Okay, as a follow up to yesterday’s post about playoff expansion, I wanted to share a few semi-facetious thoughts about a better path.
I say semi-facetious because we all know what college football’s Jed Clampetts and Mickey are going to do, no matter what, and so any suggestions to the contrary are basically pissing in the wind. That being said, there is a certain freedom in wind pissing that I appreciate.
So, let’s start with this basic premise: as a general rule of thumb, there aren’t four teams worthy of national title consideration in a given season.
Or, to put it another way,
There just aren’t that many teams built to win national championships. Just because there’s a playoff with X number of teams doesn’t mean that they all are good enough to win it:
Over the past 25 seasons, every team that has won or shared a national title has had an S&P+ rating in the 95th percentile or better, with rounding. The worst was 2002 Ohio State at 94.8 percent. However, all but three teams (four, if you include UCF in 2017) were in the 98th percentile or higher. Usually the elitest of the elite earn the ring.
As I wrote yesterday, one of college football’s unique aspects is that it boasts less parity between D-1 teams than any other major competitive sport in this country. There simply aren’t that many great teams in a given season. Which is why I think this conclusion is a stretch:
The Playoff semifinals are weed-out classes. The best teams almost always get through, but they’re good for ensuring the best teams really are the best teams.
So far, it’s worked. The four national champs in the Playoff era have finished first, first, second, and second in S&P+. Bama and Clemson are in the top two spots heading into this season’s title game. It’s time for the final exam.
There really hasn’t been much weeding out. As Matt Hinton pointed out, only two of the first ten semi-final games have finished with single-digit margins between the participants.
In other words, a four-team playoff hasn’t really been needed for the most part to separate the two best teams from the pack.
There is a but, though. Here’s my second basic premise: to the extent that there is any real tension behind the drive to expand the college football playoffs, it comes from years when there are three teams with legitimate claims to earning a national title.
Those sorts of season aren’t the standard, but they crop up often enough to be an issue. The problem is that a mandated four-team (soon to be eight-team) format is a cure worse than the disease, if the goal is to reward the very best in college football, given the likelihood that teams unworthy of that final goal are being incorporated into the process in an attempt to make sure the worthy teams are given their place.
Let me extend that medical metaphor one step further. The reason the cure is worse than the disease is that an expanded playoff creates a new symptom. A watered down playoff field not only makes the playoff itself less entertaining, but it also makes the top tier bowl games less entertaining because those match ups are diminished by bracket creep.
As crazy as that seems, what’s even crazier is that the only solution the powers that be appear to have for the problem is to introduce a larger playoff field, something that will only exacerbate the exact problem they’re trying to fix, or, more accurately, the problem they claim they’re trying to fix. The real problem for the suits is leaving money on the table for their product.
It’s a broken system. How, then, could the patient be cured, or at least nursed back to health, so to speak? Well, one way would be to level the playing field a good bit through re-engineering scheduling or roster size, but that’s an even bigger pipe dream than holding back the tide on playoff expansion.
If it were up to me, here’s where I would go. First, outsource the selection process to the folks with no skin in the game, the bloodless types who run Vegas sports books. They have no inherent bias or conflict, other than avoiding the loss of money. In one fell swoop, you would eliminate a factor that was introduced with the shift from the BCS to the CFP, the consideration of spreading the wealth between the P5 conferences. (That factor being, of course, the primary motivation behind expansion to a quarter-finals.)
Vegas power ranks programs. Let Vegas come up with whatever games involving the top teams would result in setting lines of less than, say, eight points. If there is only one game that meets that criteria, so be it. If there are three teams that are on that level, then fashion a semi-finals that includes the three and winds up with the top team getting to face the fourth best. Nobody deserving is left out in that situation, and we’ve still got a decent shot of having at least one competitive game worth watching.
Yes, I know it’s a proposal that’s DOA because there’s no way Disney would be happy booking that level of uncertainty. (I said this was a semi-facetious post, remember?) For what’s it’s worth, though, I think that’s actually a little overstated. ESPN could still come up with a whale of a show setting up how the playoff would look every season and — here we get to the second part of my mad scheme — the remaining games would be more competitive, more entertaining and, hence, more valuable.
To enhance that possibility, I would let the bowls do the one thing they were good at in their heyday, which is to let them have free rein in assembling the participating schools. End the mandatory conference tie-ins; hell, make things more Wild West by letting the bowls bid for teams. (For schools that just whiff on making the playoff, that could make for a nice consolation prize.) Top tier bowls selfishly want games that generate fan interest. Let them have those again.
Okay, so that’s all I’ve got. I know it’s a waste of bandwidth, but I feel better for typing that. (It sure beats what’s coming.) Now I’ll go back to my college football death watch. Just give me those five good years, please…