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College Football Tournament: How to Make an Exciting Postseason Without Destroying the Game

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It looks increasingly like the question for college football is not whether there will be a playoff system, but what that playoff system will look like. And how the bowls will factor into it. And all the other questions that you have to answer when you start trying to change the college football postseason, which is less like tip over dominoes and more like everyone trying to play Jenga at the same time.

And while I don't think that a large playoff (eight or more teams) would be a good thing for college football -- in fact, I think it would be an unmitigated disaster for the sport -- I have reconciled myself to the idea of a smaller field. And there is one frequent spring critique that resonates just a little: Wouldn't it be fun if college football had something sort of like the NCAA basketball tournament.

College football and college basketball are different sports and almost demand different postseasons. Year2 has thoroughly explained this, and I don't feel the need to rehash it too much, despite the fact that I agree on the problem with a large college football playoff and could write a few thousands words on that alone.

But what if there were some way to create a similar dynamic to March Madness while keeping the actual playoff field relatively exclusive?

I think there might be, building in part off of a six-team playoff idea I pitched almost four years ago. And I'd love for you to help me figure out how it might have worked in practice this year. Sure, it's just spit-balling and mostly made up, but if Jim Delany can throw his magical unicorn plan out there, so can we.

The first step, of course, would be to set up the playoff. The reason I settled on six teams was that the number made it unlikely that many two-loss teams would ever make the cut, meaning the margin for error would be very small. That format also allows us to grant a bye week to the No. 1 and No. 2 teams -- something that gives them a more tangible reward for consistently being the sport's best teams than seeding and home-field advantage (both of which I'm skeptical of as anything more than a marginal edge).

The next and more controversial part of my plan would be to eliminate bowls. Lots and lots of bowls. So many bowls that only 40 teams would make the cut, or a third of the FBS before Seattle and the Locational Texases join. If you're in the top third of the country, you probably deserve some kind of reward. Otherwise, I can't really think of a rationale for giving you a bowl invite except that people in Charlotte need something to do in December.

If we've got a half-dozen teams in our tournament, that means we need 34 more teams to get to 40. The four BCS bowls would still be independent of the playoff system under my plan, so we 13 more bowls. (13 + 4 = 17 X 2 = 34)

So which bowls that aren't part of the BCS survive the cut? I started the only way I think is rational to start, going to the oldest remaining bowl and then selecting until we got to the most recent needed. Several bowls ended up removed from the pool, of course, and there's still the little matter that someone is going to Shreveport -- which is to say, the plan is not perfect. But here we are:

1. Sun Bowl
2. Cotton Bowl
3. Gator Bowl
4. Capital One Bowl
5. Liberty Bowl
6. Chick-fil-A Bowl
7. Independence Bowl
8. Holiday Bowl
9. Outback Bowl
10. Maaco Bowl Las Vegas
11. Alamo Bowl
12. Little Caesar's Bowl
13. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Yeah, we're stuck with the potato bowl edging out some of the competition. You could always come up with another way to do it, but the actual destinations don't matter all that much, except that they need to be relatively evenly distributed. Given that we have only three non-BCS Florida bowls left, I'd say that's something close to mission accomplished.

Now, I know the next question that you're going to ask: What do we do about the tie-ins? With a few notable exceptions that I'll get to in a minute, there aren't going to be any.

Instead, all 11 conference champions (or how many ever there are when the conference realignment cycle calms down in a year or two) will automatically head to the postseason. Everyone in the BCS Top 25 will also go to a bowl if they're eligible. Finally, a selection committee will choose how many ever slots are left when all of the automatic teams are sent to the bowl game.

Who's on the selection committee? Again, were I the one controlling the process, you would have three conference commissioners, three athletics directors and three university presidents serve on the committee. The first committee would include one-, two- and three-year terms split evenly among the groups until we got to rolling three-year terms. No conference could have more than one member on the committee at a time, and preference would be given to conferences who didn't have a seat on the committee the year before whenever a seat opened up. The BCS formula would serve sort of like RPI in this scenario -- a guide, but nothing binding.

The bowls then select from those team following a set of criteria that would start with the BCS bowls. The Rose Bowl would get the first two selections as long as it selected a B1G team in the Top 15 and a Pac-12 team in the Top 15. Same for the Fiesta Bowl and the Big 12ish, the Sugar Bowl with the SEC and the Orange Bowl for the ACC. Otherwise, teams will be selected in a preset order that rotates every year.

Next, we need to divide the remaining bowls into tiers. I realize that I'm doing this at my own peril.

Tier 1 Tier 2 Tier 3
Cotton Bowl Outback Bowl Las Vegas Bowl
Chick-fil-A Bowl Sun Bowl Potato Bowl
Holiday Bowl Alamo Bowl Independence Bowl
Capital One Bowl Gator Bowl Little Caesar's Bowl
Liberty Bowl

Again, this is not set in stone. If your heart is set on having the Independence Bowl in the first or second tier -- well, really, you need a new hobby, but we'll set that aside for now and you can put the Independence Bowl in that tier for discussion's sake.

Tier 1 bowls get to make their selections first. In the first year, the Cotton Bowl would select a team, followed by the Chick-fil-A, Holiday and Capital One. Then, the Capital One Bowl would select another team, followed by the Holiday, Chick-fil-A and Cotton. The next year, Chick-fil-A (or whoever) goes first and Cotton goes last on the first go-round, etc.

Then the Tier 2 bowls do the same thing, followed by the Tier 3 bowls.

Why would the Tier 3 bowls ever go along with this? Well, let's look at the Potato Bowl. They're getting the top team from the WAC and the No. 2 team from the MAC every year (assuming no BCS berth for either conference). Under our scenario, they're going to get the 33rd and 40th selection here. My guess is that they're not going to end up with anything worse from a marketing and television standpoint than the top WAC team vs. the No. 2 MAC and might actually end up with something better.

Sure, some bowl committees are going to be more likely to go with the "home conferences" that they've gotten used to, but the selection committee set-up would make it hard for that to get out of hand. The system is certainly not going to be any more corrupt than what we have now, and I'd argue that it's going to be at least a little better.

The scheduling is another matter, but it's key to making this feel kind of like a tournament. First of all, the games are only played on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until we get to the grand finales near New Year's Day. One possibility is to allow bowls to go the old way, with each series of bowls growing more significant. The other way is more of a mix and match approach that brings each week to a crescendo in the playoff games. How either would have possibly worked in 2011:

Date System No 1 System No 2
Dec 15 Little Caesar's, Independence Little Caesar's, Independence
Dec 16 Potato, Las Vegas Liberty, Capital One
Dec 17 Liberty, ROUND 1 Orange, ROUND 1
Dec 22 Gator, Alamo Potato, Gator
Dec 23 Sun, Outback, Capital One Alamo, Holiday
Dec 24 Holiday, ROUND 2 Fiesta, ROUND 2
Dec 30 Cotton Las Vegas, Sun
Dec 31 Chick-fil-A, Fiesta Chick-fil-A, Outback
Jan 2 Orange, Sugar, Rose Cotton, Rose, Sugar
Jan 3 Championship Game Championship Game

How might this work out in practice in 2011? Well, all the Top 25 teams before the bowl games would have gotten in. That means: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, Arkansas, Boise State, Kansas State, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Baylor, Michigan, Oklahoma, Clemson, Georgia, Michigan State, TCU, Houston, Nebraska, Southern Miss, Penn State, West Virginia, Texas, Auburn. Teams in bold represent the conference champions, while those in italics are the ones that would go to our championship playoff.

The means that Oklahoma State plays Arkansas in the first round, with the second-round opponent being Alabama, while Stanford and Oregon get a rematch with the winner taking on LSU. (I still think this is likely to produce a rematch, and I don't see the qualitative difference that some see between a rematch via what was decided on the field in the regular season as opposed to a rematch via what would be decided on the field in a playoff, but I digress.)

The other conference champions getting into the bowls are Northern Illinois from the MAC, Louisiana Tech from the WAC and Arkansas State from the Sun Belt.

That gives us another dozen teams to select for the 2011 bowl field -- again, just to see how this would work in practice -- before we can seed our bowls as the bowl officials would likely do. We can't actually convene a selection committee of any sort. But I can ask all of you for your input -- which gives you an opportunity to join in the fun. So who should have gone to our modified postseason if it began in 2011? Also, which scheduling format would you prefer for our bowl system?