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The Plus-One system would’ve been better than the Playoff

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Or at the very least, far more college football.

In 2011, we would’ve gotten this ... and probably still Bama-LSU II anyway, yeah
Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Remember the Plus-One idea? Of all the championship-deciding postseason ideas this sport has thrown around, it was the simplest: just add a separate title game after all the bowl games.

Technically, the BCS and College Football Playoff title games are plus-one games, but those get seeded before bowl season kicks off. I’m talking about going back to the old version of the idea: one National Championship game, entirely selected after bowls have all been played.

Hear me out!

It would be at least as likely as any other system to give us a satisfactory title game.

Let’s use a few examples.

The top of the bowl picture heading into 2017 could’ve looked like this (and perhaps added a stipulation that an undefeated non-power must go in the top at-large game, giving them at least a theoretical chance of making a case for the final game):

  • Orange: #1 Clemson vs. #3 Georgia
  • Sugar: #2 Oklahoma vs. #4 Alabama
  • Rose: #5 Ohio State vs. #8 USC
  • Cotton: #6 Wisconsin vs. #12 UCF

If we still get a Georgia-Alabama title game, it’s not really fodder for SEC conspiracy theories, but simply the way things played out. This season’s two snubbed powers meet in the Rose, and perhaps one can present a strong case. And we’ve moved undefeated UCF 60 minutes away from having an alarmingly good argument for a title shot.

As with any other system, the part that makes people mad (the selection mechanism —whether it’s a computer, poll, shadowy cabal, or combination) isn’t integral to the format. Put whoever you want in charge of selecting the final two teams. I think we should have a Plus-One game and put you, the reader, personally in charge of picking which two post-bowls teams get to play each other.

How about the 2014 bowls that would’ve included a potential title game participant or two?

  • Sugar: #1 Alabama vs. #5 Baylor
  • Rose: #2 Oregon vs. #4 Ohio State
  • Orange: #3 Florida State vs. #7 Mississippi State
  • Cotton: #6 TCU vs. #10 Arizona

One of this year’s two snubs is now in something like a semifinal — beat Bama and you’re almost certainly in. The other would need to annihilate Arizona just to make an argument, but the Frogs are at least more alive than they were IRL. Remember this year’s Playoff, when we all wanted TCU to cash the briefcase and replace a collapsing FSU? The Plus-One brings us a step closer.

Just to keep applying real-world examples of how this could play out from year to year, if we’d used modern bowl ties, we can also look at the championship-relevant bowls we would’ve had in years with BCS snubs, like 2004 ...

  • Rose: #1 USC vs. #12 Iowa
  • Sugar: #2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Auburn
  • Cotton: #4 Texas vs. #5 Cal
  • Fiesta: #6 Utah vs. #9 Boise State

... and the bowls that could’ve sent teams to a national championship game in IRL split-title years, such as 1997 ...

  • Rose: #1 Michigan vs. #5 UCLA
  • Sugar: #2 Nebraska vs. #3 Tennessee
  • Orange: #4 Florida State vs. #6 Florida

... or 1990:

  • Sugar: #1 Colorado vs. #10 Tennessee
  • Orange: #2 Georgia Tech vs. #4 Miami
  • Cotton: #3 Texas vs. #5 Notre Dame

Voila! A 2004 Oklahoma-Auburn play-in game and likely #1 vs. #2 games in ‘97 and ‘90, all without cramming an entire tournament into a Frankensteinian bowl system.

The Plus-One would fit neatly into the system college football has used for most of its history.

One problem with the Playoff (and BCS): it attempts to contort bowl season into being part of a whole other thing.

The Rose Bowl alone tells the story, from being a square peg in the pre-BCS of the early-’90s to being a non-Playoff bowl game that gets the big New Year’s spotlight while the actual semifinals happen before, like, the First Responder Bowl.

We see teams having to prepare for grimly serious semifinal games ... while also having to do goofy bowl-week Pie-Eating Contest activities with their opponents. Are these hardcore semifinals, or are they just-for-fun bowl games?

A Plus-One system would let bowl season be bowl season, harmonizing with its biggest games at the very end.

Bowls were a bizarre invention, and it’s amazing they’ve proliferated for a century. Somehow, we mostly like them! Going forward, we can either hammer them into something entirely different, pretend they’ll be worthwhile even in an expanded Playoff era, or give more of them actual competitive consequences.

It would preserve (and enhance!) the bowl system like nothing else ever could.

Eventually, the Playoff will eat bowl season. Since the Playoff will surely never grow to 80 teams, lots of teams that otherwise would’ve made December memories will either miss out entirely or be relegated to ever more distant anachronisms. The sports fan could end up with far fewer viewing options.

In a Plus-One system, not only do bowls remain, they become more important than ever. In the Playoff era, two bowls are semifinals, but in a Plus-One era, we’d usually get semifinal vibes from three, four, or five bowls (based on my look at how these would’ve lined up since 1990).

Let’s use 2007 as the peak example. Using ties similar to 2019’s, we could’ve had these bowls at the top:

  • Rose: #1 Ohio State vs. #7 USC
  • Sugar: #2 LSU vs. #4 Oklahoma
  • Orange: #3 Virginia Tech vs. #5 Georgia
  • Cotton: #6 Missouri vs. #9 West Virginia
  • Fiesta: #8 Kansas vs. #10 Hawaii

In a year that messy, you can create some fascinating final-two arguments. Any team that entered this bowl season with a top-seven ranking would’ve felt alive in the championship race, but even that Fiesta boasted the country’s only one-loss power and only undefeated team.

How much more do all of those bowls matter now? And the three-dozen other bowls get to call themselves part of the same system, rather than explicitly being non-Playoff bowls.

The Plus-One would acknowledge not every season has the same number of valid contenders.

One problem with expansion: we’ve already had years in which it was difficult to find four Playoff-worthy teams. Are we sure we’ll want eight or more every year?

One problem with not expanding: we’ve already had years with more than four clear contenders.

A Plus-One would handle either extreme nicely:

  1. In some seasons, college football did not need a title game. 2011 is both the best and worst example, since LSU had proved almost as much as any national champion ever — and then had to re-play Alabama after winning in Tuscaloosa, with only their second meeting actually counting. If the towering #1 loses its bowl, perhaps it deserves one more shot anyway.
  2. In other seasons, we’ve had nearly a dozen teams with reasonable arguments. The 2007 example is the obvious extreme. Let bowl season sort ‘em all out.
  3. Most years, we’ll have about six teams who could be considered Playoff-worthy, typically with one or two standouts. So all six should get to make final cases.

For example, 2011 LSU would’ve deserved a title shot even if it’d lost here:

  • Sugar: #1 LSU vs. #3 Oklahoma State
  • Orange: #2 Alabama vs. #11 Virginia Tech
  • Rose: #4 Stanford vs. #10 Wisconsin
  • Fiesta: #5 Oregon vs. #6 Arkansas

(Does that mean an instant LSU-OSU rematch? I mean, is that any more displeasing than the rematch we actually got?)

If we have lots of contenders, that’s also great! Somewhere between two and six bowls MATTER matter.

The Plus-One would feel like it expands the Playoff, without increasing the toll placed on the labor.

The clearest problem with the 64-team FBS tournament of our dreams: the student-athletes barely get anything tangible out of this. Putting minimally compensated athletes through 19-game seasons would be too shameful even for the pro-amateurism crowd ... right?

From this point on, any expansion of the Playoff must either include byes or make amateurs take on even more work.

Instead, the Plus-One would increase the number of teams who could potentially play in the National Championship without adding lots of low-value toil. We do not need anyone to risk injury in order to answer the question of whether a #1 Alabama is better than a #32 Iowa State.

The only thing I don’t like: conference bowl ties would become even more important.

Let’s get rid of those anyway, actually. We could hang on to conference ties if we like! Or we could rig a masterpiece like this in 2012:

  • Orange: #1 Notre Dame vs. #2 Alabama
  • Sugar: #3 Florida vs. #4 Oregon
  • Cotton: #5 Kansas State vs. #6 Stanford

We’ve now replaced a suspect #1 with one of four superior teams in the actual title game, and we still get to enjoy Bama stomping the Irish in Miami.

A Plus-One would be the most college football of all possible systems.

This is the part where you assail me with every objection to the idea, I appear to have been buried beneath the weight of logic, and then I rise, smiling and serene, having built an abominable shrine of all your weapons.

This system would be messy. It would leave portions of power in the hands of various factions. It would be confusing. It would be inconsistent from year to year. The same teams would win anyway. FBS football would remain the weirdest thing in all of American team sports.

These are not lies.

However, what if we recognize these flaws as also being features? This irrationality has defined college football since the beginning, and instead of pretending we can eradicate it by adding more columns in a Playoff spreadsheet, we might as well lean right into it.