By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — At first, it was polls, and then it was bowls. But in 2014, for the Football Bowl Subdivision, there will finally be a playoff.
A host of coaches, fans and media members, predicatably, formed a throng of cheering supporters of the word “playoffs” in terms of the most expensive level of Division I football competition, capping a fight for some form of multi-tiered championship played on the field for the first time at this level.
But there is a dark side of this whole decision that nobody is talking about.
Many people mistakenly believe that the FBS — or Bowl Championship Series as it is currently called — championship is an official, NCAA championship. It is not, and the creating of a playoff with bowls does not change this fact.
In the past, the BCS subcommittee has consisted of an alliance of the commissioners of the 11 FBS conferences and the athletic director of Notre Dame.
In addition, the 11 FBS conferences have an advisory panel as well, consisting of an athletic director from a school in each conference, as well as an “executive director,” paid for and employed by the BCS, not the NCAA.
Since 1998, the placement of the top 10 FBS teams in the nation has been determined by the much-maligned BCS formula, a mathematical attempt to try to figure out a consensus pick of those teams.
The proposal for the four-team FBS playoff involves the disbanding of that formula — and that’s where the the plan for the playoffs, which was by all admissions light on details, begins.
“New Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the committee will probably include 15 members,” an ESPN report states on the people that are being proposed to make the selection.
“Slive wouldn’t say who will serve on the committee, but it might be a mixture of current conference commissioners, athletics directors and former coaches. The committee will be charged with giving all teams an equal opportunity to participate in the playoffs and will also consider factors such as strength of schedule, head-to-head results and whether a team is a conference champion.”
By removing the computer element from the selection process, you introduce a guarantee of politics infecting the fairness of the system – at best.
At worst, you guarantee horse-trading and corruption.
Say what you want about the BCS formula, but even its detractors will have to admit that it left the bowls little choice but to include them somewhere when a team from a non-power conference went 12-0 or 13-0.
Case in point: after the 2009 regular season, TCU out of the Mountain West finished No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, in the BCS formulas.
While the debate at that time centered around the Horned Frogs’ getting skunked out of the No. 1 vs. No. 2 BCS championship game thanks to the BCS formula, it’s more interesting to think about what might have happened with them had the four-team playoff system been in place.
Would TCU have made it?
In 2009, Florida went 13-1 in the regular season, with its only loss coming to No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship game.
And Oregon, at 10-2, won the Pacific 10 title. The Ducks did lose to nationally-ranked Boise State and unranked Stanford, but they beat nationally-ranked Utah, Cal, USC and Oregon State.
In this hypothetical instance, common sense might dictate that TCU still belonged in the four-team playoff — in a fair world.
But behind closed doors, would this be likely to happen?
What if the commissioners of the Southeastern Conference and Pac 11 approached, say, the commissioners of the Sun Belt, Mid American and Conference USA, guaranteeing them some home-and-home games for their votes to get their conferences’ teams in the playoffs instead of a Mountain West team?
It would take only three more votes on this 15 person committee — whose composition is unknown at this point — to reseed the teams.
Might the committee involve former Pac 10 or Big 10 coaches?
Folks with a vested interest in seeing a more TV-friendly matchup than one involving TCU, with its tiny alumni base in comparison to, say, Alabama or Texas?
With them in the mix, it’s very easy to see a four-team playoff consisting of No. 1 Alabama (14-0) vs. No. 4 Oregon (10-2) , and No. 2 Texas (13-0) vs No. 3 Florida (13-1), with undefeated TCU (12-0) and Cincinnati (12-0) sitting on the sidelines.
There’s even a potential built-in excuse to deny mid-major teams from this lucrative playoff: “strength of schedule”. In 2009, Cincinnati didn’t beat a single team ranked over 15th in the country. TCU didn’t defeat anyone with a ranking over 16.
Think this couldn’t happen?
After all, there’s no NCAA oversight into this new playoff system, and when you lock all those commissioners in a room, there won’t be any media present. There’s no transparent way to see how these teams are picked.
That’s the dark side of this change.
With all the hoopla about finally having a “playoff”, few people have noticed that the potential is there to make the selection process a whole lot less transparent than the BCS, which published weekly ratings and publicly disclosed their formula for inclusion.
While in theory it’s nice to imagine all the commissioners sitting in the room picking the best teams, what’s much more likely to happen is the conferences with the most money will make the rules.
This could very well be futher consolidation of power in a “championship”, not sanctioned by the NCAA, essentially controlled by a few big-money conferences – and shutting out everyone else.
It may seem unlikely now that people will get maudlin about the BCS formula, but fans of Boise State and other conferences not in the Big XII, Big 10, Pac 12 and SEC may be harkening back to a time when they at least had the hope of playing one of the best power teams in a bowl.
While the NCAA mandates fair access to their championships, the new Bowl Alliance is under no such restrictions. The Bowl Alliance is perfectly free to design a system that protects access to the most lucrative bowls for the major conferences and effectively shut out any future Boise State or TCU from participating.
And that’s what they’re doing, if anyone cares to see what’s really going on.
Folks might think that this playoff system will finally put to bed any controversies about whom the “real” FBS champions are.
My prediction is that the controversies have just begun.