We don’t yet know all the details, but in 2014, college football will utilize a 4-team playoff to determine the national champion. Those 4 teams will be chosen by a selection committee.
While I believe the BCS works well, the need for a 4-team playoff has indeed increased as the conferences have grown in size. The reason for that is the difference in strength of schedules between members of the same conference.
The 2012 Florida Gators are a prime example. You can easily make the argument that the Gators have had the most impressive season in the SEC based on who they have beaten and who they have lost to. With wins over 4 of the top 13 teams in the latest BCS – two of which came on the road – the Gators have the most impressive collection of wins compared to any team in the country.
Their one loss came to the Georgia Bulldogs – currently the 3rd ranked team in the BCS. And that single loss kept the Gators out of the SEC Championship Game and out of the BCS Championship Game.
When it is simply a matter of getting into the top two slots of the BCS, it’s nearly impossible for a non-divisional champion to get in there. 2011, of course, is the exception.
The scenario where a single division in the SEC has two of the top 4 teams in the country is not exactly a rare situation. Last year it was Alabama and LSU. This year it is Georgia and Florida.
As conferences grow, there’s more room for wider disparity between the strengths of schedules amongst the various members. Florida’s SEC schedule was stronger than Georgia’s, plus they play Florida State on an annual basis compared to Georgia Tech. That’s not a criticism of Georgia; Georgia beat Florida on the field and that is all you can ask them to do. However, it brings up an important point about scheduling as major conferences increase in size.
The ideal way to determine the best representative of the conference is a 12-team conference where everybody plays everybody over 11 games and plays nobody else. Despite the differences in home & away scheduling, this would be the closest uniform gauntlet to determine the best team in the conference. The further you get away from this scenario, the more room you have for error. A 14-team conference with only 8 conference games and a wide range of non-conference games means plenty of margin for error.
Expanding the postseason field is how you guard against that margin of error. Going from the top 2 BCS formula to a 4-team playoff would likely reward Florida for its impressive 11-1 campaign against a very difficult schedule while still rewarding Georgia for winning the SEC East.
Since the trend in college football is toward larger conferences, it’s not crazy to think there will eventually be a push to expand the postseason playoff from 4 to 8 teams.
I’m firmly against the idea of any playoff field larger than 4 teams – and actually still prefer the BCS – but since we’re going in this direction, there are some improvements that can be made. Adding another conference game for the SEC is a good place to start. Going from 8 to 9 SEC games would indeed help bring more uniformity to the strength of schedule of each SEC team.
The reality is that when you have such a disparate landscape in college football, there is no perfect system for selecting a champion. It is this disparate environment which undergirds much of the push to eliminate the BCS in favor of a playoff. Playoff proponents essentially argue that it’s impossible to determine who the best handful of teams are so we should simply put them in a huge bracket – March madness style – and let them duke it out. Of course this kills the regular season’s urgency and importance that is unique to college football.
The selection committee will likely factor in strength of schedule when choosing the four teams that will duke it out in the playoff. Conference champions will likely also be emphasized, but a team with Florida’s resume which includes just one loss to a top team and a road win over the soon-to-be ACC champs would be likely to get a spot. Even without winning its division.
If you think the controversy regarding the BCS is excessive, just wait until you have 5 or more teams arguing they should get that 4th slot in the playoff. The more available slots, the more teams think they deserve to be in the dance.
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