The Horned Frog Dilemma

by wombatony

See, NCAA? Was that really so hard?

Tonight, we will have a legitimate National Championship Game, featuring Oregon, who trounced Florida State in the Rose Bowl, and Alabama, who easily dispatched… wait, what? Ohio State beat ‘Bama? That will teach me to start writing my blog entry early.

Regardless, we have two great teams, Oregon and Ohio State, who have just beat quality opponents on New Year’s Day, yet still get to play each other, with the winner being crowned national champions. Just imagine – a National Championship game not starting off with one or both teams shaking off six weeks of rust.

Yet there have been no biblical signs of the apocalypse. No players dropping out of college because they have to practice for another week. None of the things that we’ve been warned would happen happened. Except the TV ratings went through the roof.

Oregon beat last year’s champion, a team that had not lost a game in close to two years, and Ohio State beat last year’s runners-up, a perennial powerhouse, and the undisputed number one going into the playoff. This year, it will all be decided on the field, and nobody can claim they were unfairly voted out.

Except maybe TCU.

And, wow, did you see the way Michigan State came back against Baylor?

Wait, does Marshall really have the same record as the two teams in the Championship?

Okay, maybe there are still a few chinks in the armor.  But baby steps, people. Progress is progress. And before we look at how the current problems can easily be solved, let’s take a closer look at the stupid arguments the naysayers have been making for the past century or so as to why a playoff could not and should not exist in college football.

It’s extra workload for the students.

Really? How many classes are they going to be missing in the first half of January? This argument is so stupid that I hesitate to bring it up, but I’ve heard it made over the years by pundits on the Four-Letter Network (which shockingly stopped making this argument as soon as they signed the deal to carry the games).

To be clear, every other division of college football has playoffs. Hell, even high school football has playoffs. They happen in December, when finals are actually happening. They also feature schools with much smaller travel budgets. But I’m sure the Mount Union guys needing three stopovers to get to their Motel 6 are much more rested and capable of studying than the Ohio State players riding first class to the Four Seasons.

We can also look at that other major college sport. You know, the one with the most famous and successful playoff system in all of sports. When a school, like UCLA, is on the quarter system, guess when their Winter Quarter finals are? Smack dab in the first week of March Madness. Is UCLA discouraged from playing in March Madness in order to take their finals? Hardly. Sure, if they’re a one-seed facing Weber State in the first game, it’s effectively a bye, but they still have to show up. Edu-ma-cashun be damned!

But finals are one thing, we can’t have kids missing the pointless first day of class, where you get the syllabus and then leave, can we?

What about the integrity of the bowl season?

This was a huge argument during the BCS years, especially when, after years of moving it from bowl to bowl, they added a national championship game in addition to the “Big Four.” What is the point of being Sugar Bowl champs, people would argue, if there is another game that’s bigger than the Sugar Bowl? Well, you can still say you’re Sugar Bowl champs, right? And really, even before the BCS and then playoffs, the Sugar Bowl winner wasn’t necessarily the national champion, so Sugar Bowl champ really means the same thing now as it always did – you won a very major bowl game, most likely against a very quality opponent.

Heck, if they lose tonight, Ohio State can still call themselves the Sugar Bowl champions (and Oregon can call themselves the Rose Bowl champs), but I’m guessing they’ll opt for “National Runner Up.”

If there is any  drop in the integrity of the bowl season, it ain’t the extra game or two added at the end, it’s all those meaningless bowls in the middle of December. We have a GoDaddy Bowl, a Potato Bowl, and a Fosters Farms Bowl. Bowling Green at 8-6 and Pittsburgh at 7-6, can call themselves bowl champions. (Wait, Houston recovered how many onside kicks? C’mon, people, I’m trying to get ahead in my blogging!). Okay, so Houston, not Pittsburgh, is a bowl champ. Regardless, those teams are going to be more insulting to Michigan State victory than the fact that Oregon and Ohio State are advancing to a title game. I’m sure Michigan State is pissed that they aren’t the ones advancing, because they are competitors, but the phrase “Taxslayer Bowl Champion” belittles their Cotton Bowl victory more than a playoff system.

As an aside, Gaylord Hotels had their own bowl game for a number of years. I wonder how much the winners of that game tried to pump themselves up a “Gaylord Champs” when recruiting.

Hand-in-hand with the “integrity of the bowls” argument is the “traditional matchup” argument. This argument is always, always, always made by Pac-12 fans, and the only bowl they’re ever talking about is the Rose Bowl., which usually pairs the winners of the Pac-12 and Big Ten. I know west coast people. I am west coast people. What west coast people need to admit is that they don’t care who the Pac-12 plays against, as long as there is a Pac-12 team in the Rose Bowl. Then we can move on.

Want proof? Oregon played Florida State, an ACC team, this year and nobody complained.  Quite the opposite of 2011, when Oregon, heaven forbid, played in the national title game, so Wisconsin, the Big Ten winner, faced TCU. Nobody cared that the Big Ten was still being represented, but people bemoaned the missing Pac-12 team.  My father-in-law actually said the players would probably “rather be playing in the Rose Bowl than in the National Championship.”

Why is it always Rose Bowl people who make this argument? Because it’s the only bowl with a traditional matchup still intact. The Southwest Conference, whose champion always played in the Cotton Bowl, no longer exists. It merged with the Big Eight, whose champion used to play in the Orange Bowl, to become the Big-12, which has never been paired with a specific bowl. I think the Sugar Bowl used to showcase the SEC winner, and after the Big-12 merger, the Orange Bowl featured… anyone? Anyone? The ACC? The Big East? Saint Mary’s School for the Blind?

Even when one specific conference sends a team to one specific bowl, the teams they were playing weren’t tied to any specific conference. So it’s only the Rose Bowl that has a traditional match-up between two specific conferences, and again, nobody associate with the Rose Bowl really cares about the Big Ten. And as long as they can get out of January in Minnesota, I think the Big Ten fans would be happy to go anywhere warm. Just ask Ohio State fans today if they’re okay playing in Dallas.

And how ironic is it that we have a traditional Rose Bowl matchup for the national title? If this year had played out under the old BCS rules, neither of these teams would probably be in the championship game. Alabama would still have been number, and I have to think it would have been hard for voters to keep out the defending national champion and only undefeated team. So the BCS Title Game would have been the two teams who lost on New Year’s Day. Oops.

And guess who would have been playing in the Rose Bowl? Oregon and Ohio State. And what would they have been playing for? The right to be tied for third with about twenty other bowl winners. They would have been playing to be on equal footing with Navy, who also won a Bowl Game in Southern California. And we would have been back to the same-old, same-old, “well, neither of them probably could have beaten the national champs, anyway.” Double oops.

Unfortunately, that phrase is still being uttered this year. There are at least two, possibly up to four, other teams that we are hoping wouldn’t be able to beat whoever tonight’s champion is on a neutral field.

TCU had a legitimate gripe. The Big-12 doesn’t have a championship game because they only have ten teams (as opposed to the Big Ten, which has fourteen), meaning everyone plays each other in the season. So TCU was at home when Ohio State rolled over a very good Wisconsin team and leapfrogged the Big-12 champ into the fourth playoff spot. What if TCU had beaten Baylor on that same day? What if it had been as hellacious of a whomping as the 42-3 score they dropped on the former-number-one Ole Miss? Then who do you leave out? The undefeated, defending champion Seminoles?

Plus, the top four playoff system still doesn’t solve the old Boise State problem. When an upstart team from a non-power conference rises up and beats all comers, there still is little chance they’ll make the top four.  This year, that might have been Marshall. They only lost one game, and it was in overtime when Western Kentucky went for two points. What if they had won that game? Would they make it past any of the top five? No. But at least they would have no way of beating a top-flight team, right? Just like when Boise State finally got a chance against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.  Oh, wait, they won that game. But, of course, they still would have been rolled by Florida that year, right? Anyone?

But isn’t that argument what the BCS and the playoff are supposed to do away with? Aren’t we trying to get past the guesswork of who might beat whom and actually get to the point where they can prove it on the field? And yet, this year, TCU has to deal with that argument. There are allegedly five power conferences (although how the ACC fits that description most years is beyond me), so if we allow only four in, every year at least one conference champion will be excluded. Some years, if a conference like the SEC puts two teams in, then two power conferences will be left out.  Throw in a good Notre Dame team and over half of the Power Five are left out of the playoff. And the non-power conferences can continue to go screw themselves.

But if we allowed eight in…

Then why not allow sixteen? Or thirty-two?

Stop! Nobody is making a case for the ninth team or the seventeenth team. If you lost three games, you don’t deserve to be in the title discussion. Beyond the top eight teams, you can legitimately start using the “you should have taken care of your own business” argument. Eight is the correct number.

With eight playoff teams, the power five champs would make it in (although I’d reclassify the ACC as a non-power conference), plus three (or four) at-large teams. Oh, and Big-12? You need a title game, even if everybody in your conference has already played each other.

This year, this would have added TCU to the mix. It probably also would have added Baylor and Michigan State. Hey, ironically, those two actually played each other in a bowl game this year, and it was an exciting bowl game with a playoff atmosphere.  Just fathom if the winner advanced. I assume Mississippi State would have made it over Marshall, although I still think it would be more fun to throw the one-year wonder in as the eight-seed every year.  They would have played Alabama, and I’m sure they would have lost. But before January 1, I would have also been sure that Ohio State would have lost to Alabama.

Here’s the best part of this plan. We could keep the Big Four bowl games and, even better, restore whatever tradition people are complaining about. The Rose Bowl can, every single year, feature the Pac-12 and Big-10 champs facing each other, with the winner advancing. The Sugar Bowl can feature the SEC Champ vs. an at-large. Similarly, the Orange Bowl can feature the ACC, if we want to still pretend they’re a legitimate football conference. And let’s bring back the Cotton Bowl, featuring the Big-12 champ, because I don’t know who the Fiesta Bowl slept with to be vaulted into “Elite Bowl” status.

All four of those games could be played on New Year’s Day, and they would be the only four to be played that day. Then the winners of those four games play the following week. Then those two winners play for the championship. We would be adding precisely one week, and two games, to the schedule in early January.

It is so logical, so obvious, that I can only think of one possible thing that the NCAA can do with it.

Tell TCU to shut the hell up and blindly stick with what they have for another ten years.

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