Change We Still Need: A College Football Playoff

By John Feinstein
Special to
Monday, November 10, 2008 5:40 PM

As the college basketball season begins this week -- earlier and earlier, it seems, each year -- one of the questions that will be asked is this: Who is this year's Davidson? Or George Mason. Or Gonzaga.

All three are schools from non-power conferences that have become the story of the NCAA tournament in the past 10 years. Gonzaga reached the round of eight in 1999 and used that performance to springboard into a national semi-power, a team regularly ranked in the top 20, frequently in the top 10. George Mason was the ultimate Cinderella story, stunning the basketball world with its run to the Final Four in 2006 that included victories over powerhouses Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut -- all of whom have won the national title in this century.

Last year Davidson wore the glass slipper, stunning Georgetown in the second round and Wisconsin in the round of 16 before coming up one three-point shot short of shocking Kansas -- the team that went on to win the national championship.

Maybe Davidson, with the return of the wonderfully gifted Stephen Curry, can make another run like that in March. Gonzaga begins the season ranked in most top 10s, surrounded by usual suspects such as North Carolina, Connecticut, Michigan State, UCLA, Louisville and Duke.

Of course, what brings this to mind is not only the start of the season -- Dick Vitale's voice is already ringing in our collective ears -- but the football seasons being put together by Utah, Boise State and Ball State. In case you haven't noticed, all three are undefeated. In all likelihood, one will get the chance to play in a BCS Bowl game while the other two, even if they win out, will have to settle for one of the 93 bowl games played before New Year's Day.

In fact, even if Ball State finishes 13-0, it will probably end up playing in the Motor City Bowl. Imagine that, going 13-0 and being rewarded with a trip to Detroit in December.The BCS apologists will argue that none of these teams would go undefeated if they played in BCS conferences. That's probably true, although a strong case can be made this year that three teams out of the Mountain West -- Utah, Brigham Young and Texas Christian -- are all be capable of winning the ACC or Big East. You might even add Air Force to that list.

The ACC and the Big East are so mediocre at the moment that Notre Dame should seriously consider joining. Charlie Weis has brought the Irish to a level of mediocrity where they would fit right in. For those of you not paying attention, Weis was 20-6 his first two seasons with teams built around players recruited by Tyrone Willingham. The past two seasons, the self-declared Knute Rockne of the 21st century is 8-13. Of course, if the Irish can beat Navy on Saturday -- and end "The Streak" -- they will be bowl eligible. Who ever thought the day would come when winning six games would be an achievement at Notre Dame?

We digress.

The question at hand is how good Utah, Boise State or Ball State might be, and the answer is we don't know and we will probably never know. Utah routed a mediocre Pittsburgh team four years ago when it had the chance to play in a BCS game, and Boise State beat Oklahoma in an amazing game two years ago in the Fiesta Bowl. Hawaii went unbeaten a year ago and then was crushed by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

What does that prove? Nothing really, except that non-BCS teams are capable of winning on the big stage in football the same way non-BCS teams can win on the big stage in basketball. The difference, as we all know, is that both Utah and Boise State went home undefeated but unfulfilled, because neither got to keep playing even though they kept winning. This will sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating: there is no sport on earth other than division I-A college football (or whatever silly name the NCAA slaps on it) in which a team can go unbeaten and not get to keep playing or compete for a championship.

That's none. Zero. Crossword puzzle players get to compete until they lose, for crying out loud. But not D-1 college football players.

The college presidents deserve to be hammered for this because they are a bunch of preening hypocrites who think (in most cases) that putting the word "doctor" in front of their name makes them smart. They look people in the eye and say things they know are completely untrue and then get upset when someone calls them on it. Example: "We don't want a playoff because it would hurt our 'student-athletes.' " Adding a 12 th regular season game to increase revenue was okay, but creating a playoff system with games played almost wholly between semesters remains an issue.

But the presidents aren't the real culprits anymore. As a group, they know almost nothing about athletics. They think they need to perpetuate the BCS, regardless of how awful it is, because a playoff system would mean sharing more of the wealth with their non-BCS brethren. What they fail to understand is that the revenue would increase so much that even if they had to dole more of the money out to Conference USA, the WAC and the Mountain West, everyone would still be wealthier.

Which is why the bad guys in this are the BCS commissioners. That would be Mike Tranghese of the Big East, John Swofford of the ACC, Tom Hansen of the Big Ten, Mike Slive of the SEC, Dan Beebe of the Big 12 and the unspeakable Jim Delany of the Big 10. With the exception of Beebe, all of them have been commissioners for a long time and they know in their hearts what the best thing is for college football -- in terms of both fairness and finances.

And yet, not one of them is willing to speak out publicly or put together a plan to create a playoff, whether it be eight teams, 12 teams or 16 teams. They just go merrily along spouting the same claptrap we've heard for years about how the system may not be perfect but it is good for the sport and the athletes. One former BCS power broker, Kevin White, the ex-Notre Dame athletic director, once said he was against a playoff because it would "commercialize" college football.

How can you possibly commercialize college football more than it is now? Have a sponsor for every play?

These commissioners are paid a lot of money and carry a lot of prestige with their jobs and their titles. Tranghese has been one of the good guys in college athletics for years, but he's dropped the ball badly on this one. Swofford will be remembered -- unfortunately for him -- for the ACC's football expansion. Slive has tried to remake the SEC's image as a bandit conference since taking over from Roy Kramer. Nothing good should be expected from Delany because he is, to put it simply, one of the most arrogant, selfish people in sports today.

But the others don't have that excuse. They need to get together, go to the presidents and say, "Enough. The BCS needs to go away before another TV contract is signed. Here is our playoff plan; here is how you will make more money with a playoff system."

That will get the presidents' attention. It will get them moving. It will end the pox that is the BCS. The presidents can't and won't do it on their own. It is time for the commissioners to do something other than hang out in five-star hotels at boondoggle meetings and tell people how proud they are of all their "student-athletes."

It's time for them to do something important -- something they could be remembered for when they retire. One of them needs to take the lead on this. It's like last week's election: the country was ready for new leadership.

So is college football.

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