Banging the Doldrums: College Football Playoff Only Stirs up More Problems


College football is about to change forever, but maybe not in the way you’re anticipating. Sure the college presidents seem to finally have a solution for a playoff and will do away with the highly controversial BCS formula, but things aren’t so clear-cut as to just how beneficial this will all end up being in the long run.

That’s because this was a decision born out of profitability, not necessarily what was in the best interests of college football.

For years, college football has clung to its bowl system and for good reason, bowl games are highly incentivized. But they’re also not ideal for determining championships either.

The Bowl system harkens back to another era before the college game had gone truly national, back when teams played for conference titles and Bowl games were largely intended to pit the best of the best together in match-ups that were closer to exhibitions than true title clashes.

Remember, until the advent of the BCS, the top two teams oftentimes didn’t play each other in their bowl match-ups. It wasn’t uncommon to see the top-ranked team play in one bowl game like the Rose Bowl while the number two team played in another like the Sugar, sometimes not even against top ten teams.

National Championships were awarded by the polls back then, not by some all-determining national title game. You had split decisions like Miami and Washington in 1991, there was a ton of controversy.

The Flaw in Logic

The point where some of the logic for the national championship comes off the tracks is on the insistence that Bowls continue to be a part of the equation. Even back in the 90’s it was obvious that the Bowl system likely wasn’t the best way to determine a national champion.

In fact, that’s really a microcosm of the entire reason it took so long to ever even get to a college playoff. Bowls aren’t around today because they’re good for the game of college football, they’re around because they make money and athletic programs like making money.

The BCS modified the Bowl system so it could name a champion, and more importantly the system could continue being profitable.

And here’s what’s funny, the BCS did work, it may be controversial but the only schools that were really clamoring for change were the ones outside the big six conferences that had a hard time profiting off of it regularly. Sure every few years there was a big to-do about who got into the BCS title game, but even the method for picking teams took the blame away from the writers and coaches and placed it squarely on the shoulders of a formula that was easy to deride.

It was blameless and profitable as hell. Are we really surprised they dragged their feet on a replacement? And now we have one, but look out, because things just got infinitely more complicated than they were before.

All the worst elements of the college game, the sniping between conferences, the overtures about financial viability and the open campaigning for playoff spots are coming, and they are going to do little to enrich this sport. This new method just lets other factors besides won-loss records and who a team is on the field come into consideration during the selection process…

Say Hello to College Elitism

Beforehand college elite was just something republicans used to yell at ivy-grad liberals, now elitism in the college ranks will mean something much different.

The criterion and formula have yet to be established, but a committee will pick four teams for the playoff. That sounds really clear cut, but without automatic qualifiers be ready for conference-based classism to ruin the debate. It’s only a matter of time before we start to have the discussion about whether being a one-loss SEC runner up is more impressive than winning the Big East or ACC undefeated. Be prepared to listen to the Big 10 have to answer for its lousy BCS record every time they get a shot at putting a team in.

Just expect to listen to a lot of BS.

Since the start of the BCS there’s always been a sentiment that the SEC is the best conference in the country, even coaches in other conferences admit as much. But I have a very good feeling they’re also about to become the whiniest conference in the country because I promise you unless there are two SEC teams in that playoff every year the entire Southeast will explode over how their conference got disrespected and screwed.

That ought to engender plenty of pandering and insolent behavior from Big 12 commissioners who have begun to get an inferiority complex in the shadow of the SEC.

And then there’s Notre Dame, who hasn’t deserved a BCS bid it’s gotten since the system’s inception, but travels well and makes whatever bowl they go to enough money that it makes the most financial sense to include them, no matter what.

Notre Dame is the argument on the other end of the spectrum from the power conferences, whereas the SEC and the Big 12 will have complaints based on merit, Notre Dame will represent what is really at the root of every college football decision, the desire to make money. Anytime its even close, you can expect Notre Dame to be in full-on campaign mode and you can expect the committee to listen because the Irish bring the dollars.

Are you seeing the issue?

Before with the BCS formula, flawed though it was, you had an ironclad way to determine rankings and match-ups. You may not have liked it, but there wasn’t a ton of subjectivity at the end of the day, it all came down to the computers in that formula. And no, it didn’t always nail the top two but I don’t ever remember thinking 1-4 were wrong…

This new way is akin to opening Pandora’s box if you don’t find the right merit-based criterion for determining who goes.

And they won’t.

This is Still About Money

Like I said earlier, the BCS stuck because it was profitable, even now the playoff decision wasn’t unanimous because at least one chancellor said publicly he preferred the status quo. The status quo is profitable.

The college playoff won because the financial incentive was finally too good to pass up. Now they get to promote two more bowls to BCS status and the two national semifinals will cycle between the six, with the other four sites also getting big games. This new approach won where others had failed in that it appealed in a very real way to the bottom line.

You notice they could have easily fixed all of this a couple of years ago when they just randomly decided to invent a fifth BCS game a week after all the others to serve as a championship.

Right then, pragmatism should have taken over in a room full of university presidents and a plus one could have been born. You have the semi-finals the week before and the new-fangled BCS National Title game should have been the plus one.

That actually makes sense more than this playoff does.

But then you lose a whole bowl game that way. That’s two more fanbases you can’t sell the bowl experience to and milk for millions at the end of the season. Instead you have to rely on two already depleted fan-bases in the hopes they’ll travel well two weeks in a row.

Ewww, that’s not as profitable, so common sense be damned.

In this new plan we have a playoff where they also get to add two more BCS bowls (technically one game, since the BCS national title game ceases to exist in its current iteration) PLUS you get a Super Bowl style one-off as a national title game that will move around the country each year and really rake it in.

Now we’re talking big money, whereas just three years ago Ohio State’s president Gordon Gee said over his dead body a playoff would happen in this era, suddenly there’s interest in the room.

But it’s definitely not a new era…

Everybody wins this way, at least at first blush. The public gets what they want and things just got even more profitable for the schools. Even the selection process becomes more profitable because lord knows a formula cannot give preferential value to profit like a group of people can.

"Among the factors the committee will consider are won-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and whether a team is a conference champion. The selection committee will also play a part in creating matchups for the games at the four sites that do not hold a semifinal in a given year."

Let’s read between the lines here. First of all, harkening back to the point about college football classism, winning your conference is a criteria but not a prerequisite, but more disturbing is that last sentence:

“The selection committee will also play a part in creating matchups for games at the other four sites…”

They shouldn’t.

That influences the process, they should have no say over who plays where if they aren’t in the playoff. Why? Because money influences decisions more that way. How many times during the current BCS have you heard grousing from one of the big four about getting a lousy matchup.

When they say lousy they don’t mean a bad game from a competitive standpoint, they mean that it isn’t as profitable as it could have been.

But those were the breaks with the old system. Now that a human committee is picking games you don’t think making sure all the Bowls are happy will be a consideration? Could you not envision a scenario where the fact the Rose Bowl wants a historic Pac 12-Big 10 matchup influences that fourth playoff spot?

Here’s a better question, should the potential for that conflict of interest even exist?

Small Schools Are in Trouble

The real reason the BCS doesn’t like a team like Boise State is not their conference ties, that wouldn’t matter if the Broncos travelled well. As we already mentioned, Notre Dame plays the back end of the Big 10 and all three of the service academies every year in lieu of a conference schedule and they get in with two losses.

But even at full force Boise State can’t crack the numbers a school like Texas or Michigan can bring to a bowl game. That matters. That’s why they’re really second class to the BCS.

And now without automatic qualifiers, even schools from big conferences that travel poorly are in trouble. Take Wake Forest, a school that has won the ACC before but with an enrollment of under 5,000 is never going to bring a lot of money with it to a bowl game. A few years ago, when Wake was in the Orange Bowl that was the real reason they were so upset in South Florida, they had Wake against Louisville, a basketball school, and they knew their bottom line would be way down.

Now, realistically (not thinking in this altruistic bubble we sometimes like to live in) do you think the Boises and Wakes of the world, even in traditionally respectable conferences, will get the same kind of shot as a historic program like a Notre Dame or USC?


If that fourth spot in the playoff is close, you really think the school that travels better doesn’t have the advantage?

At least under the BCS a small school had some protection from that sort of scrutiny, not a lot, there was still some wheeling and dealing to get the bowls more profitable games, but if the formula called a school’s number, they got to go. If they won an AQ conference, they got to go.


It helps if they travel well.