LSU.
That sounds about right.
The best scenario to look at is 2008. From McMurphy's breakdown:
Top 6 ranked teams: No. 1 Oklahoma (Big 12 champ), No. 2 Florida (SEC champ), No. 3 Texas (at-large), No. 4 Alabama (at-large), No. 5 USC (Pac-10 champ), No. 6 Utah (Mountain West champ).
Conference champs in four-team playoff: No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Florida, No. 5 USC, No. 6 Utah.
Non-conference champs in four-team playoff: None.
Top-6 teams left out: No. 3 Texas, No. 4 Alabama.
Revisionist history: The good news is that the top four conference champions are all ranked among the nation's top six teams. The bad news is No. 3 Texas and No. 4 Alabama, both of which didn't win their conference, would not be included in the playoff. Lower ranked, but conference champion, USC (No. 5) and Utah (No. 6) would have made the field.
In 2008, the top-six model would have created a far superior postseason. The most likely scenario would have seen USC, clearly the best team in 2008, beating Utah, which physically manhandled Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl, for the national title.
Wait ... did I just pull one of those "Just because" deals there, making assumptions about how good a team is?
Yes, I did. Most folks outside of the Southeast -- including Vegas bookies -- believed USC was the best team in 2008. It finished the regular season with the same record as Florida and Oklahoma, but its loss on the road against an Oregon State team that won nine games was deemed worse than the Gators' and Sooners' blemishes. That judgment was arbitrary and ran counter to what many folks believed: The Trojans in 2008 would have left a bootprint on the foreheads of either Florida or Oklahoma.
And, of course, when Utah held Alabama to 208 total yards -- 31 yards rushing! -- it became nearly impossible to say the Crimson Tide belonged in the same building. Oh, that's right, an Alabama team playing in its first BCS bowl game since 1999 was SO disappointed that it lost the SEC title game that it decided not to try hard in the Sugar Bowl. Please.
Of course, this analysis is bothering some folks. Good. That's how the "Just because" stuff felt for the Trojans in 2008 and for Oklahoma State last year. The most certain way to ensure the new four-team playoff will foment annual controversy is to make the "Just because" element its foundation. We'll still be debating the subjectivity -- and inherent biases -- of the system for weeks as the season winds down.
See, out here on the West Coast, the top-six plan seems simple. It seems fair. It doesn't muddy anything up. It actually provides clarity: Win your conference.
It first tries to award the highest-rated conference champions for, you know, accomplishing something during the regular season, then it makes sure that we don't end up with a three-loss team in the playoff.
It's the best and most equitable endgame in the four-team playoff scenario. And the Pac-12 and Big Ten should fight for it.