Friday, January 8, 2016

I Was Wrong: College Football’s Four-Team Playoff is Perfect

The four-team college football playoff has saved my favorite sport and I could not be happier to admit my folly.

As the playoff approached, I predicted doom. There was no way this compromise was going to work. I believed we were on our way to a 16-team playoff. I thought the four-team playoff would ruin the bowls, diminish the regular season and create even more controversy. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

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While many foolishly credited the BCS with making college football a less regional sport, the four-team playoff cemented the sport’s place on the national landscape.

The problem for the BCS and college football for a quarter-century was that most seasons ended with three deserving teams battling for two spots in a championship game. Many fans can list the aggrieved parties from memory: Miami in 2000, Oregon in 2001, USC in 2003, Auburn in 2004, etc. etc.

I assumed this would similarly be a problem for the college football playoff, except there would be more teams complaining about getting left out. But the beauty of four teams is that the fifth team has no one but themselves to blame. Think about BCS fiascoes, as Miami in 2000 beat a Florida State playing for the title, Auburn in 2004 didn’t lose a game and Oklahoma State in 2011 never got a chance so Alabama could have a second.

In 2014, TCU and Baylor were both left out but there was a clear sense the committee ultimately got it right. Neither team challenged itself out of conference. TCU blew a huge lead to Baylor. Baylor laid an egg on the road to West Virginia. And if Ohio State had been the odd team out, we would have said, “They should’ve beat Virginia Tech.”

The 2015 season went so smoothly that college football fans had to find new things to complain about, which was delivered in spades thanks to the insane decision to air the playoff games on New Year’s Eve. Let’s hope they fix that, and soon.

But there was no complaining about the four teams involved. There are no complaints about Alabama and Clemson playing for the championship. Everything has been proven on the field.

Most importantly, the four-team playoff pulled off the magic trick of improving college football’s regular season, already the best in sports. The last four weeks of the college football season has turned into a high stakes game of demolition derby. Who will survive?

The BCS era presented a false notion that every game mattered. The Playoff era presents a true belief that every game matters.

On Championship Saturday in 2012, only one game mattered: the Alabama/Georgia game to determine who would play Notre Dame in the title game.

On Championship Saturday in 2015, each major conference’s title game had playoff implications. Alabama and Clemson locked up spots. North Carolina did not. Michigan State and Iowa played a quarterfinal game. Stanford made a statement if someone slipped up. Throw in Houston playing Temple for a Peach Bowl spot and it was a truly insanely, ridiculously awesome day of football.

That is why the four-team playoff has been a revelation. The possibilities feel endless, because they are. Did anyone peg Ohio State as the national champion in October 2014? Was anyone betting on Oklahoma to make the playoffs after Texas smoked them?

Even the notion that the bowls would be diminished feels misguided. I mean, there are 40 of them now. While TV ratings were destroyed by poor scheduling, attendance at the big bowls has been greatly helped. One thing noticeably missing from this year’s New Year’s Six was empty seats as only the Peach Bowl, which drew 70,000+, was not an official sellout. There were no 20,000 empty seats, which had become par for the course for mid-week Orange Bowl games and uninteresting Sugar Bowls.

Of course, college football fans can never be happy, so there has been grumblings about the creation of an 8-team playoff. For years, I have been pushing a 16-team playoff* to give the Group of Five teams a chance.

I was wrong about the four-team playoff before, so let me be right now: the playoff needs to stay at four teams for the foreseeable future.

For the first time in my life, I know college football will crown an undisputed national champion before the year starts. I cannot properly express how great it feels to know that.

For years, college football and its media peddled the ridiculous idea that “controversy sells” and that’s what made the sport so special. I cannot properly express how great it feels to know that bullshit has been exposed.

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*If the playoff expands, it has to go to 16, as I laid out for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. For fun, here’s what the bracket would have looked like in 2015 with all 10 conferences getting an automatic bid:

#16 Arkansas State at #1 Clemson
#9 Florida State at #8 Notre Dame
I wonder if anyone would watch an FSU/Notre Dame playoff game from Notre Dame Stadium In December?

#13 Western Kentucky at #4 Oklahoma
#12 Houston at #5 Iowa
I’m pretty sure Houston would be a semifinal team

#14 San Diego State at #3 Michigan State
#11 TCU at #6 Stanford
With Boykin playing, TCU/Stanford would be insane

#15 Bowling Green at #2 Alabama
#10 North Carolina at #7 Ohio State
If Ohio State had to travel to Alabama for a playoff game, ESPN would set a new cable ratings record. Assuming it’s not played on New Year’s Eve.

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