In order to design a playoff system, we must determine how, exactly, this will be constructed. After all, the design itself will determine the system's ability to work. Unfortunately, there are precious few good ways of putting together an effective playoff system, none of them are actually good, and all of them will actually create more problems than they will solve.
Let us take the most obvious step toward a college football playoff system and create the post-bowl national championship game, otherwise known as the Plus-1. This method requires the top four teams to be matched up against each other in a bracket that will have its first two games played in the bowls, followed by the championship game a week or two later.
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As playoff proponents would have it, this would solve all the problems. Instead of two teams playing for the title, we would have four. Wouldn't that be nice? If the answer was "yes", would I really be talking about it?
The problem here is figuring out which four teams deserve to play for the national title. In fact, it is in many ways harder than determining the top two. Take 2004. You have three teams that we can all acknowledge as being deserving. Who is the fourth? Utah? Texas? Louisville? What about Boise State? Laugh if you will, but the Broncos were just as undefeated as USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, and Utah. If they are going to say that the national title should be proven on the field in a playoff system, we must accept the idea that the "unproven" quality of a team must be just as valid for the regular season, so it was never proven that Boise State was not the best team in the nation. Thus, they would have unfairly shut out of the playoffs. Or, for that matter, you could choose a one-loss Texas team that is considered to be better than undefeated Utah, but how do you prove that Texas is better than Utah? After all, Utah was never beaten; how do we know they aren't the best team in the nation?
Or let us look at 2003, when LSU played Oklahoma for the title rather than USC. Who is the fourth team? Six upper-echelon teams finished the regular season 10-2: Michigan, Ohio State, Miami (FL), Texas, Tennessee, and Florida State. Who gets left out? Or what about 12-1 Miami(OH) or 12-1 Boise State? Aren't their records just as good as LSU, Oklahoma and USC? Is it their fault that their conferences aren't that good? After all, it wasn't USC's fault that the PAC-10 was lousy that year and that is what kept them out of the title game. Why should it be any different for teams are contractually tied to lousy conferences? They didn't get a chance to "prove it on the field" because they didn't have a chance to actually play USC, Oklahoma or LSU and we are all about proof here.
How about 2001? Oregon was ranked #2 in the human polls, but got shut out of the championship game by Nebraska, which ended their season with a loss to Colorado in the Big XII championship game. However, Illinois, and Maryland were also shut out of the title game with only one loss. But which team do you choose for the playoff games? Or do you choose a 2-loss Colorado team that finished higher in the final rankings? Just so I know, how is any decision you make fair? And how does it really allow teams to prove anything on the field when one or more teams are not getting a chance to prove their worth? In fact, the very thing that playoff proponents are complaining about is only made worse by expanding the field to four.
How about seasons like 1999 or 2002? There were only two major-conference teams left with undefeated records, and they were ranked #1 and #2. What possible purpose would a four-game playoff serve? The two best teams are out there, so just make them play each other. No muss, no fuss, no farting around with meaningless games that are just filler. When you have two teams that should clearly play each other for all the marbles, why not let them play?
However, if there is to be a playoff system, even more schools would be getting the shaft than there were before with a 4-team system and it would quickly have to be expanded.
Since the Plus-1 system would be a failure, let's examine the 8-team system. Unfortunately, that is a dud, too.
Since you are putting eight teams into the playoff system, you are still running into the problem of too many 1 and 2 loss teams, so that people are missing out. And they will complain. A lot. Especially a MAC-champion school that knocked off some mid-level team from a major conference. Or, for that matter, the eventual conference champion, such as Miami(OH) did against Northwestern in 1995.
And you also have the problem where the bowls are diminished to the point that conference champions will have to be sent to the playoffs. Obviously, since there are 11 conferences in Division I-A, you cannot have all the teams going to an 8-team playoff system. You may say that you can ignore the lower-level teams, but that would not be possible. After all, the playoff system would have all the money, the bowls would be done for, and you'd better believe that government (and the NCAA) will get involved if teams that are in Division I-A are not allowed to play in the Division I-A playoffs. They were already up in arms about earlier problems, what will they do when teams that are in the actual division are not allowed to play in the supposedly fair playoffs? Besides, the gold-standard for playoffs -- March Madness -- allows lousy teams that happened to win their conference tournament to play for the national championship. Why should it be different for football?
Now we're getting somewhere. The other divisions in the NCAA have had 16-team playoffs, so we can assume that I-A can have the same system. Sounds so easy when you say it like that.
The simple fact is that people are going to be cheesed off with the 16-team format too. After all, you have eleven bids going automatically to the conference champions and, even if there are no upsets in the conference championship games, only about 5 of them are likely to be in the top 10 when all is said and done -- maybe 6 in a year that the Big East doesn't embarrass itself entirely. That leaves only 5 at-large bids for the rest of the top teams and you still have to figure out what to do with teams that are tied for their conference championships in the Big Ten or PAC-10.
Of course, even if you manage to get the top 16 teams into the playoffs, you still have #17 complaining that they got the shaft because they beat the, let's say, #12 team earlier in the season and they deserve to be there instead of the higher-ranked team that they beat.
This system also neglects the fact that 16 teams weren't good enough for Division II and III, since they have moved to a 24-team format. And I believe that I-AA is doing the same thing. Even in the small leagues, 16 teams isn't enough.
Considering that I already said that the 16-team playoff system would be passable, why am I putting a 32-team option in here? Because of the inevitable creep of playoff expansion. The NFL used to have only 8 teams in its playoff system, now it has 12. Baseball now needs 162 games in order to figure out which 8 out of 30 teams deserve to be in the postseason. 32-game playoffs are as near to inevitable as you can get. The lower divisions are already halfway there with their 24-team playoffs, so it won't be long until they move to 32 teams too.
This problem will, of course, arise when the last bowl games finally disappear. People watch the bowls because they matter. Should college football make the move to a playoff system, the bowl games won't matter, will they? And thank God that the oceans won't be filled with obnoxiously large whales that only interrupt commerce either.
Now then, let us take a look at the problems associated with creating a playoff system. After all, the mere mention of playoffs gets some people all excited and they think that everything will just fall into place and everything will be perfect because, after all, EVERYBODY has playoffs and they are, therefore, what everyone should be wearing... I mean using to choose their champion.
Now then, we have decided that it will be a 16-team playoff. That will do for now, since Alabama/Michigan/USC/Texas has not yet been shut out of the postseason by being ranked #12 instead of #11, while 5 teams from the "other" conferences have been grudgingly added to the bracket.
Of course, this brings up a problem. That being the problem of figuring out which teams belong in the playoffs. However, let's make it easy and decide on a system of computer polls and human polls. You know, just like the BCS that playoff proponents claim is entirely useless.
Or we could put together a team of people that decide on the playoff participants. If you think the complaints about back-room deals are bad now, imagine the outcry when teams get left out of the field of 16 for the freakin' national title.
But there are not the only problems. There are also serious logistical problems with playoffs. And they create a heap of trouble all its own.