College football on brink of a giant leap forward
By Tracee Hamilton,
Last week, when I heard the news that conference commissioners had reached a consensus on a college football playoff, I thought it was the Percocet talking. I’d had shoulder surgery — yes, again; I have two shoulders, don’t you? — and I was icing and drugging and bored out of my mind.
So naturally I thought I was hallucinating. The conferences and Notre Dame — you have to throw in Notre Dame separately, of course; like Groucho Marx, the Fighting Irish don’t want to be part of any conference that will have them as a member — have agreed to a four-team playoff to begin in the 2014-15 season.
It’s not much, but it beats the heck out of the current system of drecky bowl games leading to slightly less drecky bowl games and the dim hope that there will be just two undefeated teams left at the end of the season so that we can have a semblance of a national championship game in whatever bowl gets picked out of a straw hat, or however it works. I’ve lost track, and interest, over the years in the bowl system. The scrabbling for money, the inevitable corruption, the dreadful corporate names (Beef O’Brady’s Bowl?) and the endless halftime shows.
None of that has been eliminated, but now we’ll have a little shot of fairness, in the form of a playoff, which college fans have been agitating for almost ceaselessly for years. Of course, this idea has another hurdle to clear: A meeting Tuesday here in Washington of the BCS presidential oversight committee. The president in question is not Mr. Obama, but college presidents representing the conferences of the BCS schools. And Notre Dame. We can’t forget Notre Dame. (Please join a conference, already!)
The Big Ten representative will be Nebraska — that sounds weird, doesn’t it? — Chancellor Harvey Perlman, who is against the four-team playoff, or a playoff. Perlman said the Big Ten’s position is to keep the status quo or, barring that, a plus-one. In this scenario, that does not mean bringing a guest to dinner after the meeting. That means a national championship game after the bowl season has concluded.
SEC representative Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida, has said his conference wants a four-team playoff. Period.
This meeting could be more competitive than about half the bowl games we saw last season — and without the halftime show. We’d need a corporate sponsor — Ben’s Chili Bowl? — but otherwise, game on.
Perlman’s argument against the playoffs is this: “I’d rather have five exciting games instead of two exciting games.”
My argument is this: One of the “five exciting games” to which he is referring is last year’s Orange Bowl. West Virginia 70, Clemson 33. For the Cornhuskers, this is a normal score — or used to be, back in their old Big Eight/Big 12 days. But I would argue it’s not exciting unless you’re a West Virginia alum.
Look, the new plan isn’t perfect. Eight teams would be better than four. But I don’t think we’d ever make the jump from the current system to an eight-team playoff. That would give a lot of entrenched bowl folks the bends. There are details to be worked out. How would the four teams be determined? No one seems particularly happy with the current formula, which includes the polls. Too much is riding on that preseason poll, and it’s too hard for teams to make big moves up and down once the season has started, for starters.
A committee seems to be the most popular solution, at least for now. It works, to a degree, in basketball. Of course, there are angry teams and angry fans every year, but that committee also has 68 slots to fill. When there are four, the anger increases exponentially, and so will complaints of bias, bargains and bad blood. In other words, about the same state of affairs we have now.
Eventually — and remember, there are several years in which to do this — someone at one of these institutions of higher learning that form these conferences, plus Notre Dame, will figure out a mathematical formula that will include strength of schedule and a lot of other factors. That, in turn, will change the way schools schedule nonconference games, except for Notre Dame, which doesn’t have a conference (seriously, Notre Dame is like a giant asterisk in this discussion) but usually plays a pretty tough schedule as a result.
There is time to work all of this out. What the college presidents need to do is approve the playoff — it’s staggering that they don’t see this, from a fairness standpoint if nothing else — and then let the conferences work out the details. Let’s do something crazy: Let’s give a playoff the chance to work instead of continually thinking up reasons it won’t.
For previous Tracee Hamilton columns, go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.