December 20, 2012
The playoff will be better. Decades overdue, the four-team tournament coming to major college football in 2014 will not only double the present championship pool but also upgrade other prominent bowls.
But the playoff, selecting and seeding its participants, will be difficult. It will be messy and controversial, though heaven help us if it's not transparent.
Case in point, this season.
Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida and Oregon are the consensus top four teams in the USA Today coaches' poll, Harris Interactive poll and Bowl Championship Series standings. But I'm not sure a selection committee, which the playoff will employ, would have rubber-stamped that group.
The Bowl Subdivision's sole unbeaten, Notre Dame (12-0) is the clear top seed, and not simply because of its unblemished record. The Fighting Irish defeated three teams among the BCS' top 20: No. 6 Stanford, No. 11 Oklahoma and No. 18 Michigan, the Sooners on the road.
Only two of Notre Dame's opponents, Boston College and Wake Forest, finished the regular season with losing records, and all six computers used to calculate the BCS standings tab Brian Kelly's team No. 1. Consider that football's version of the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), the computer-generated rankings so critical in choosing the NCAA basketball tournament field.
With an unprecedented six teams among the BCS' top 10, the Southeastern Conference was regular-season royalty, and as champion of that league, reigning national titlist Alabama (12-1) would be a playoff lock this year. Question is, would the Crimson Tide merit the No. 2 seed?
Yes, league commissioners have mandated an emphasis on conference championships, but compare Alabama's credentials with those of SEC rival Florida (11-1).
They did not play one another, and while the Tide's loss, at home to Texas A&M, did not cost it a spot in the SEC title game, the Gators', to Georgia on a neutral field, did. Luck o' the draw there.
Florida is the only team with four victories over top-15 BCS opponents: No. 8 LSU, No. 9 Texas A&M, No. 10 South Carolina and No. 12 Florida State. The Gators played the nation's 14th-toughest schedule, according to Jeff Sagarin's calculations, 20 spots ahead of Alabama.
Basketball's selection panel often cites non-conference strength of schedule because these are the teams you choose to play. Florida has the edge here, too. Its FBS non-league opponents — 8-4 Bowling Green, 11-2 Florida State and 8-4 Louisiana Lafayette — are a combined 27-10. The Tide's — 3-9 Florida Atlantic, 7-5 Western Kentucky and 8-4 Michigan — are 18-18.
Why parse the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds — I'd make Florida the two and Alabama the three — when they clash in the playoff semifinals (neutral site) regardless of order? Because it prepares us for choosing the fourth playoff team.
This is where the committee's deliberations become as thorny and critiqued as the Obama-Boehner budget taffy pull.
Oregon and Kansas State are 11-1, Stanford and Georgia 11-2, LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Oklahoma 10-2. Each would be, in selection parlance, on the board.
Eight teams for one spot. Good luck.
Like conference champs? Kansas State won the Big 12, Stanford the Pacific 12.
Strength of schedule: Oklahoma's is No. 5, Stanford's No. 6, again, per Sagarin.
But although the Sooners lost to teams that are a combined 21-1, Notre Dame and Kansas State, I'm eliminating the Sooners. They're the only one of the eight without a victory over a team in the BCS' top 20.
As the lone one-loss conference champ among the eight, K-State makes a strong case. But that defeat was by four touchdowns to 7-5 Baylor. Punt the Wildcats.
Among the SEC quartet, LSU is the strongest with conquests of South Carolina and Texas A&M, and narrow losses to Florida and Alabama.
Which leaves us with Stanford, Oregon and LSU for the No. 4 seed.
Oregon has the best record and most head-turning offense, but the Ducks lost at home to Stanford, and their only win over a top-25 BCS team was at No. 13 Oregon State. The Cardinal boasts three such victories: No. 4 Oregon and No. 17 UCLA twice, the latter in the Pac-12 championship game.
Both of Stanford's losses were on the road, at Notre Dame and Washington, by a combined 11 points. But the Huskies went 7-5 and face-planted 41-3 at LSU.
So could a four-team playoff include the SEC's Alabama, Florida and LSU? Since there will be no limit on conference representation, the answer is yes, but the immeasurable is how much value the committee will place on league championships.
My fourth team would be LSU, but my hunch is the panel would pick Stanford. No matter the choice, the subsequent howling would be louder than Pit Road at Daytona.
A fair price for progress.