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You Know What College Football's Playoff System Needs? Bracket Creep

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Barring some kind of weird twist, which isn't out of the realm of possibility in the world of college football, the BCS will replaced by a four-team playoff system that each of us will come to hate just as soon as it's put into practice.

The saying "careful what you wish for" has never been so prescient as it is right now, football fans. We kicked, scratched and clawed for a playoff system and we were eventually given one.

And it's terrible.

Just look at Bill Connolly's breakdown of how successful this playoff system would have been if employed since 1998. The answer is, not very.

Before the BCS, we had a kind-of Wild West system for determining who played for the National Title. The BCS said it was riding into town with a foolproof system that would eliminate the guesswork and give us the very best two teams year in and year out.

The BCS failed catastrophically because, at it's most fundamental level, it didn't actually improve anything. It's results were indistinguishable from its predecessor. Sometimes it got it right but more often than not, it didn't, because it couldn't.

Nothing works and makes sense quite like a playoff. In any sport or competition, there is no reasonably-defensible way to determine a champion that doesn't involve one. This four-team playoff is a nice start, kinda. At least it is in fact a playoff, with the results on the field determining who plays for the championship rather than off-field measurements and biases.

But there are serious problems with this playoff right off the bat. First, the sample size. College football purists will argue until their blue in the face that it's the only American sport where "the regular season matters." They're right. Every single game is important. Lose once and you change the trajectory of your entire season. It is part of what makes the sport great.

However, because college football teams only play 12 games a season, plus a conference championship, the odds that four teams, let alone two teams, will be head and shoulders above everyone else when the regular season is over, is unlikely. Looking again at Bill's article, you could make the case almost every season that three or four or even five teams had a legitimate argument for inclusion in the championship game. And as you expand now to a "Final Four," you open up that pool even further depending on how many one- and two-loss BCS teams and undefeated non-BCS teams you have available.

The second problem is, of course, this committee that is going to be doing the choosing. Isn't that kind of stuff what gets us into trouble already? Immediately, we have a million questions. Who is this committee? What are their qualifications? Are they honestly watching every game these teams play all season long? Didn't that one guy coach at that school for 15 years? How can he be unbiased? Isn't that other guy the President of a University under consideration? How can he honestly have a say in a decision that will affect a financial windfall for his school?

Now this is where you say, "well that's how they do it for NCAA basketball." And this is where I say, "Aha, but here's the thing..."

Before I get into "the thing," let's talk about Bracket Creep. No, he's not the official mascot for the new college football playoffs. It's the phrase most-commonly used by BCS folks to explain why playoffs are a bad idea. When we have a four-team playoff, we'll want an eight-team one. And when we have an eight-team playoff, we'll want a sixteen-team one. And so on and so on until we have a 120-team playoff that starts in October.

We hear about it with basketball, too. We've already gone from 64 teams to 68 and there's always rumblings of expanding teams further.

The grumblings to expand playoff brackets usually comes from those who just missed the cut. The 69th team, if you will. They're upset cause they feel like they should have made it. Media folks write about how they were snubbed. The tournament rolls on but some wonder if that first-team-out could have made a difference.

Going back to "the thing," here it is. You will never eliminate that feeling that someone got snubbed. As long as you are selecting entrants by committee and not based on straight-up wins and losses, there will always be someone who feels like they got burned and left out unfairly.

For college basketball, the team that got snubbed was the 69th-best team in the league.

For college football, under this new system, the team that got snubbed is the fifth-best team in the league.

The 69th-best team in the league probably ended up with a .600 winning percentage, maybe a couple notable victories but an otherwise unimpressive season.

The fifth-best team in the league probably only has one loss, had quite a few impressive wins and has a pretty good argument that they're on par with the fourth, third or second best team.

The chances that the 69th-best team in the league could run the table and win the championship are as slim as they come.

The chances that the fifth-best team in the league could run the table and win the championship are pretty good, actually.

So what's the solution here? Does college football have to have a 64-team tournament in order to appease me? No, of course not. Though that would be awesome. But no.

But college football would be smart to put itself in a situation where the team that gets "snubbed" is as far away from No. 1 as possible. Maybe that means a six-team playoff. Maybe it's an eight-team bracket. Whatever it is, you need to minimize the impact of barring that first-team-out. Right now, a four-team playoff doesn't do that.

  • A four-team playoff doesn't end the controversy of excluding an undefeated non-BCS team (which is bound to happen).
  • A four-team playoff doesn't ensure that every team that honestly, truly deserves a shot at the national title every year gets one. Some years, it might. Most years, it won't.
  • A four-team playoff keeps the scales firmly balanced to make sure that teams from "the BCS of the BCS" get prime real estate in the brackets. The SEC will expect to have two teams in there every year, count on that.

If you want my honest opinion, I've always favored a six-team playoff. It gives the top two teams in the nation an earned bye and provides just enough room to make sure that every deserving team gets a shot. Being honest, once you get past the top six teams, you're usually no longer talking about teams that deserve a shot at the National Title.

Even then, there are concerns and there will be snubbing and folks would complain. But I would so much rather the seventh-best team in the nation was the one doing the complaining than the fifth-best. Just those two places makes a world of difference in a sport where the difference between a one-loss season and a two-loss season is everything.