A Perfect World: College Football Playoff Proposal

CommonSenseThomasPaine

The common discussion in the last 4 months or so has been the addition of the “Plus One” model which would replace the BCS in its current structure of pitting the top 2 teams in college football to play 1 national title game.  The “Plus One” would be revolutionary in the fact that Major College Football would finally have a formal playoff system to crown its champion.  Even a format of just 4 teams and 3 games forming a ‘mini playoff’ brings the sport that much closer to establishing a true and legitimate champion that the sport deserves to discover in a much less subjective manner.  Currently the system is rife with opinion, manipulation, and dare I say it….corruption.  In a sport where millions of dollars are on the line, countless hours are devoted, all involved the players, coaches, schools, fans, and even the sport itself DESERVES a more transparent approach to determining who is the BEST year in and year out.

This new “Plus One” format would be the proverbial “dip of the toe” into a playoff format that is easy to see growing past a 4 team playoff to a larger, more inclusive version that is surely to come down the line.  Early projections see the “Plus One” format as allowing revenue to be TRIPLE (or in same cases even higher) of the current BCS model.  And like every move college athletics has made over the past 15 years, it’s easy to predict what might happen just by following the money.  Or in this case the uncovering a huge ocean of untapped potential revenue that has always been out there, but unrealized.

As someone who has worked in advertising for the last 5 years I can tell you that the demand from advertisers to fund a large scale playoff in college football would be phenomenal.  Couple that with the fact that NBC & CBS are both gearing up to take on Sports MEGA GIANT ESPN for a chance to reclaim a share of the sports fueled eye-balls of America and the creation of a college football playoff could create a feeding frenzy of cash for colleges and universities.

A ‘plus one’ may be all college football fans get for the start of the 2014-15 athletic season (the current BCS format will expire at the conclusion of the 2013-14 college football season), but it is easy to see how the format will grow as far as the appetite for audience and revenue will allow.  Much like the NCAA Tournament which has expanded a number of times during its history:  1939-1950 the field was just 8 teams, in 1951-1952 the field was expanded to 16 teams, before having a variation of 22 to 25 teams from 1953-1974.  In the 1975 season the field was settled for 4 seasons at 32 participants, before expanding again in 1979 to a field of 40.  From 1980 to 1982 the field was 48 teams, for one season in 1983 the field was 52 teams, and in 1984 the field was increased by one team to 53. The whole process seemed to settle on a top 64 from 1985-2000, but then in 2001 the field was expanded to 65 until last season’s addition of 3 more teams to the current format of 68 programs. North Carolina’s Athletic Director actually discussed recently his desire for a 128-team NCAA tournament (there are 345 teams that play D1 basketball).

March Madness for Basketball is HUGE.  It’s nearly here, and it’s success is VAST for the NCAA and its mission.  CBS is scheduled to pay the NCAA $500,000,000 ANNUALLY until 2024, and the cash generated during the tournament funds 90% of the NCAA’s annual revenue.  NCAA Football television ratings, attendance, and overall interest dwarfs that of the NCAA Basketball regular season, but there would inevitably be less games in the football post-season so to compare the two would be unfair.  Still the earning potential can not be overstated for a full and robust post-season for Major College Football.

In a perfect world here would be my format that the administrators who will form College Football’s Future should draw up for the beginning of the 2014 season:

16 teams: History shows us in basketball that the postseason is going to expand over time.  Limiting the post season championship to just 4 teams leaves the college football champion open to subjectivity and speculation.  One of the main issues will inevitably go back to that of inclusion of all institutions participating in the FBS.  With just 4 teams, the “haves” and “have nots” will become even further divided.  With 16 teams the discussion is squashed, every team has an opportunity to be included AND it gives advertisers and sponsors more inventory to market which means more dollars in the pockets of the schools.  If we know that the field is likely to eventually be 16 teams, why not be proactive and actually make the proper adjustment now rather than later?

An added benefit is that schools will be encouraged to challenge their teams during the regular season.  Currently we play in an era where Florida hasn’t traveled out of conference for a game outside the state of Florida since they dropped a game in 1991 vs. Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.  This is what I call, “Scheduling Around the Myth” as the regular season schedule can be manipulated by individual schools who can buy their way out of games that appear to be competitive against non-traditional powers thereby eliminating a legitimate opportunity for a “Non-Myth” and enabling a “Myth” to maintain its traditional status as a power.  This avoidance of competition dilutes and embarrasses the notion that the college football regular season is the “ultimate” playoff in sports.  In playoffs teams are on a collision course with one another, there is no way to contractually avoid a legitimate challenge.

The only way to do encourage competition during the regular season is by giving programs cause to challenge their teams in the out of conference schedule.  The only way to do that is to give every team in college football an opportunity to arrive in the postseason with a chance to win the national title through its own conference.  This is what makes the NCAA tournament so outstanding and coaches like Louisville’s Denny Crum legends.  Coach Crum would ‘load up’ on his out of conference schedule in order for it to pay dividends come tournament time.  By testing his teams early they were able to identify their flaws, gain experience, and the overall product was better when it mattered the most.

How to Select the top 16?

10 Conference Champions + 6 At Large

Currently there are 11 Conferences playing FBS football.  But by 2014 Conference USA and the Mountain West are planning a merger that will limit the FBS to just 10 major conferences and a small group of independents.  Taking a conference champion from each and every conference currently participating in the FBS creates an attractive format from an entertainment and drama perspective.  First of all, each and every conference race will be tracked.  In 2011 the entire focus of college football was on the SEC with LSU and Alabama being the assumed (re) match-up for the BCS National Championship Game.  As a result ratings and attendance dipped even further from a year before in an era of declining television ratings for the sport (discussed more later).  Having each and every conference alive for the grand prize in November launches the interest level of college football into a stratosphere it has never known.

And with 6 At-Large teams available there is still plenty of opportunity to play for the title for some teams that had a fantastic season, played a tough schedule, but fell a little short within conference.  The current BCS formula could remain in place to select these teams, conference affiliation doesn’t matter, there is no limit of teams from a conference allowed in.  The best remaining 6 non-league champions.  Period.

Schedule

The biggest issue in formatting a 16-team schedule is that football is a complicated sport.  Teams scout their opponents all season long in anticipation of their game and while it is easy to scout, game plan, and play a game in one week’s time against an opponent that has been on the schedule for months that wouldn’t necessarily be the case for a team that you hadn’t had a chance to properly prepare for.  This would be the biggest challenge in creating a 16-team, 4 round playoff.

Therefore, I would recommend that there be a 10-day rolling period minimum between each game, which would create a format that would take about 36-39 days to play.  Currently the NCAA Basketball Tournament takes 3 weeks to determine and that is after a week of conference tournament championships.  The easiest way to make this agreeable is to move the season up a week AND/OR scale back the regular season to just 11 games.  Since I know that scaling the season back to 11 games will never be agreed upon, moving the season ahead a week (or even two) would seem to make the most sense.  Right now many schools begin playing games before the Fall Semester begins anyway, so moving the season ahead into August really wouldn’t impact anything in the classroom for the student-athletes.

Here is how I see a playoff format for 16-teams looking in 2014:

-Begin Season on August 23, 2014 (or 8/21/14 if Thursday kickoffs continue).
-Regular Season Ends for all teams on November 22nd.
-Conference Championship Games Thanksgiving Weekend (November 29th), spread out around the games throughout the weekend.

#1 seed
vs. 12-11-2014
#16 seed #1 seed
vs. 12-22-14
#8 seed #8 seed
vs. 12-12-2014
#9 seed #1 seed
vs. 1-3-2015
#5 seed #4 seed
vs. 12-13-2014
#12 seed #4 seed
vs. 12-24-2014
#4 seed #5 seed
vs. 12-14-2014 #1 seed
#13 seed vs. 1-17-2015 (1-15-15 is a Thursday)
#2 seed
#3 seed
vs. 12-15-2014
#14 seed #3 seed
vs. 12-26-14
#6 seed #6 seed
vs. 12-16-2014
#11 seed #2 seed
vs. 1-5-2015
#7 seed #3 seed
vs. 12-10-2014
#10 seed #2 seed
vs. 12-20-14
#2 seed #7 seed
vs. 12-9-2014
#15 seed

Play the 1st and 2nd rounds at the higher seeded teams’ home field.  The Final Four should be held in a central location rotated just like the Final Four.  Initially this could be the traditional BCS spots, Orange, Rose, Sugar, Fiesta.  But it would be better served to move around the country like the Super Bowl or Final Four Basketball Tournament.

Why It Works:

See College Basketball’s March Madness.  Looking at it this way, I think the Regular Season becomes much more attractive and a lot more transparent.  A lot of traditionalists will say that the controversy that the current system provides creates a lot of the interest and drama for college football.  Those interested in real competition will LOVE this format.  No longer can an analyst get on his soapbox during a telecast and bash Boise State’s schedule.  We’ll find out in the Tournament if they belong or not.  No longer will North Carolina beat able to recruit over East Carolina with the argument that they have a better opportunity for the post-season year in and year out.

Also, instead of Ohio State (a regular Mythical U) scheduling the bottom half of the MAC to warm up on before they start their Big 10 schedule, the Buckeyes may actually want to sharpen their teeth on a more competitive non-conference schedule.  Bottomline, teams are more likely to go looking for competition than running away from it.  Right now, traditional rivalries are melting away because of conference affiliation.  Missouri vs. Kansas, Texas vs. Texas A&M, some have even mentioned Louisville vs. Kentucky being on the chopping block if the SEC expanded its schedule to 9-games.

To cancel important series that drive interest regionally & locally so that a team’s record may be improved is beyond comprehension.  To me, I’ve always had the mentality that if I’m going to compete in something I’m going to take on all comers.  If I’m really going to be competitive my mentality should be anyone, anytime, anywhere.  Any person or program who has that mentality is going to take some licks, but in the end everyone involved is better for it.  Having a legitimate postseason gives everyone a much broader scope and specific purpose.  Now instead of fattening the win column for a 6-6 or 7-5 season and limping into a lower level bowl where the payouts cover the expenses of the game teams should be more encouraged to drive interest with more favorable competition during the regular season and are less likely to cancel long-standing series that drive the bus in terms of overall interest.

In addition, by ending with the championship game on 1-17-15 (or possibly 1-15-15) the season is only extended by an additional week and much of the championship season is within the winter break period of MOST school’s academic calendars.

Lastly, the bowl system is outdated.  College football has for too long walked a fine line between crowning a legitimate champion and keeping a postseason system in place (the bowl system) that does everything but assist the landscape in determining its champion.  Could you imagine the NCAA Basketball Tournament scheduling itself around the NIT?  Or the Super Bowl around the Pro Bowl.  The focus and #1 purpose of the postseason should always be on developing a system that harbors competition on the quest to determine who is #1.  No more asterisks, no more discussion.  Just play.

Arguments Against:

My proposed structure would place a team in a situation where those involved in the championship would be playing 17 games, but the season would only be extended by one week at the beginning and one week at the end (for those involved in the title game). It is also important to note that the NFL WildCard portion of the playoffs would likely begin on 1-10-15, but my proposed schedule does place the traditional game days around those of the NFL’s.  While the majority of the Proposed Playoff for College would fall inside the NFL’s regular season competing with the NFL’s playoff structure would not be wise and efforts would need to be made to schedule around their games as much as possible.

Also, a tournament environment is fine for a sport like basketball and even in the professional ranks in football where there are just 32 teams and even fewer who will actually compete in the post-season.  But preparing for a college tournament where 120 possible teams could be a major challenge for coaching staffs and leave those teams who have a greater focus open for an upset.  By allowing for a minimum of 10 days between games I’ve allowed for additional time between games for scouting, planning, and the healing of injuries but football is a game of preparation, planning, and execution.

It is important to note that I do not propose the dissolution of the bowl structure.  I’ve been to several bowl games and had fantastic experiences, but they don’t assist in crowning college football’s champion.  They do, however, assist in pitting two relatively competitive teams against each other as a reward for a hard fought season.  Also, their additional practice time, team bonding, and the impact that their trips have both on the teams themselves and the communities the games are held in should not be ignored.  I also understand the economic impact that these bowl games have on each individual community.  I believe that the bowl games have their place, but they just shouldn’t be a barrier to establishing College Football’s process to discover which team is its champion.

In Summation

The challenges and changes that would need to occur for College Football would be far less dramatic than the gains and earnings that would be realized from this format.  I realize that this idea might move faster than administrators are comfortable with.  But I also believe this is the inevitable format for long-term survival and viability for college foobtall.  There is a huge ocean of cash available on top of a tremendous amount of fan interest and desire in establishing an open playoff system.

Starting with a “Plus One” is fine. But why not start with an 8-team playoff?  Or even better, why not just go to 16 to begin with?  If it is going to happen eventually the schools, programs, and institutions should realize those gains now.  But most importantly the fans deserve better than the current system provides.  37,678,722 people attended college football games in 2010 an average of 46,632 per game.  In 2011 that number dipped to an average of 46,074 per game.  During the same time span the NFL saw its average attendance rise by 462 to 67,419 per game.  Are these numbers cause for alarm?  Maybe losing 1.1% of your in-person audience is minimal, but when that number collectively is a $12,433,978 loss in ticket sales alone spread over 120 institutions it’s a big deal.  We aren’t even talking about concession, apparel, and other ancillary revenue that was lost as a result of less fans attending games.

But I won’t stop there. For the 2010-2011 bowl season, Television Ratings were the worst the sport had seen in 13 seasons.  Bowl ratings were down 9%, from the BCS National Title Game between Auburn vs. Oregon Matchup from the year before.  23 of the 33 bowls drew a smaller audience than in 2010.  In 2011-2012 the television interest level dropped AGAIN to the lowest level in the 14-year history of the BCS.  The 2011-12 rating is down 37% since its high in 1998 and averaging bowl attendance dipped below 51,000 for the first time since 1979!

If College Football is serious about its future, and believe me it is, then something dramatic must be done to rectify its diminishing appeal both in person and as a television product.  By being stagnant and hanging onto an archaic structure that encourages programs to let national pundits and voters make the arguments on their behalf rather than lining up and competing all of college football has been harmed.  It’s time for a change.  It’s time for it now.  The fans deserve it, college football needs it.  The money is there, the audience is ready.  Why not make it happen? GET. IT. DONE.

 

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About Mark Blankenbaker

Follow me: @UofLSheriff50 Born in Louisville, Male High School Graduate, UofL Business School Graduate, I've seen and done quite a bit and I'm passionate about sports particularly the University of Louisville and its rivalry with Kentucky. I have more friends that are UK fans than I do UofL fans, some say that's because I like to argue, or to be different. When it comes down to it I love my Cards, but I'll give praise and criticism to anyone who is deserving. I'm not typically someone who is going to write a 3-sentence post that everyone one else saw on Twitter just to get fresh content on the site. I try and do informative and thorough articles and sometimes that takes a little longer, Follow us on Twitter @CardsandCatscom and Like Us on Facebook to keep up with the latest from us. We also have a YouTube Channel full of coach & player interviews and highlight films.