(Playoff Prospectus is an ongoing offseason feature in which we examine a number of proposed playoff plans, from least likely to most likely.)
Washington State head coach and noted sound-bite machine Mike Leach is well known for his honest and often outlandish opinions. A few weeks ago, when asked about the potential for a college football playoff, Leach had this to say:
“The minimum should be 16 teams,’’ he said. “I think 32 is better than 16, but I think 64 would be ideal… You could cut the regular season down to 10 games, but guarantee everybody 12 games. In the end, the champion would play 16 games.”
Aye-aye, Captain Leach, we’ll take the bait. Let’s see what this would’ve looked like in 2011. But first, some presumptions must be made in order to apply the system. We’ll assume, since teams only have ten games scheduled before the season, we have the requisite eight- or nine-game conference schedule, with one or two non-conference opponents as well.
Since we don’t have that specific sample size, we’ll use the final regular-season rankings from last season, since those are the only rankings that include the full conference slate and all rivalry games. (Yes, everyone’s played two more games than Coach Leach suggests, but let’s be honest. How many teams in our playoff didn’t play two gimme games right off the bat, anyway?)
Presumably the actual playoff would have some sort of selection committee, or at least a specified hierarchy of criteria. We’re thinking conference champions are automatically in. Then teams with a winning record get bids. Then teams with a 5-5 records would get bids in ranking order until the field is filled; if there aren’t enough teams with non-losing records, then 4-6 teams fill the remaining slots, again in ranking order.
But since we don’t have a 10-team season to look at, and we’re too lazy to delve much further into this hypothetical, we’ll use the full final BCS standings of the regular season. Every conference champion is included in the top 64. We’d like to just take the top 64 teams determined by these rankings, but this includes three teams (Texas Tech, Tennessee, and UCLA) with losing records. UCLA gets a pass, since they got an exemption to play in a bowl game due to their seventh loss coming in a conference championship. The other two get replaced by Northwestern and Nevada.
Get ready, because our first playoff field is a doozy. We’ll do the seeding in four regions with seeds 1-16, since the NCAA tournament is presumably our inspiration here.
- #1 LSU vs #16 Nevada
- #8 Brigham Young vs #9 Georgia Tech
- #4 Georgia vs #13 Wyoming
- #5 Michigan State vs #12 Utah
- #3 South Carolina vs #14 Arizona State
- #6 Texas vs #11 Washington
- #2 Kansas State vs #15 Wake Forest
- #7 Auburn vs #10 Tulsa
- #1 Alabama vs #16 Northwestern
- #8 Iowa State vs #9 Northern Illinois
- #4 Clemson vs #13 Ohio State
- #5 TCU vs #12 Vanderbilt
- #3 Wisconsin vs #14 Southern Methodist
- #6 West Virginia vs #11 Mississippi State
- #2 Boise State vs #15 Marshall
- #7 Missouri vs #10 Rutgers
- #1 Oklahoma State vs #16 Ohio
- #8 Notre Dame vs #9 Arkansas State
- #4 Oklahoma vs #13 San Diego State
- #5 Houston vs #12 North Carolina
- #3 Virginia Tech vs #14 NC State
- #6 Penn State vs #11 Florida
- #2 Arkansas vs #15 Illinois
- #7 Cincinnati vs #10 Louisville
- #1 Stanford vs #16 Louisiana-Lafayette
- #8 Texas A&M vs #9 Virginia
- #4 Michigan vs #13 Toledo
- #5 Nebraska vs #12 Iowa
- #3 Baylor vs #14 UCLA
- #6 Southern Miss vs #11 California
- #2 Oregon vs #15 Pittsburgh
- #7 Florida State vs #10 Louisiana Tech
Whew. While there are a few exciting games in the first round, it wouldn’t be until the second or third rounds that we’d really get some excitement. Keep in mind that the selection criteria would probably not be strictly the top 64, but this is a decent picture of what the playoff field would look like. Seeding was done by direct ranking, regional placings by S-curve.
Seeding is another issue, but one that would presumably be alleviated by a rigorous selection committee or more meaningful rankings. Once you get below about #20 in the BCS, the rankings have too much noise and very little real weight.
Also: Leach mentioned that every team would be guaranteed twelve games. Presumably, this means the remaining teams would each have two more games scheduled, somehow. First-round losers would also need another game to get to twelve. We won’t touch that can of worms.
As mentioned earlier, Tennessee and Texas Tech (ironically, Coach Leach’s former employer before their acrimonious split) were both in the top 64 teams, but neither had the requisite six wins for postseason play. You can bet that a few more of the fringe teams would undoubtedly not have a winning record if they only played ten games before the postseason.
Surely any teams who finished ranked in the top 64 but without a winning record would cry foul over teams with a presumably easier schedule coasting in. Not to mention the fact that it’s not guaranteed that 64 teams would even have non-losing records after only 10 games. It’s one thing to split hairs between bubble teams that have compelling arguments; it’s quite another when there don’t seem to be enough qualified candidates to let in.
The controversies we’ve grown accustomed to in college football would be no more. That alone seems to be the driving force in many playoff proposals. No one would have reasonable grounds to disagree with any meaningful aspect of the playoff.
There’s absolutely no chance that the best team in the country would be left out of the playoff. Whichever team came out of the tournament unscathed would, by necessity, have the best résumé in the nation. The complaints from teams left out would be nearly meaningless. Indeed, would team #64 really rather play the best team in the country in a sure loss, or play a bowl-style exhibition match against someone their own size?
A shorter regular season would mean every game is that much more important. The season wouldn’t be too much longer than it is at present. Only the top eight would potentially play more than 13 games; the most a team would play is 16. The tournament’s TV rights fees would be astronomical, and that can’t be downplayed.
Logistics, logistics, logistics. We already covered the selection headaches above, but there are scores of other issues that don’t have easy solutions. Where would the games be played? Would anyone travel from round to round? How long would the layoff between games be? How do we pare down the regular season to ten games? Can the conferences stay the same size? Who gets what percentage of the TV money? We could keep going, but you get the picture.
And what of the sanctity of the sport? Rivalry games would be lost, or at the very least be drained of meaning; conference championships would be even less important. While many of the current bowl games are meaningless, it would be shameful for long-standing traditions like the Rose Bowl to fall by the wayside. And much like college basketball, we’d see the regular season popularity go into a free-fall. Who wants to watch mid-october games when there are six rounds of playoffs in December that really matter?
Last, there’s just the pure fantasy of it all. Much like Coach Leach, this proposal’s just so… weird. None of the notoriously stuffy, backwards-thinking, risk-averse power brokers of the sport would take even a first glance at a 64-team playoff. This playoff falls squarely in the “pipe dreams” category.
Perhaps in the distant future, when bowls have fallen by the wayside in favor of a 32-team field, when realignment has rendered old rivalries and conferences obsolete, when flying cars make cross-country travel ubiquitous, when the only football players willing to take the field without pay are the Fox Sports robots, maybe then we’ll have a 64-team playoff. But by that time, the Dread Pirate Leach and his crazy proposal will be nothing more than a curiosity for the history books.