Inching toward a college football playoff – and less controversy

This year's all-SEC national championship game may finally lead to a college football playoff.

For those of us who’d like to see a college football playoff in our lifetimes, some welcome news came out of the 12-team Big Ten last week.

The Chicago Tribune reported Monday that the league’s athletic directors are considering the idea of a four-team playoff to decide the national champion. While there is still a long way to go, that’s significant news because the Big Ten led the charge to kill a Plus One system proposed four years ago by the SEC. Maybe watching two SEC teams play for the BCS championship finally persuaded the Big Ten’s ADs that getting a shot at the national title for one of their schools was more important than blind devotion to the Rose Bowl.

Of course, the whole point of a playoff would be to reduce some of the unsatisfying scenarios that have popped up ever since the BCS’s creation, such as:

  • 2001: A team getting blown out 62-36 in its last game, missing its conference championship game and still playing for the national title.
  • 2003: A team finishing No. 1 in the AP and Coaches’ polls but finishing third in the BCS standings.
  • 2004: An SEC team going 12-0 and not making the national title game.
  • 2007: Eight two-loss teams fighting for No. 2 in the BCS standings.
  • 2011: Two teams from the same SEC division playing for the national title.

SI.com’s Stewart Mandel went through each season of the BCS era (1998-present) to figure out whether a playoff would have created more or less controversy in a particular year. I recommend checking out the full column for Mandel’s year-by-year analysis*, but this was the bottom line:

So when we total it up, a four-team playoff would have been more effective than the stand-alone title game 10 times in 14 years. That’s certainly progress. But it’s also true that the controversy won’t fade. While there have been just three seasons (1999, 2002, 2005) in which the BCS title-game matchup was deemed universally satisfying, there were only four in which the four-team field was controversy free.

Yet with the lone exception of a clunky 2008 season, the debates we would be having over Nos. 3 and 4 would be easier to digest than some of the gross injustices that have plagued the 1 vs. 2 game.

When the NCAA expanded March Madness to 68 teams last year, there was still debate over who should be the last at-large team in. No matter how big you make any tournament, fans, coaches and pundits will complain about who got left out. But as Mandel demonstrated pretty well, any controversy over the No. 4 seed in a four-team playoff would be a lot more palatable than what we’ve got now.
 

* It’s worth noting that Virginia Tech in 2007 would have been the only ACC team since expansion to make one of these hypothetical four-team playoffs.

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