Fixing College Football 101

A painless way to straighten out the BCS and have a playoff too!

We all know college football is flawed. The game itself has issues that we all recognize (inconsistent refereeing, pay-for-play, flags for exuberance, etc.), but the bigger issue is the bowl system, the BCS, along with the various human and computer polls. College presidents continually put down the idea of an NFL-style playoff system on the basis that “the student-athlete would miss too much time from class.” They, (the college presidents, that is), have an ulterior motive that’s as large as the woolly mammoth in the room — taking away the bowl system would remove a huge amount of money that the major colleges receive. This isn’t news to anyone, though, but it’s important to know because it inhibits change in the system more than any other reason.

For the sake of this argument, however, we’re going to assume we can fill the size 8s of the current NCAA Executive Director and have carte blanche with respect to change. To fix college football and establish a true national champion, two major things need to happen. First, the polls need to be fixed in a big way to take different factors into consideration. Second, the bowls need to be moved into a 16-team playoff system, with the first round being the conference championship games of the major conferences (with four wild-card teams). Let’s tackle each of these in turn.

The current poll system has been flawed since its inception, but even more so since the BCS adjusted the formula in 2004. To begin with, any system that uses a subjective human element will inherently be flawed. It’s known that current college coaches don’t have the time to watch every game (obviously!), and are lucky to catch a highlight show here and there. There’s also an undeniable bias for coaches in major conferences to vote with their own conference, as voting for teams that they’ve defeated will simply inflate their team’s own standing. But those same head coaches are the ones that vote in the USA Today Coaches Poll that makes up a huge part of the BCS equation. In fact, some times a coach might not even make the votes himself, but leave it to an assistant or someone in the athletic department. The USA Today poll is all well and good, but should not have a significant impact on the BCS standings due to it’s wildly subjective nature.

By comparison, the other subjective human poll (the Harris Poll), uses a system of former players, coaches, media and others. While still subjective (former players and coaches could rate their former schools higher), at least in theory those members are more likely to see games. In 2008, the BCS made some changes that radically affected the championship poll. They removed the Associated Press writers poll (at their request), and added the aforementioned Harris Poll. The Harris Poll, along with the USA Today Poll make up two-thirds of the BCS standings, while the final third is an average of the six computer-based polls. So, basically the poll is two-thirds subjective and one-third (mostly) objective.

What no one wants to hear, but what is truly necessary for the integrity of the sport, is that the computer polls need to be a major factor in determining BCS standings. Again, in 2008, the BCS deemphasized strength of schedule for teams in the computer polls (which actually removed two polls from the equation that had a significant SoS in their calculations), so that only four of the eight polls take SoS into consideration.

To get the poll system right, all computer polls will have to crunch the following factors: 1) Strength of schedule. Teams that play FCS (Division IAA) teams are heavily penalized, 2) Margin of victory (perhaps to a maximum of a three-score margin with 2-point conversions, 24), 3) Number of conference games (all 12-team conferences must play 9 in-conference games, or become penalized), and 4) No factored-in bias towards “power conferences” (SEC, Big 12). Next, each of the eight polls should be given a weight of one (1), while each of the two human poll should be given a weight of two (2), for a total of 12 weighted factors. These should then be calculated to determine the BCS standings, and those standings should be the factor in determining the the 16-team playoff system.

Now comes the slightly more complex part, and the one that is the hardest to ram through college presidents: creating a 16-team playoff. What is important to understand is that the beginnings of this proposal will already be in place for the 2011 college football season. The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 already have conference championship games between each of their two divisions, while the new Pac 12 and Big 10 will have those games in 2011. The Big East needs to add four more schools for football and create a championship game, or else be dropped from automatic qualification to the playoff system. The remaining four schools involved in the playoff will be determined by their standing in the BCS. Once the first round of playoffs is complete, the teams would be reseeded based on their BCS standings and the next round with eight teams would take place two weeks later (when normally the lower-tier bowl games occur). The four winners then would move on to the New Years bowl games, rotating between the Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar bowls. Two weeks later, the BCS Championship game would pit the final two teams in one of the aforementioned major bowl stadiums and a champion would be crowned on the Monday holiday of Martin Luther King’s birthday.

Granted this plan could cause a team to play more games than with the current system, but not as many as one would think. The conference championship game is already built into the system, along with one bowl game, so you’re simply adding two additional games to the schedule and keeping the nation riveted to college football for an additional two months.

There are plenty of reasons why this plan will never be implemented. The NCAA not wanting student-athletes to miss more school time (which is bogus to begin with). The difficulty for fans of each team to have to travel to four games instead of one is another consideration, but that doesn’t stop hardcore NFL fans from attending their team’s away playoff games. It also leaves a lot of the minor bowls in the dust as the nation focuses on the playoff, but those small bowls are already mostly ignored by most save for the hardest of hardcore fans or the degenerate gambler. The argument that it pushes the college football season out too far into January is also laughable. This year’s BCS Championship game is on Monday, January 10. With the proposal above, the game is only pushed out one week later.

I definitely welcome any thoughts on this proposal. I think it addresses a lot of needs, including the wishes of the minor conferences that have superior teams (the 2010 Boise States and TCUs of the world would fit into the “at large” playoff bids. As the football season comes to a close, I’m going to apply my proposal to the current BCS rankings (flawed as they are) to see how things shape up, and I’ll write a follow-up article then.