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Bad Idea Time: Abandon All Playoffs

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Embrace the chaos of the 70s, 80s and early 90s!

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Photo by Tim DeFrisco/Allsport/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

There are two basic ways to crown a champion in a modern team sport.

  1. The soccer way, where you build a sufficiently meaty season schedule that gives every team multiple shots at every other team, with the winner based on the final standings. (I know soccer tournaments are a thing, leave me alone!)
  2. The Big Four way, where the season is used to determine eligibility and seeding for a post-season tournament, the winner of which becomes champion.

College football has too many teams for option 1; the Premier League only has 20 teams and still needs each to play 38 matches to settle things. In its current state, college football wants to pretend that it’s doing a very small version of option two, but it isn’t. Nicole Auerbach is right to call the current setup an invitational – the only path in is by securing a ranking in the top four in a very official and serious poll. (The Playoff Committee Ranking is absolutely a poll. They just don’t want to call it that.)

Plenty of people want an expanded playoff that’s closer to that second option, one that guarantees spots to winners of certain conferences and maybe has some at-large spots as well. Others prefer playoff contraction, where we return to a simple #1 vs. #2 championship game and that’s it.

After considering the two options carefully, I reject them both and bring you a third, in what might be the least popular Bad Idea Time yet: College football should scrap a championship game altogether.

Before you start stabbing me about the face and torso, let’s review some history: In 1992, five conferences, seven bowl games, and Notre Dame formed the Bowl Coalition, and they all agreed to an arrangement that would make a #1 vs. #2 bowl matchup – a de facto title game – possible by moving around conference commitments to bowl games where necessary. It worked very well the first year, as #2 Alabama met #1 Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl.

But not every big conference and bowl was in the Coalition, and in 1994 #1 Nebraska couldn’t play #2 Penn State, because neither the Big Ten nor the Rose Bowl (where the Nittany Lions beat #12 Oregon) had signed on. The Bowl Coalition eventually became the Bowl Alliance, which then gave way to the BCS in 1998, which morphed into the College Football Playoff in 2014.

That’s 22 years to go from, “We need a system that guarantees #1 plays #2!” to “This four-team playoff excludes worthy participants!” But that evolution has never grappled with what’s actually rotten here: The gateway to the championship has always been polling.

Instead of fighting that truth, why not embrace it? We can go back to the pre-’92 way of doing things, where championships are awarded strictly on the basis of reporters and SIDs masquerading as head coaches.

Let’s look at the 15 seasons (1977-1991) before the Bowl Coalition started college football down the playoff road:

National Champions, 1977-1991

Season National Champ Bowl Opponent Team Rank Opponent Rank Opponent Record
Season National Champ Bowl Opponent Team Rank Opponent Rank Opponent Record
1977 Notre Dame Texas 5 1 11-0
1978 Alabama Penn State 2 1 11-0
1978 USC Michigan 3 5 10-1
1979 Alabama Arkansas 2 6 10-1
1980 Georgia Notre Dame 1 7 9-1-1
1981 Clemson Nebraska 1 4 9-2
1982 Penn State Georgia 2 1 11-0
1983 Miami Nebraska 5 1 12-0
1984 BYU Michigan 1 NR 6-5
1985 Oklahoma Penn State 3 1 11-0
1986 Penn State Miami 2 1 11-0
1987 Miami Oklahoma 2 1 11-0
1988 Notre Dame West Virginia 1 3 11-0
1989 Miami Alabama 2 7 10-1
1990 Colorado Notre Dame 1 5 9-2
1990 Georgia Tech Nebraska 2 19 9-2
1991 Miami Nebraska 1 11 9-1-1
1991 Washington Michigan 2 4 10-1

There are only four instances here of #1 playing #2 (and interestingly, the team that entered with a top ranking lost all of those matchups). But the average rank of the opponent that the national champs beat in a bowl game is 5.77, and that’s including the unranked Michigan squad that lost to BYU in the 1984 Holiday Bowl. Take them out, and the average drops to 4.63. First Team Out of the Playoff, you may commence your anguished hollerin’.

Think of it this way. If Alabama had beaten #6 Oklahoma instead of #3 Ohio State in their last game, would that sway you from awarding them the championship? Every school in that chart has an NCAA-recognized title, and it didn’t matter if they beat the top team in the country or the 19th to do it.

College football abandoned the dual-poll system in part to avoid split titles, and that was a mistake for three reasons: First, split championships give the sport the flexibility to acknowledge its own weakness; it has too many teams and too short of a season/postseason to give everyone who earns it a shot at the crown. Second, they take the oxygen out of the relentless, oppressive focus on the championship itself. Play your schedule! Have a fun bowl game! Maybe you’ll get a title! Maybe you’ll share custody of it with Nebraska!

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it gives you an opportunity to jab at your rival even when they finish ranked number one. Georgia Tech hasn’t won a title in the last sixty years - it’s won half a title! (This is not the best example for Georgia fans, since their last championship is a year older than Pete Buttigieg.)

The Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Alliance, the BCS, and the Playoff all want to obscure the fact that the whole sport runs on polls that are imperfect at best and exclusionary at worst. No Committee can fix that or make it fair, because polls are just fancy ways to repackage subjectivity. College football should stop pretending like it’s not built on that subjectivity and leave the playoff arguments to the professionals.

I mean, imagine how ridiculous it’d be if the NFL decided one year to award playoff spots based on who finished in the top 14 of a power ranking compiled by the media!

Wait, shit, they should do that.