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New Playoff is a Step in the Right Direction, but Issues Still Remain

Well, maybe Boise State will finally have a chance to win a national championship.
Well, maybe Boise State will finally have a chance to win a national championship.

Last night, all of the rumors of a four team playoff in college were finally made official: there will be a four team playoff instead of the BCS system starting in the 2014 season (a.k.a. Shane Morris's sophomore year). Pretty much everyone knew this was coming, and despite the protests of some -- notably in our own conference -- a consensus was eventually reached and yes, now this playoff is happening.

When the BCS system was created, there was similar praise for a then-progressive move; people were thrilled that the top two teams in the country would be finally playing in the same game for once. No longer would #1 Michigan play in the Rose Bowl while #2 Nebraska played in the Orange Bowl: the score would finally be settled and the best two teams year in and year out would play for the national title at the end of the bowl season. There wouldn't be any more split national titles! There wouldn't be any debate as to which undefeated team was better! About a decade-and-a-half ago, people were celebrating the advent of a new era in college football because of a radical change. Some would argue that college football has benefited because of the BCS on the whole, and I'd probably tend to agree with them. Still, the flaws in that new system were apparent in abundance -- there were split national titles, there were undefeated teams that didn't get a shot at the title, and there was that rematch in New Orleans a few months back. There were inane computer formulas, there were biased, or perhaps worse, totally ignorant poll voters, and everything seemed to be a spectacular mess. People are writing "failure" in the epitaphs of this once-lauded system, and it probably was one. To be fair, the BCS wasn't a complete and utter failure (unless you want to consider the advent of the facade of a true national championship to be the biggest negative externality of the BCS, which I completely understand), after all, #1 and #2 did meet every season, but the debate over who those teams were and how they were chosen did little to eradicate the issues that the BCS intended to solve. Regardless of its intentions and regardless of its successes, the BCS failed.

The BCS is dead. Long live the playoff.

If one thing is relatively certain of this new playoff (even though the BCS was simply a very limited two team playoff with a ridiculously stupid selection process), it's that it will be an improvement. With four teams included, it seems unlikely that an undefeated BCS team will be left out of the picture -- 2004 Auburn and 2009 Cincinnati won't have the incredible misfortune of being considered the subjectively third-best undefeated team in the country. More deserving teams will be given an equal chance at the championship; it was rare to have just two undefeated teams, more often there was an intense debate over who deserved the second spot (and the maddening inconsistency of choosing those teams was the worst part -- apparently rematches in the title game are verboten unless it's the SEC). Now, Alabama and Oklahoma State will settle that debate in an actual game, not in the minds of biased and ill-informed poll voters. That's the obvious draw of a four team playoff: more teams that deserve to play for a title will be able to play games to win it. 4 > 2. That's probably a good thing. The debate will never end though, be it a debate over who's the second-most deserving team, the fourth-most deserving team, or even the 68th-most deserving team. It's never going to be fully settled on the field, and I think that most people know that, but there will be plenty of the same bellyaching when there's one undefeated team and four one-loss teams -- someone has to be left out. I saw this tweet from Nike before writing this post and I found it to be frighteningly apropos:

I have the sinking feeling that this sentiment is shared: in a knee-jerk reaction to the most heated two-versus-three debate in the BCS era, the possibility, even likelihood of a very intense four-versus-five debate is overlooked. It's easy to say that the issue of last year was solved: #1 LSU vs. #4 Stanford and #2 Alabama vs. #3 Oklahoma State. Other issues, and other debates, will arise as an inherent part of the playoff structure; it's inevitable that someone will be mad that they're not in the playoff and someone else is.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the new system is the process with which these teams will be selected: it's no longer going to be a composite formula of computer rankings and human polls, but a selection committee much like there is in college football. Even though that committee hasn't been set yet, I'm still optimistic; I feel like the powers that be are at least competent enough to choose an adequate group of people to pick the teams. It's impossible not to like the idea of a selection committee; ideally the teams would be chosen by a knowledgeable, impartial, and diverse group of people within college football. Knowing that biases are as an entrenched part of college football as the Rose Bowl itself, I'm a little skeptical that the selection committee will be fair judges of who to include in the playoff. A loosely defined criteria for selection is a good start, but more guidelines than "conference champions preferred, at-larges can be included, head-to-head and strength of schedule are important" should be implemented. Of course, this all hinges on who's on the selection committee. If it's essentially the old guard that comprises most of the committee, there will still be that same elitism and exclusivity that the top-tier of elite programs has enjoyed for a while. Sorry Boise State, I'm not sure they would have been impressed, and I don't think you'd have been included back in 2006. Teams like 2008 Ball State or Houston last year (if they hadn't have lost their conference championship games) wouldn't stand a chance. They still likely won't under the new system -- I highly doubt that an undefeated MAC Champion would make it in over a one-loss SEC / B1G / Pac-12 / Big XII team no matter what the selection committee looks like -- but there will be non-traditional programs that have a better chance of inclusion now. That's an unambiguously good thing, but once again, the problems aren't necessarily fixed. Even then, a horrible selection committee of old administrators that watch one game a week could still happen, because college football likes to collectively make terrible decisions. A selection committee has the potential to be a great thing, but only if it's transparent, unbiased, and well, competent. Since it's just as easy to envision a group of shady backroom deals between parties with a ton of self-interest involved, the jury's out on this idea.

There are other issues, and other promising aspects of the playoff, but they're all questions at this point -- will there be a new, enforceable incentivization of strong non-conference scheduling, or will teams skate in to the playoff with a slate of four tomato cans? Will there be an actual emphasis on conference champions, or would the SEC be able to parlay their reputation into three playoff bids? Can a team come from total obscurity in the preseason polls to make the playoffs? I don't know. There's so much potential for this system to go right, be incredibly successful and be, for the most part, popular. There's also a very easy way to see this system going wrong and being nothing more than a BCS with four teams instead of two. It's never going to be a perfect system, and people aren't ever going to be completely happy with it. Still, having college football recognize that there was an issue and attempt to rectify it is certainly encouraging (even if it was influenced by the potential financial windfall with a playoff -- I'd like to think that more than money-making was considered in this process).

A playoff is going to happen. With the advent of the BCS, it was pretty much impossible that college football would be able to remain regional and have a regular season that was more important than anything else. Now that there is a "consensus" national champion created by whatever system is in place, a conference championship is no longer the ultimate goal. People that object to a playoff because of those reasons, that college football is losing its character and identity, becoming more commercialized, etc. are fighting a losing battle, as the money and the public sentiment in favor of a playoff system of some sort are both too much to overcome. When the playoff almost inevitably expands to eight or more teams, more of that character will be lost, but Michigan will still play in Ann Arbor, still play The Victors after a score, and still will touch the banner on the way out to the field. College football will still be college football, regardless of whether it more resembles the NFL than the glory days of Bo and Woody. I guess my point is that this movement from bowl games to a playoff is happening, and it's unlikely to stop. There's no point in protesting it now.

I don't know if I'd consider this new playoff a radical change, but perhaps more of a large-scale reform. Including more teams is, I think, a good thing: two imply wasn't enough. A selection committee is a good thing too, but only if it's done correctly (which, uh, might not happen). This new playoff system is being celebrated by some as the cure to all of college football's ills, to others as an incredibly significant improvement to a game that will be have a more legitimate champion, and it's being criticized by those that are afraid of the devaluation of the regular season and the people that long for the era when Notre Dame was actually relevant. I don't think it's any of those things. This new playoff is indeed a much-needed reformation of the critically flawed BCS system, but it's not a panacea -- some controversies and issues won't be fixed -- and, most importantly, it needs to be implemented correctly.