College Football: Take the Four Best Teams

I have a humble request for the powers that run college football: You gave us the BCS for fourteen years.  The least you could do is get the new proposed playoff format right.

With a four-team playoff looking increasingly likely to replace the current championship process, the current debate is whether or not to include teams that did not win their conference.

On one side of the coin is the position trumpeted most strongly by the SEC. They say that any postseason tournament should include the four best teams in college football. Period. This is without respect to conference or a team’s position within its conference.

The other side maintains that winning one’s conference should be a requirement for inclusion in the championship bracket. This comes off the heels of last year’s BCS Championship, which featured a rematch of SEC foes Alabama and LSU. Alabama emerged as the champion despite not winning its conference (or even its division).

Now I will readily concede that part of the appeal of college football’s postseason is getting to see inter-conference matchups we wouldn’t normally get to see. Taking the example of last year, an LSU-Oklahoma State matchup in the national championship would have been extremely intriguing.

But all this overlooks a much simpler point: Alabama and LSU were the best teams in the country last season. Therefore, despite the admittedly boring game it produced, the right teams were placed in the national championship.

This simple logic should be extrapolated from the two team final and applied to a four team tournament. Give the best teams a chance to win the national championship. Anything else frankly is over complicating the situation.

Let’s now take a broader view of last season to see how these competing views of a Final Four would have played out.

2011 (BCS Rankings on December 4 via ESPN)

Top 4: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford

Tournament Using Top Ranked Teams: 

(1) LSU vs. (4) Stanford

(2) Alabama vs. (3) Oklahoma State

Tournament Using Only Conference Winners

(1) LSU vs. (10) Wisconsin

(3) Oklahoma State vs. (5) Oregon

Immediately, this should raise a red flag. By excluding Alabama and Stanford, who did not win their conference, we must replace them with the highest remaining conference winners. Enter Oregon, ranked fifth in the BCS heading into the postseason. Perhaps not a huge deal. The more serious problem arises when we replace Stanford, the fourth highest ranked team in the country, with Wisconsin, who was ranked tenth.

Unless you are a Wisconsin fan (or Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney), how can you seriously support giving the tenth best team in the country a chance to win the national championship, at the expense six teams that were ranked higher?

(Of these six teams-Alabama, Stanford, Arkansas, Boise State, Kansas State, and South Carolina-half are SEC members, so it’s true the conference is not exactly acting altruistically. Still, although it may be acting in self-interest, the conference is still ultimately serving the best interests of college football by advocating the logical choice).

Now admittedly, looking at prior seasons, there is not as drastic a picture as 2011.

In 2010, #4 Stanford would have been swapped out for #5 Wisconsin.

In 2009, the top four in the BCS were all conference winners, so theoretically there would have been no controversy in terms of format (team selection, however, would have been a different story, as the four teams in the final BCS standings were hardly the four best teams in the country. #3 Cincinnati vs. #5 Florida, anyone?).

In 2008, third-ranked Texas and fourth-ranked Alabama would have been replaced in a tournament by #5 USC and #6 Utah. Not as drastic, of course, as having the tenth-ranked team in a four team tournament, but still, the logic is unsound.

Why exclude a superior team for one that won what may have been a weaker conference? If this turns out to be the case, it will be because conferences such as the Big Ten are looking out for their own well-being over what makes sense for the game.

For too long, conference politics have got in the way of what is best for college football as a whole. With the game now having a golden opportunity to finally get its championship process right, let’s hope this can stop.

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