The Future of College Football: The Post-Season

As you read this, a dozen men (the 11 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick) are meeting to determine the next way we will argue about who doesn’t deserve to be the national champion.  With the current BCS contract with ESPN expiring following the 2013 season and dissatisfaction with the post-season arrangement at an all-time high thanks to an abomination of a title game that found a way to create brand new controversies (is losing a conference championship game really worse than not even making it to one?) when we were so sure we had finally seen it all.

Early word out of this meeting (just the second of what will likely be four or five such gatherings before the July deadline) is that there is major support for a Plus-One format, which isn’t really all that informative except to shoot down the possibility of full-blown 8- or 16-team playoff models.  “Plus-One” means different things to different people, and it’s hard to say which version (if it is indeed just one) is gaining steam.  One thing that does seem clear, however, is that the 2014 season will end with more than two teams vying in some way for the ultimate prize, and that’s at least progress.  Here, then, are the most popular public proposals for a multi-team post-season format that are not large scale playoffs:

The Original Plus-One

This would be the version of “Plus-One” that is actually correctly named and also my least favorite of the three outlined here.  The idea is that the BCS selection process would be scrapped and the four top bowls would revert to original conference tie-ins.  The BCS system would be churned one more time following the bowls and the top two teams would play for the title.

The primary benefit of this system is that it opens the title chase to the most teams without being an actual playoff.  Technically, eight teams will be in the running and four of them will be eliminated on the field.  Two of them will then be eliminated in the same way we hate now, which is the primary drawback and a pretty big one in my opinion.  I don’t see how this will curb controversy in a real way.  It does guarantee a traditional Rose Bowl matchup every year, if you’re willing to accept that Nebraska vs. Utah is “traditional.”

I highly doubt that this is the Plus-One model that’s gaining traction, since most of the decision-makers involved are wary of the dreaded “bracket creep,” and this is basically a playoff that skips from quarter-finals to finals.  It would be too easy to add in that missing middle round in a couple of years and there’s no way the playoff opponents in the room don’t see that.  It also opens the door back up for accusations of hindering access, since it would reduce the number of “BCS” teams from 10 to 8 unless another bowl (Cotton?) is brought on board, a move that would itself then create three potential “screwed” teams rather than two.

The Four Team Bowl Playoff

The “Modern Plus-One” is really just a small playoff that’s afraid of itself.  If you don’t call it a playoff, then it isn’t, I guess.  Whatever.  This is the model that ESPN talks about the most, so immediately I am suspicious of it.  The idea here is that teams 1 and 4 and teams 2 and 3 would meet in two of the BCS bowls with the winners playing for the title a week later.

Proponents of this system love to congratulate themselves for creating a playoff and preserving the importance of the bowls, and I suppose it does that.  But I’m not really sure how many fans can travel to two bowl games in close succession or how many schools are going to want to foot the bill for two long trips.  Being that it is an actual playoff, it isn’t the worst idea, but the logistics seem to make it needlessly cumbersome.

This setup also reduces the number of BCS teams by two and doesn’t allow for an easy fix the way Original Plus-One does.  This is probably the format that is leading the pack right now, but I think that if it is implemented, its downsides will become quickly apparent and further modification will be in order.

The Four Team Non-Bowl Playoff

This is the system recently offered up by the Big Ten, and I think it is the best I’ve seen (again, since we’re ruling out the 16-teamer I actually want).  It would still employ the 1-4, 2-3 matchups, but these games would be held at the home stadiums of the top two teams.  The winners would then meet in a new national title game, the location of which would be up for bid each year, similar to the Super Bowl.

I’m honestly having a hard time finding something to dislike about this concept.  Home playoff games make achieving one of those top two spots worth fighting for, although it may also necessitate finding a new way to rank teams so as to avoid accusations of impropriety (at the very least, make the current system transparent).  No one is going to have trouble selling out a home game for a championship berth and contingency travel packages to the title game can be sold throughout December.  Also, moving the title game around the country would be beyond amazing.  I can honestly say I would consider going to any title game at Lucas Oil, whether the Buckeyes were in it or not.

This model benefits the bowl side of things as well.  With four teams out of the picture, top-tier bowl spots would be open for even more teams.  The Rose Bowl can have its Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup every year and get at least one of the champs most seasons.  In fact, there’s no reason the two semi-final losers can’t be eligible for bowls as well, making it even more likely to get a traditional Rose Bowl and offering more attractive options to help the bowls sell tickets.

But the most significant advantage to this format is that it comes prepared for eventual expansion.  There are no existing logistical barriers to keep it from, well, creeping to 8 or 16 teams.  I doubt that’s what the Big Ten has in mind right now, but I’d also be surprised if they hadn’t thought of it.

What are your thoughts?  Do you prefer one of the other two systems?  Is there a drawback to the Big Ten plan that I’m missing?


  1. Any system that does not attempt to fix the poll problem is destined to fail from the start.

    The problem isn’t with which variant of the “plus one” is best, it’s with the polls. We wouldn’t even need a plus one if the poll system wasn’t a vicious circle of Heisenberg-self-reinforcing fail.

    Ban the polls, at the very least until week 8 or 10 of the season. Until then, none of the above options will ever “work.”

  2. I agree with you that the polls/mysterious computers are the primary problem with the BCS, but I still think that a two-team playoff will never be inclusive enough regardless of ranking system.

    The other half of this new era is expansion/realignment (that post is coming later), which will start to take care of the problems created by the BCS ranking system anyway.

    However, it would not surprise me to see that system used in conjunction with a “conference champions only” rule or even scrapped entirely in favor of some kind of selection committee once the new format is in place.

  3. All subjectivity needs to be eliminated.

  4. Sorry, but there still needs to be some system of ranking, in order to seed the tournament.

    What’s the difference between a selection commitee and a poll ranked by some random group of coaches, players and writers?

    I agree that conference expansion could potentially take some of this burden off the human element, but some form of ranking will still be needed until we have, say, 4 super conferences (a proposal which, I believe, someone smart has previously presented)

  5. @Kade – Sounds good, but I don’t think it’s possible. If there was a rule that said only conference champions get into a playoff, then that’s subjectivity (all conference champions are automatically “better” than non-champions). In fact, the size of the field is subjectivity (this many teams are “good enough” to play for the title).

    There is no such thing as an objective post-season. No sport has one. Many sports, however, have fair and logical post-seasons. This is a step in that direction for college football.

  6. @Kaiser – You’re absolutely right, there has to be some sort of system to seed the teams. At some point, I think the playoff has to expand to include all major conference champions (which, by then, will probably be no more than 5) and possibly even the mid-majors (could be as few as 2-3).

    At that time, you can assign the 1-5 spots to the majors (by overall record) and the 6-8 spots to the mids (also by record). It’s still subjective, but at least it’s transparent and fair.

    Of course, there will always be the chance of the majors breaking away from the mids and then things get a little easier.

  7. The current system is 100% based on subjectivity.

    Most fans complain every single year about the current system.

    No one can tell me they couldn’t switch to an NFL style playoff in 5 minutes. I very rarely hear anyone pissing and moaning about the NFL playoffs.

  8. @Kade – Actually, the pre-BCS system was 100% subjective, the BCS system is probably about 90% subjective. The championship is determined on the field between two teams. It’s just that the decision to only have two teams is far too exclusive and the method of choosing those two teams is 100% subjective.

    The problem with an NFL-style playoff is that college football does not have the same parity that the NFL does. In any given year in the NFL, there are probably no more than three divisions that are significantly better or significantly worse than the others.

    In college, you have the Big East, which is mediocre overall but usually contains one decent team; the ACC, Pac-12 and current Big 12 that are a step up but still not usually hyper-competitive; the Big Ten, which fluctuates between impressive highs and often embarrassing lows; and the SEC, which has been fairly consistent over the past 5-10 years. Then there are all the smaller conferences that occasionally produce a team that might be great (hi, Boise!) but can never play a good enough schedule to know for sure.

    How do you funnel all of that into a playoff that’s fair and satisfying without introducing some subjective element to separate an unbeaten Ball State (or even Florida State) from an unbeaten Alabama? And then how do you do it when no one is going to greenlight anything with more than four teams?

  9. I’d start by eliminating about 40-50 teams from division 1 college football.

    They are not allowed to play vs. D1 schools in the regular season or the post season.

  10. @Kade – Hold your horses, that’s part 3!

    I think what are now the Big 5 will eventually have to secede from the rest of the FBS in some way, whether it’s the oft-predicted departure from the NCAA or simply a new division within it. This will probably happen once realignment settled down and the Big East and/or Big 12 have been completely absorbed by other conferences.


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