College football fans complain.
For the past 14 years, they’ve complained about the BCS. They’ll still complain about the BCS for another year or two, but after the 2014 season, college football will have a playoff. (Specifically the FBS, but will the names Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Division continue to make sense if the FBS has a playoff?)
So fans will have nothing left to complain about. Because the system will be perfect. Right?
Hold that thought.
This year, in the NFL, the NFC’s North division has three teams with ten or more wins. Pretty good. Green Bay went 11-5, and Minnesota and Chicago both finished 10-6. Minnesota went to the playoffs because it had a better division record than Chicago. (The second tiebreaker, after head to head, which Minnesota and Chicago split.) Fair enough.
Now let’s imagine that The NFC North has a championship game. Assuming the same math and tiebreakers that the NFL uses to determine playoff participants, Green Bay would play Minnesota.
Let’s imagine further that Green Bay beats Minnesota. Green Bay’s record improves to 12-5, still good enough to win the division. Minnesota’s record drops to 10-7, which happens to be percentage points behind’s Chicago’s 10-6 record.
Based on record, Chicago is now ahead of Minnesota, and takes the sixth playoff spot.
Doesn’t make any sense, right? Minnesota had a better division record than Chicago and should therefore go to the playoffs. And besides — why the heck is the NFC North playing a championship game? The NFL playoffs decide the Superbowl winner, and that’s what really matters.
Thankfully, this is a hypothetical scenario, and we don’t have to worry about it. But it’s going to be a real problem in the 2014 FBS season.
The SEC of 2012 was as close as you can come to the hypothetical NFC North laid out here, except there was no playoff to decide a national champion. Georgia finished ahead of Florida in the regular season, played Alabama in the SEC championship game, lost, then lost its spot in a NCS bowl to Florida. Bowls care about polls and ranks instead of tiebreakers. You say tomato, I say … tomato.
If a four team playoff had been in place for the season that just ended, the teams would have been Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida, and Oregon. What about Georgia? Left out in the cold by virtue of finishing ahead of Florida in the regular season? We can only assume that if Florida had finished ahead of Georgia in the SEC East (perhaps Florida lost to South Carolina and beat Georgia, and Georgia beat South Carolina), the Gators would have gone on to have a letdown performance against Alabama in the SEC Championship game, and Georgia — capable of going down to the wire against the eventual national chamption — might have beaten Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
The fact is, unless a playoff has zero wild card teams, it is incompatible with conference championship games. If a playoff is to guarantee the participation of the two best teams, it needs a wild card. That means the conference championship games — some of which are only two years old — are already vestigial.
Some people will not warm to the playoff and will likely hold up the conference championships as an alternative. Some, like me, see the obvious benefits of a playoff to determine the national champion. Either way, the conference championships and the playoff conflict with each other. And that is the next gripe in college football.