Commentary

Eight-team playoff would be ideal for college football

Originally Published: May 20, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

To be completely selfish about this, I love the BCS.

Lampooning it is like shooting fish in a barrel. No, it's like firing howitzers at fish in a barrel. Wait: dropping smart bombs on fish in a barrel.

It's the easiest column in sports. Being paid to rip the dumbest football idea this side of the XFL is stealing money.

[+] EnlargeJerraud Powers
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesCollege football fans have been calling for a playoff.

But I'm willing to take one for the team. I'll make the sacrifice. I'll find some new material if the college presidents will just abolish the farcical Bowl Championship Series and give the people what they clearly want.

A playoff.

(I know this is what the people clearly want because every autumn, I get dozens of e-mails from readers earnestly proposing their own playoff idea. There are more playoff formats floating through the heads of frustrated football fans than there is sand in Dubai.)

For my money, an eight-team playoff would be ideal: The champions of the six biggest conferences plus two wild cards. You can seed it and choose the at-large teams by whatever means is most acceptable. It could be the current BCS system, or it could be a selection committee similar to the group that picks the teams for the NCAA basketball tournament.

Play four quarterfinal games in mid-December. Play two semifinal games on New Year's Day. Play the championship game seven to 10 days later.

Play the quarterfinals in, say, New Orleans, Dallas, Orlando and San Diego. Call 'em the Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Capital One Bowl and Holiday Bowl, if you wish.

Play the semis in Miami and Tempe. Make them the Orange and Fiesta.

Play the championship game in Pasadena. The Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeRose Bowl
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesA playoff system could incorporate current bowl venues like the Rose Bowl.

Then rotate sites to keep all the bowl bigwigs happy.

If that means the season is too long for the excuse-making university presidents to stomach, fine. Cut the schedule back to 11 games again. The 12th game only exists to line athletic department coffers with added home-game revenue.

An eight-team tournament wouldn't stop the complaining about the system. It wouldn't stop the lobbying from fans and coaches. It wouldn't make everybody happy.

But wouldn't you rather listen to arguments about who are the eighth- and ninth-best teams in America, instead of about who's No. 1? In an eight-team tournament, there would be no legitimate danger that the best team in the country never got a chance to prove it on the field. With the current system, that is a clear and present danger.

If an eight-team playoff is deemed too unwieldy, I wouldn't be greedy. A four-team playoff would do, or even a plus-one game. By all that's holy, just end this BCS charade and get it done.

Give me a champion crowned on the field, not a championship matchup manipulated by computer rankings and coaches' votes.

Give me what works in every single other sport the NCAA sponsors, not a bunch of flimsy excuses about why it can't happen in big-time football.

Give me a sporting event that can approximate the drama of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, not a postseason that is more annoying than thrilling.

Defenders of the status quo -- I see you over there, Maisel, mingling with the bowl scouts in ugly blazers -- argue that a playoff would diminish the best regular season in any sport. But a relatively exclusive playoff would not significantly undercut the September-to-December drama.

At most, teams could afford to lose once or twice and qualify for an eight-team playoff -- which means every game would still matter. The conference races would still be hugely competitive. And if at-large bids were tied to schedule strength at all, we actually might see more quality nonconference games and fewer slaughters of Florida International.

[+] EnlargeLSU
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaA playoff would end split titles like the one Nick Saban and LSU shared with USC in 2003.
I will concede that the BCS is an improvement over the old bowl system. Big deal. A wagon is an improved mode of transportation over walking, but still quite a bit short of a Lexus. Making a bad system a little bit better is not the same as making it as good as it can be.

Are we in a better place than we were in 1997, when Michigan and Nebraska were squabbling over the title and splitting the hardware? Marginally. But the BCS didn't stop the squabbling or hardware-splitting between LSU and USC in 2003 or the complaints from undefeated Auburn in 2004. It didn't prevent a Nebraska team playing terrible football at the end of the 2001 season from slinking into the title game and being predictably crushed by Miami. It didn't prevent Oklahoma from making the national championship game despite having lost its conference title game by four touchdowns in '03.

The BCS hasn't given us an airtight championship matchup every year, and it hasn't prevented the nontitle BCS bowls from engaging in naked self-interest instead of rewarding the most deserving teams (see: Kansas over Missouri as the Orange Bowl's pick).

If this thing is such a great idea, why have they had to rejigger the BCS formula nearly every year? Why has Congress gotten involved in trying to force change? Why are people fuming every December?

The problem is, all those fuming people are still buying tickets and still watching games. The establishment has little motivation to improve its product if consumers are still buying it.

That goes to show how passionate college football fans are. Against their better instincts, they're still supporting a system that relies on microchips and on SIDs voting on behalf of coaches.

But they know the truth: The only way to make it right is to settle it on the field, the way every other sport settles it.

Until that happens, I'll keep smart-bombing fish.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.