Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Buckeye bracket-buster: Injustice for a good cause

     The college football playoff turned out almost exactly as I predicted and even better than I hoped.
     No, I didn't foresee The Ohio State University's championship, with all its rich story lines and its 245-pound definite article.
     I didn't care who won, and I watched anyway. That's progress. What intrigued me more than the teams was the way the entire playoff process played outa process designed to fail and yet destined to give us something bigger and better.
     Raise your hand if you ever thought we could actually fit five conference champions into a four-team bracket. Here, have a buckeyeit will kill you if you try to swallow it. Seriously. 
     Smaller colleges with half the manpower have been thriving in 16-team playoffs for decades, but this is the first year the big boys have dared to play more than one post-season game. 
     And here's what just happened: 
     1. Rankings became irrelevant. All the experts on the selection committeeincluding Peyton Manning's dad, Andrew Luck's dad, and George Bush's secretary of stateturned out to be no wiser than sportswriters or computers when it comes to judging the relative merits of college football teams. Yes, they saw through undefeated Florida State. We all did. But in their expertise, they judged Alabama to be the best team. Their lowest-ranked team won it all. And we trust them to tell us that the next-best team did not deserve a shot? 
     2. Bowls will never be the same. 
Bowls used to stand in the way of playoffs. Today, I'd wager that the rest of the bowls in the "New Year's Six" rotation (Cotton, Orange, Fiesta, and Peach) would sell their souls for the opportunity to be quarterfinal playoffs next year. The reason? The three playoff games on ESPN were the highest-rated programs in the history of cable television. The bowls that mattered drew audiences three or four times larger than the bowls that didn't. That's money left on the table. The playoffs barely had room for the Buckeyes, but bowls always have room for an extra buck. And TV is just part of the equation. Don't get me started about the empty upper deck at the Orange Bowl. The people have spoken: We'd rather watch games that count; games that are part of a greater drama.
     3. Separation of church and playoff. The committee ought to be thankful for the waffling Big 12 and private schools Texas Christian and Baylor, who lack political clout and have been raised to accept rejection by turning the other cheek. But what if Texas had been the alternative instead of Texas Christian? What if you took Christian out of TCU's name, dressed the Froghorned talent in Longhorn uniforms, called them Texas, and stacked them up against Ohio State. Now, that last selection becomes a lot more squirmish. Who do you want to snub: Texas with one loss to Baylor, or Ohio State with one loss to Virginia Tech? Either way, you face the wrath of a half million powerful alumni. Why not make everybody happy with a play-in game?
    4. Expanded playoffs will be here sooner rather than later. It won't take 12 years, like it did with the Bowl Championship Series. That's the hidden genius of the four-team playoff. It came with injustice built in, a flaw that demands to be corrected by expansion. College presidents who would never vote for an eight-team playoff now realize they will have to accept it. Whatever the future playoffs look like, they absolutely have to include the champions of the so-called "power five" conferences. The easy solution would be an eight-team playoff, including three at-large teams. Sixteen is not impractical, especially if you play the first round on campus. The silent majority in NCAA Division I already have a 24-team football tournament, for goodness' sake. Shorten the regular season to 10 or 11 games, add a cash-cow exhibition game in the spring, and make it happen. 
    We are making progress. Here it is just three weeks before national signing day, and we're still talking about actual games rather than descending into what my friend Kerry Capps calls "recruiting porn." Another weekend of real live college football in January wouldn't hurt anybody.

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