The slippery folks who rule college football are toying with new ways to distract the mob. After years of unpardonably rooking fans, they hope to placate us by considering a four-team playoff for 2014. The system has been so corrupt for so long, we are supposed to be grateful for the smallest possible concession. But let’s be real: What they are proposing is just a blueprint for another sewer line.
This week, the superpower conferences held their annual spring meetings, and they were a peepshow into the inner workings of empire, from the Southeastern Conference to the Big Ten. We saw the forces that really control them: quaking fear, and jealousy. A four-team playoff is inadequate, and everyone knows it, and the only reason they’re considering it is so they can continue to direct the lion’s share of revenue to themselves, because they are afraid of open competition.
The Bowl Championship Series is an exercise in rabid self-interest that unfairly excludes nearly half the teams in the country from playing for a championship. Now an even more severe choking point for cash is proposed, disguised as a playoff. Just listen to the arguments coming out of the conference meetings. These guys are so busy trying to maintain an unfair advantage and kill each other off, they can’t even agree on how to select four teams.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany insists the playoff should be restricted to four conference champions. Forget rankings, or mid-majors. Just reward the teams that sit atop the four most popular leagues. How very convenient. It’s a cold hard fact that no Big Ten team has played for a national championship since 2008, but Delany’s format would guarantee a Big Ten team in the national championship semifinals every year, no matter how weak they are on the field.
The SEC’s proposal sounds more reasonable — at first. Commissioner Mike Slive is a smart guy who has held the high ground on a playoff for years, and he says he wants four teams chosen strictly on rankings, with no guaranteed spots to anyone.
“The best four teams ought to be selected to play for the national championship,” he says, and he doesn’t want to “gerrymander” who they are. Yet how should we decide who those best four are? Rankings can be notoriously weighted in favor of larger leagues. How convenient: If you go strictly on rankings, there is a smaller chance an underdog can carry a winner’s check off to Boise, Idaho.
SEC schools, who have won the past six national championships, have zero motivation to create a seat at the table for anyone else. You can bet that any ranking system they participate in would reward the SEC teams disproportionately for their strength. The league has such a superiority complex that Florida Coach Will Muschamp actually fantasized aloud about an all-SEC playoff.
Good luck forging a fair system or a broad consensus based on either format.
The solution is plain: Adopt a true playoff format of eight teams. Make the postseason into a genuine tournament, instead of a rigged sham that favors the favorites. Only trouble is, it means letting more schools have a seat at the money table.
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.