College Football: The Beauty of Imperfection
Just stop, John Swofford, just stop. Everyone else calling for an eight team playoff…also just stop. Yesterday, Swofford, the ACC Commissioner, gave voice to the inevitable discontent with our current method for crowning a college football national champion – even before the conclusion of the first iteration. This frustration is not a result of the number four. It’s not four’s fault. In fact, four is a great number. Even for a square, non-prime number, it’s a great number. We’ll get back to four. But, since we live in a culture and era of assigning blame and responsibility, let’s identify the culprit seemingly tarnishing college football this season: College Football. That’s right, it’s not the number four, it’s not Jameis Winston, it’s not the SEC, it’s not East Coast bias, it’s not ESPN or network money or any of the other usual suspects. The Keyser Söze of college football is college football itself. I’m going to attempt the impossible task of a critical look at the source of friction and consternation amongst college football fans.
The main goal amongst fans, with regard to talking about a college football post-season, is crowning a “True National Champion.” So, our problem statement is thus: “How do we crown a true college football National Champion?” The unavoidable, absolute truth of the matter is that this is not possible. It is not possible to crown a true national champion. Everyone needs to accept this.
People seem to forget that the only time we’ve come close to having a true national champion was during the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) – the very system we demonized and scrapped for the new playoff format. Before the “BCS era”, in what I’ll call the “Bowl Era”, conference tie-ins, usually founded on regional or historical ties, dictated where teams played in the postseason. In fact, for most of the history of college football, teams were crowned as national champions by the major polls before the bowl games were played. Even after voters started considering bowl games, you often found a top-ranked Big 10 team playing a lower ranked PAC-10 team in the Rose bowl and second- or third-ranked ACC or SEC team playing lesser ranked teams in the Orange and Sugar Bowls. Rarely did you have a championship truly won on the field. The bowl system speaks to why this system is inherently incapable of crowning a “true” national championship.
First, college football is not a level playing field. It’s not even close. As much regulation as the NCAA and conferences have imposed on teams in terms of number of scholarships and travel restrictions and recruiting, some schools have inherent advantages with location, size, endowments, and academic requirements. The whole reason college football is founded on a regional focus rather than a competitive focus is because of the challenges of the student-athletes as opposed to professional or other amateur athletes (who have their own challenges). With classes and tests and complete financial support coming from either tax-payers or alumni, the system will be built around playing other schools within your region, not other schools of similar competitive quality. College football is not the NFL nor should it be compared and contrasted with the NFL. College football is more about college than it is about football. And that’s OK.
Second, college football is not structured for objective comparisons. College football is structured on a regional and historical foundation. While the NCAA fills the niche of big, bad ogre very nicely, it’s really a loose confederation of the conferences. Everything from television contracts, scheduling, officiating, regulations, marketing and many other things are driven primarily by the conferences, not the NCAA. In turn, the conferences are really loose confederations of the member schools. Different teams in different conferences play different types of teams and some even play a different number of games. The schedules are the biggest examples of structural imbalance. When someone says “the NFL has this figured out” they are representing a fundamental lack of understanding of how NFL and college schedules are constructed. NFL schedules are set rotations based on prior year performance and yearly rotations. In essence, everyone in the NFL plays the same schedule. College schedules are not like this. The conferences are the primary money generating entities for college football due to their television contracts. This makes the conference the most powerful body in college football. Teams are beholden to the conference for money. The NCAA is beholden to the conference for legitimacy, relevance, and existence. It’s the conferences that own the product. That’s an important distinction to make. The conferences are the major stakeholders. When you compound loose confederations upon loose confederations, you get a very diverse, unbalanced and unequal system. And that’s OK.
Last, college football is more about emotion and affiliation than money. In college football’s instance, the money is a derivative of this affiliation between a team and its fans and alumni. Obviously, college football is becoming more and more a business, but it’s a business built on this personal affiliation with the schools and, by extension, the teams. Television networks pay huge money because of the large number of people who affiliate, either as an alumni or as a fan, of one or more university. The business aspect of college football cannot be ignored and must be considered in any discussion, but it ought to also be understood within the context of affiliations. Again, this speaks to the regionalism of the system of college football. And that’s OK.
The bottom line is that without a complete overhaul of the college football system – a relegation-like system or professionalization – you can never really achieve a “true national champion.” So, we must change our problem statement. Thus, our problem statement becomes “Within the current system, how do we best determine a National Champion?”
To start, we must go back to the point about owning the product. The conferences own the product, so we must all realize that any solution will be a conference-driven solution, not a fan- or media-driven solution. And it certainly won’t be an NCAA-driven solution. We must also go back to the point of a complete overhaul. A relegation system, sponsoring/paying players or any other substantive change to the system would obviously introduce other variables and schools would really need to just start from scratch at that point.
I really think the conferences have three options.
The Blow-It-All-Up Option. Give up on crowning a true national champion and go back to the bowl structure. Conferences can compete with each other for bowl tie-ins and have pretty much complete autonomy. Before you scoff at this idea, it does have several benefits. As stated, the conferences and teams would have much more autonomy particular with schedules and regulations. Conferences might lose some money, as you would be missing out on really one additional bowl (the national championship game) and the big bowls might not command nearly as much; although with agreements signed for extended periods that networks would be held captive by the possibilities of the match-ups rather than the match-ups themselves. Additionally, with the Marty McFly re-emphasis on regular seasons, the conferences could probably mitigate the offset revenue from the bowl money by increasing their contracts for regular season broadcast rights. And if you thought national conversation about college football is active now, imagine the interest peaked with different teams and different conferences pretty much rolling their own. Sometimes chaos is good. Would an archaic post-season plan fit nicely with an archaic college football system?
The BCS Singularity Option. Two sub options.
In Singularity One we basically all admit that the BCS was the best option and go back to the BCS. We get all the stakeholders together in a room in June or July and determine a pre-approved, as-objective-as-possible metric, everyone agree upon it, feed that puppy into the computer and at the end of the year, whoever the computer says is #1 and #2 play for the national championship the first Monday night following the New Year’s Day bowls. If you want to recreate the other BCS games, go for it. If not, no big deal. Everything other than the national championship game is just about the money. If you think the pollsters have an SEC-bias, then don’t add the polls into the formula. If you think the Big 10 doesn’t play enough Top 50 teams, create an equitable SOS measure. The most important part is that everyone agrees on the method before the season and lets it play out.
In Singularity Two, you have the same system melded with a four team playoff. Using the pre-determined and agreed upon metrics, the top four teams at the end of the year play in a structure currently represented by the playoff committee. No in-season committee rankings, no arguing about conference championships or head-to-heads or good losses or bad wins. Whatever the consensus thinks is important gets put into the computer some random day in July.
The Group of 64 Option. Yes, four is a great number. Someone please explain to me how we have five conferences and a four team playoff? We settle this once and for all. We realign the conferences to four conferences. Sorry Big 12, you should have put Texas in its place when you had the chance. Each of the four conferences has sixteen teams (four times four!) separated into two (half of four) eight(two times four)-team divisions. The conferences look like this:
Notre Dame either accepts invitation to the Big 10 or ACC or goes to a non-Group of 64 Conference. Geographically, they would fit in quite nicely with the Mid-American Conference. Army, Navy and BYU? Non-Group of 64 Conference. The other 63 teams vote on retaining Maryland or Rutgers (assuming Notre Dame chooses Big 10 over Mid-America Conference). The loser? Non-Group of 64 Conference. Remember, Notre Dame purists, it’s the conferences that hold the power now. And yes, you must take your baseball and basketball and hockey teams with you to the Big 10.
The four conferences come together and decide upon a standardized scheduling system that looks something like this:
As an example, this is what a Group of 64 team schedule would look like in 2021 assuming 2020 as first year of play:
I think it’s important to note inclusion of non-Group of 64 teams in this schedule. This serves two purposes. It provides Group of 64 teams with a couple of easier, not easy, games during the season and it benefits smaller schools who are still able to schedule the bigger schools for the pay-out.
Each team plays a balanced, competitive and fair schedule that can be compared against one another. Conference championships are decided by the season conference record. There are no conference championship games. Instead, the four conference champions will host the first round of the playoffs during what we normally consider conference championship week now, which would be Week 15 in the example schedule above. The other four teams can be picked by either committee or computer with weight on divisional champions, conference-vs.-conference records and relative SOS (a team playing a previous-season #8 schedule with same record as team with previous-season #2 schedule is not as strong). Then, the four winners during Week 15 meet two weeks later (additional two bowls) in national semifinals with the winners playing in the traditional national championship slot on the first Monday after the New Year’s Bowl games, which is Week 19 of the college football season. The regular bowls go back to being regular bowls with conference affiliations and tie-ins if the conferences so choose.
The reason the conference championships must go is because a team playing in the national championship will be playing 15 games. That’s just too much for a college kid playing at that level. Additionally, with the increased competitiveness of the conference structure, the necessity for a conference championship game diminishes. Each team going through a schedule like the example will clearly yield a conference champion at the end of the season.
While last year’s results and teams don’t necessarily impact the current season, using the previous season’s results is the fairest way to equalize schedules. Programs are consistent enough to justify this. Of course injuries and early draftees will always conspire against college stability, but using previous season results seems the best way possible. Scheduling on a early basis will be difficult for schools, but not impossible. Most schools play on campus, so reserving the venue will not be a consideration. Any neutral site games such as season opening kick-off games must be coordinated with the teams involved as part of their regular schedule. Even traditional match-ups are preserved, for the most part, in this concept. The big losers here are the independents Army, Navy and BYU and whoever doesn’t make the cut from Rutgers/Maryland vote.
Is this a perfect solution? No, a perfect solution doesn’t exist. Is it the best and fairest? I think so – if you’re truly trying to best determine a true national champion. The idea of expanding the current format to eight teams is that there will always be a NEXT team, a first team out. If team ranked 5th says that they are just as good as a team ranked 4th, then obviously the same argument can be made by teams ranked 9th and 10th in an eight team playoff. Will we then advocate for a 16-team playoff? Of course we would. Well, there’s always teams ranked 17th, 18th, and 19th.
We must, at some point, come to grips with the truth that college football is a structure that is not set up to yield a true national champion. We could come up with a hundred different ways to create new systems and formulas and metrics and conferences and schedules, or we could focus more on the college and football parts of college football. The championships and money and rankings are all just a part of the system – they aren’t ends of themselves. The only critical components of this system are the “college” and “football” parts. Discuss, debate, banter. Have fun with it. Enjoy it. And accept it for it really is: a perfectly flawed system.
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