Playoffs? We're talking about playoffs!

February, 9, 2012
2/09/12
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My typical response to people asking about a potential college football playoff has long been "don't hold your breath." Mostly because lots of powerful folks with a variety of agendas around college football -- from college presidents to bowl executives -- don't want one.

But there's been some movement of late that suggests we are closer today to some sort of playoff than, well, perhaps we've ever been. Most notably, the Big Ten exploring a four-team playoff.

That doesn't mean we're there or even that a playoff is around the corner, but the very fact it's being discussed seriously -- and publicly acknowledged -- is meaningful.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Bob Stanton/Icon SMIOne can only wonder how Andrew Luck and Stanford would have fared the past two seasons in a playoff for the national title.
And the Pac-12's position? Let's call it "open-minded."

"As a conference we haven't taken a position," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said Thursday. "We are open-minded and we'll look at some creative approaches here with a fresh set of eyes. I am confident we can improve upon postseason college football. I am encouraged hearing ideas coming out of the Big Ten."

But, Scott added, it's fair to say the the Pac-12 -- just like the Big Ten -- wants to protect the best asset in college football: The Rose Bowl.

Still, the thought of a college football Final Four is exciting.

Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel decided to explore the idea with the notion that some might point out picking four teams for a playoff will be no less controversial than picking two for the BCS title game. So he went back through BCS rankings history and evaluated each potential four-team playoff. His analysis is interesting and certainly worth a look.

And, of course, many of those scenarios would have increased the Pac-10/Pac-12's chances of winning another national title (or two).

First, Mandel's conclusion:

So when we total it up, a four-team playoff would have been more effective than the stand-alone title game 10 times in 14 years. That's certainly progress. But it's also true that the controversy won't fade. While there have been just three seasons (1999, 2002, 2005) in which the BCS title-game matchup was deemed universally satisfying, there were only four in which the four-team field was controversy free.

Yet with the lone exception of a clunky 2008 season, the debates we would be having over Nos. 3 and 4 would be easier to digest than some of the gross injustices that have plagued the 1 vs. 2 game.


So a four-team playoff looks better than the format we presently have.

That acknowledged: Where does the Pac-10/12 stand in Mandel's look back through BCS history?

Well, the conference wouldn't have been in a Final Four in 1998, 1999, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, though USC and Utah would have been part of a controversy in 2008, and the Trojans also would have been part of the 2007 discussion.

As for the conference's relevant years, the Final Fours would have gone like this:

  • 2011: No. 4 Stanford (11-1) at No. 1 LSU (13-0); No. 3 Oklahoma State (11-1) at No. 2 Alabama (11-1).
  • 2010: No. 4 Stanford (11-1) at No. 1 Auburn (13-0); No. 3 TCU (12-0) at No. 2 Oregon (12-0).
  • 2005: No. 4 Ohio State (9-2) at No. 1 USC (12-0); No. 3 Penn State (11-1) at No. 2 Texas (12-0).
  • 2004: No. 4 Texas (10-1) at No. 1 USC (12-0); No. 3 Auburn (12-0) at No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0).
  • 2003: No. 4 Michigan (10-2) at No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1); No. 3 USC (11-1) at No. 2 LSU (12-1).
  • 2002: No. 4 USC (10-2) at No. 1 Miami (12-0); No. 3 Georgia (12-1) at No. 2 Ohio State (13-0).
  • 2001: No. 4 Oregon (10-1) at No. 1 Miami (11-0); No. 3 Colorado (10-2) at No. 2 Nebraska (11-1).
  • 2000: No. 4 Washington (10-1) at No. 1 Oklahoma (12-0); No. 3 Miami (11-1) at No. 2 Florida State (11-1).

Which years would have presented the best opportunity for the conference to have won another title?

Well, just about everyone -- outside the state of Louisiana -- agrees that USC was the true national champion in 2003, and this four-team playoff would have made that clear with a pair of double-digit Trojan victories. (Please, don't even argue. Just go look at the rosters).

Not sure that Stanford wouldn't have been a better matchup with Auburn than Oregon was and then we might have seen a Stanford-Oregon rematch for the championship in 2010.

I think Oregon in 2001 was a clear No. 2 behind a Miami squad that was one of the best college teams of all time. And Washington was the fourth-best team in 2000, even with a home win over the Hurricanes.

2002 is perhaps the most interesting year, at least in terms of how a playoff would change things. The Trojans, with two losses, didn't deserve to play in the BCS title game. But, by season's end, you might recall that Carson Palmer and company were truly dominant. They obliterated a very good Iowa team 38-17 in the Orange Bowl, and it's worth nothing that Iowa team rolled through Big Ten play -- AND didn't play Ohio State in the regular season.

One of the gripes about a playoff is how it might discount the regular season. That would be a side effect of a four-team playoff because you almost certainly would see, on occasion, teams with multiple losses ending up winning the national championship over teams that were previously unbeaten.

Of course, you don't see many folks griping about the primacy of the regular season after the Super Bowl, do you?

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