The present arrangement in college football is plenty good enough for as many decent purposes as college football can accommodate. It's one of few remaining examples of our restraint as a people that we don't go all the way on our deal with the devil and line up a full-blown tournament for the top-level championship.
It's been argued here before that college football is big enough already, that university presidents are over-taxed trying to minimize the embarrassment it causes, that coaches don't want more pressure to win and that raising the stakes will just raise incentives for corrupt parties to ply their dark trades.
Still, an evil wish for college football playoffs creeps up with the game's ever-increasing popularity, to say nothing of this season's routinely surprising results. The imagination might as well run wild in a year when the University of Cincinnati routinely draws 30,000 at Nippert Stadium.
The Bearcats at once illustrate both transformative aspects of this college football season, the ever-increasing popularity and the surprising results. When they sell out Nippert Stadium on a multiple basis, it's hard to argue that college football isn't more popular than ever. And little on athletic scene conjures more surprise than the Bearcats entering the mix for a BCS bowl.
Here we are in the middle of November, and the Bearcats are within a couple results of a huge payday in one of the four major bowls. The West Virginia Mountaineers come to Nippert Stadium Saturday night with the big prize on the line. If the Bearcats win this game and close out with a win at Syracuse on Nov. 24 and if West Virginia wins its remaining games, then UC is the Big East champion in a three-way tiebreaker with the Mountaineers and Connecticut.
In that event, the three teams would tie on top of the league at 5-2. The Big East tiebreaker stipulates that the three tied teams are grouped as a "mini-conference." As the Bearcats would have defeated both West Virginia and Connecticut, they would win the mini-conference and therefore the whole conference.
The Bearcats' 27-3 win against Connecticut at Nippert Nov.
10 took them where they've never been, to a real chance at doing something great. For the first time ever, the Bearcats are a major conference contender, a real player in college football and, most stunning of all, a local attraction.
Suddenly and with more resonance than ever, we're back to thinking about a national championship tournament. Admittedly, it's a 100 percent pipe dream. Too many vested interests and good reasons are opposed.
No matter how many arguments might be offered for playoffs, the counter arguments will keep playoffs from serious consideration. But we can imagine.
In order for playoffs to be truly meaningful, they would have to include all 11 conference champions. Throw in five at-large teams and you have a 16-team tournament that wraps up in 22 days to a month. Because the conferences playing championship games will play them this year on Dec. 1, the first round could take place on Dec. 8 or over the next few days. By then, most universities are on break.
The national championship game could take place on Jan. 7, which is when the BCS National Championship Game happens to be scheduled this year. Given that 31-day time frame, rounds could be spaced 8-10 days apart. Games could be scheduled for weeknights so they don't compete with the NFL and on separate nights so they don't compete against each other.
The idea of incorporating bowl games into playoffs often has been broached and just as often has been rebuked by concerns that fans could never afford that much travel. So, instead of incorporating bowls, just play the first three or four rounds of playoffs at home sites and split the gate.
Give the teams with the highest BCS rankings the home-field advantage. They would more than sell out. Seed the tournament based on BCS rankings.
Maybe a couple of the major bowls could serve as semifinal games on Jan. 1, but the bowls might be better served by just inviting heavy travelers who don't make the playoffs and going it alone. This year, the bowls could still access schools like Florida, Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Penn State, all of which are well enough followed to dump large tourism dollars into the bowl cities.
Now that the BCS has instituted a national championship game, every bowl game is a consolation prize already. No one is going to the Rose Bowl this year under any delusion of winning the national title.
In many respects, by the way, the present system is inferior to the old way, when the bowls played out and the voters decided in the end. That way, three or four major bowls figured into the championship picture on New Year's Day. Now none of them do.
Just for giggles, here's a rough run of first-round playoff games based on the current standings and BCS rankings: Troy at No. 1 Louisiana State, Central Michigan at No. 2 Oregon, Central Florida at No. 3 Kansas, Brigham Young at No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 16 Hawaii at No. 5 Missouri, No. 24 Connecticut at No. 6 West Virginia (a rematch!), No. 10 Virginia Tech at No. 7 Ohio State and No. 9 Georgia at No. 8 Arizona State.
It's next to pointless trying to determine how much money a national tournament might generate, but the television rights alone would go through the roof. Consider that Major League Baseball's national TV deal with Fox and Turner calls for $3 billion over seven years, about $428 million per year, just for entire postseason and a couple games per week during the regular season. That's how television networks value the baseball playoffs, which don't perform well in the Nielsen ratings.
College football playoffs would turn television rights into gold. Fox Sports already pays $80 million per year just for the BCS bowls and the national championship game, which means Fox is paying $80 million for one game that will determine the national champion. Considering the ratings potential for a 15-game set of college football playoffs, the NCAA should easily match or exceed baseball's postseason television deal.
The television rights would almost certainly generate $4 million per year for each of the 119 schools playing top-level college football. If the participants agreed to additional revenue sharing out of a concern for the greater good of college sports, admittedly a groundless assumption, the money per school would be even greater. If the federal government should ever lead harder on Title IX compliance, athletic departments would find that money quite useful.
From financial and competitive standpoints, playoffs would only help college football. The regular season, widely recognized as the best in American sports because every game matters, would suffer not one bit. All the same dynamics would remain. The only difference is that more teams would enter the tournament.
Again, though, too many good reasons persist for keeping a lid on college football and too many vested interests oppose college football playoffs. One that is almost never mentioned, the NFL, would find its supremacy on the American sports scene under heavy fire.
College football playoffs remain and shall forever be a far-flung dream. But in a year when UC could thereby join the hunt for a national championship, dreaming starts to make sense.
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