The BCS What If ... ?, Part III: Lessons Learned

The last in a series of posts looking at what a four-team college football playoff with "anchored" bowl games would mean for the sport. How it would have changed things from 2004 to the present is here; how it would have changed the BCS from 1998-2003 is here.

Now that we've looked at every year of the BCS and would the four-team playoff would have looked like in each of the season since the series was established, we're left with the question from the 30,000-foot view: What does that mean? After all, just looking at which teams would have played where in a lot of old games is nothing more than a historical footnote.

But as we look at that data and step back a minute, we can get a fuller picture of what the changes that college football's brain trust is considering would actually do -- and what it would not. After all, trusting men like Jim Delany to tell you what their intentions are is not exactly the best way to get your information. So what did we learn?

This is not a panacea for the schools formerly known as non-AQ

Despite the fact that much of the agitation for a playoff has come from non-AQ fans and supporters like Tim Brando, a four-team playoff doesn't appear to do much to fix the fact that those teams -- which will not be "non-AQ" schools after the current contract ends because those classifications won't exist -- haven't won a national championship since the BCS was put in place.

In fact, using the contemporary BCS formulas, only two non-AQ teams would have gotten into the four-team playoff over the first 14 seasons of the BCS's existence: 2009 TCU and 2010 TCU. Boise State never makes it; nor does Utah. The number would increase some if you use Delany's conference championship preference hybrid, but it's still pretty clear that the bar to the non-AQ programs is either strength of schedule or media bias, depending on which side of the divide you stand on.

And maybe it doesn't matter that much. One of the reasons that college football is moving toward getting rid of the AQ/non-AQ distinction at this point is that the lines have begun to blur. Former non-AQ program Utah is now part of the Pac-12. Boise State is joining the Big East, which is still an AQ league for official purposes, and TCU is moving into the Big 12ish.

No one else among the mid-majors has ever really made a credible case to be included in a playoff. The schedules played by 1998 Tulane and 1999 Marshall, the other memorable undefeated non-AQs of the era, make 2007 Hawaii's infamously weak slate look like an NFL season by comparison. And that Hawaii team got decimated by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

The obstacles for non-AQ programs are still going to be huge, even with a four-team playoff. Some might say that this is a reason for expanding the playoff further. But that ignores the fact that the best playoffs are designed with the destination in mind, not the journey. The playoff should be the optimal size for figuring out who is the No. 1 team in the country, not the optimal size for squeezing every team that would make a nice story into the championship event. That wouldn't and shouldn't change just because a playoff starts.

You didn't like the rematch? Just wait for the playoffs

The likely trigger for the surge in the popularity of the playoff idea was the meeting of No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama in a rematch of a division game from the 2011 regular season in this past championship game. No one wants to say that the rematch is the reason, but it's the only thing that's really changed in college football over the last few years that has a direct impact on the BCS's underlying structure.

Looking over the matchups on a four-team playoff, we can see that there are at least 10 additional possible rematches in the BCS era in either a semifinal or a final. Now, that's not every year -- especially when you account for the fact that some years would have provided two possible rematches in the championship game, for example -- but it's still pretty frequent. If you're just out to get rid of the possibility of a rematch, then the playoff is not the way to do it.

What would it have meant for the SEC?

The fan base that is likely to be most delighted with the idea of a four-team playoff, of course, is Auburn -- the 2004 Tigers would have been in the fray with Southern Cal, Oklahoma and Texas for the national championship. But how many more opportunities would the SEC have had to hold the crystal football before the "golden age" began in 2006?

Three, if you count that Auburn team. (The others on the list are 2002 Georgia and 1999 Alabama.) That's not an overwhelming amount of change -- but part of it is because the SEC had at least one team in the national championship game between 2006 and 2011, so none of those season can count. In all, the additional three would have given the SEC a chance at the national championship 11 times in 14 seasons.

But the SEC would have placed two teams in the tournament just three times, including 2011. However, all those two-team scenarios would have happened since 2006, meaning the frequency could be headed up as a result of the conference's growing profile.

There are still going to be complaints

One of the reasons that we went through these so painstakingly is to show where there would likely have been controversy even under a four-team system. There were several notable pre-2004 instances where the four-team playoff might have helped resolve some controversies (2000, 2001, 2003), but fewer instances since the BCS formula was changed to address the Southern Cal exclusion in 2003. That suggests that tweaking the formula actually largely accomplished its purpose, and adding two more teams to the mix might actually cause more real arguments about who should be in the hunt, not fewer.

That's not to say that a playoff system isn't worth it; at this point, I've come to believe that it's the best way to crown a champion. But it does teach us a couple of things, I think.

The first is that sticking to a rigid set of rankings is probably a bad idea. I'm a little bit different than Year2 on this, but not much. There should be a selection committee of people who follow the game, and they should have access to all the polls and the computer data, and they should take into account who won their conference and who didn't and who had the tougher schedules. There should probably be some standards to keep the committee from doing something insane, but those rules should be as general and as few as possible.

The second is that setting up a playoff system to try to reduce uncertainty in selecting a champion is a pointless exercise. There will be uncertainty if there are four teams in the playoffs or eight or 32. College basketball has almost 70 teams in its tournament and there are still arguments about whether the selection committee passed over a deserving team for an undeserving one.

Those establishing the college football playoffs have to walk a fine line here -- creating the best postseason for the sport while still preserving one of the most important regular seasons in the world. There are a lot of advantages to the four team format, including a series of high-caliber games that will be played among truly elite teams that deserve a championship. But one of those advantages is not to stamp out controversy, because no championship system is ever going to do that -- all a large tournament can do is begin to erode the regular season that makes the sport so popular in a never-ending quest for a perfect system that is nothing more than a mirage.

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