Here’s how it should work: Convene a selection committee like the one used in NCAA basketball. Give automatic bids to six conference champs instead of four and give two more berths to qualifiers who play their way in, based on various criteria overseen by the committee. This allows for the underdog, the Cinderella, the late bloomer.
The preservation of hope for a long-shot surprise is critical for audience interest, and trust. That’s why Steve Spurrier broke with the SEC’s stated position this week and supports an eight-team format.
“Do you know who’s won the Super Bowl the last two years?” Spurrier pointed out. “Weren’t the Giants 8-8? And the Packers didn’t even win their division the year before and got hot in the playoffs. . . . I know there have been a lot of NCAA [basketball] champions that didn’t necessarily win their conference, but they got hot in the tournament.”
Play the games at collegiate sites, so that college towns reap the financial benefits of hosting instead of those fleecing crooks called bowl executives. And don’t tell me that can’t happen because “the infrastructure needed on campus is significant.” That’s a hilarious excuse for an argument that says college football stadiums aren’t viable places to play college football.
If you insist on preserving the New Year’s Day bowls, put the first-round games on campuses and then use two of the bowls as Final Four sites. A week later, crown the national champion. I nominate the Rose Bowl as the perennial host of the title game.
An eight-team playoff would relieve some, if not much, of the underlying pressure driving administrators to make decisions that harm the game. The frenzy of realignment has resulted in nonsensically overlarge conferences in which members share no history or geography. It’s purely a result of anxiety that they will be left out of the game of BCS musical chairs. Some even favor one big superconference. A four-team playoff could be a sly way of edging in that direction.
But instead of being so concerned about hoarding postseason shares, administrators ought to be worrying about ruining their product. The biggest danger to college football isn’t poverty. It’s homogenization. The most attractive, telegenic feature of the sport has been the intensity of its regional flavors, and diversity, its pitting of opposites and flowering of champions in some of the poorer and less-likely places.
When Texas ends up playing West Virginia more often than it plays Texas A&M, is college football really better? When it’s impossible for a Cinderella team to make the playoffs, is the game really stronger commercially? In trying to “modernize” the sport’s economy and protect the rich, administrators should be careful. A four-team playoff is no solution. It’s just another step toward killing the character of the game.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.