Wednesday, June 6, 2012

a 4-team playoff in history (subtitled, why the internet rules)

Like most people who love college football, I have spent far too many hours dreaming about what the sport would like with a proper postseason format in place. I've cussed the BCS, argued for various types of playoffs that would be best and tried not to be too self-conscious when the system actually worked in favor of my team*.
*If you want to read about Alabama's curious history of affecting change in college football without really meaning to, check out this excellent piece at RBR. One of the reasons I stopped blogging as much is because RBR basically does everything I used to do here, only way better. But that's neither here nor there.

Now, as you probably know, we are on the precipice of realizing the dream. Or something close to it, anyway: BCS officials are all basically giving verbal assent to a 4-team postseason bracket, that is either a playoff or a plus-one, depending on your verbiage of choice.
(Full disclosure: I have no idea what the difference is between a "playoff" and a "plus-one." I guess it's immaterial at the end of the day.)

My friend Kurt of, however, has argued that the 4-team idea does not advance the cause far enough. "It's still just based on what people think," he said. His primary beef would be with the selection process, which is still very much up in the air.
It's a fair question. In any given year, there has almost always been someone with a gripe about being shut out of the national championship hunt. Sometimes there have been as many as 4 teams with a gripe at the end of the year.
Which leads us to the reason for this post. What will follow is an examination of a 4-team playoff in each postseason of the BCS era, what it would have looked like, and any potential controversies that might have arisen in that scenario*.
*Here I note that I am concentrating on the BCS era because it would take a really long time to go back further — given the multiplicity of polls and such — and frankly would take up all the time I have ever to do anything. The source for this is a site called The internet is great, you guys. I'm telling you.

In any case, feel free to comment with your own thoughts.
Champion: Tennessee (13-0). Beat Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, a month after undefeateds Kansas State and UCLA lost on the final Saturday of the regular season (to Texas A&M in the Big XII championship game and at Miami, respectively).
Top 4 (in ascending order): Ohio State (10-1), Kansas Staten (11-1), Florida State (11-1), Tennessee (12-0).
Thoughts: Somehow UCLA got left out of this grouping, even though they were one of three teams penciled into the final game before losing at Miami in one of the most bizarre games in college football history. I personally have little to no memory of Ohio State that season — apparently they were No. 1 in the nation until losing at home to Michigan State in November. The argument between the two of them for that final spot would be quite vehement.

Champion: Florida State (13-0). Beat Michael Vick and equally undefeated Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
Top 4: Alabama (10-2), Nebraska (11-1), Va. Tech (11-0), Florida State (11-0).
Thoughts: Wait — Alabama was 4th in the nation? Really? That was the same year we lost to Louisiana Tech, man! Our coach was Mike Dubose! This is making my head hurt.
In all seriousness, the argument in this season most likely would have come down to the final spot between 'Bama and Tennessee, the defending national champ who had handed Alabama its (non-Louisiana Tech) loss that season (Tennessee's first trip to Tuscaloosa since the early part of the 20th century, in fact). Of course, the argument against the '99 Vols would be similar to the one used against 'Bama that year: they didn't win their division, didn't play in the SEC Championship Game. On the other hand, their 2 losses were to Florida and Arkansas, both on the road.

Champion: Oklahoma (13-0). Beat 11-1 Florida State in the Orange, which slipped into the title game despite very loud protestations from Miami, the other team to beat FSU that year (Miami's loss was early, vs. Washington).
Top 4: Washington (10-1), Miami (10-1), FSU (11-1), Oklahoma (12-0).
Thoughts: Here would be the problem to which Kurt is alluding: While this appears to solve much of the controversy — by putting the 3 teams arguing over who deserves a title shot — into the mix, it leaves two more 1-loss teams (Va. Tech and Oregon St.) who were looking up at UW. In both cases, the gripes would be somewhat ignorable — Va. Tech had already lost to Miami, Oregon St. had already lost to Washington — but those fans would still bleat pretty loudly.

Champion: Miami (13-0). Beat 11-1 Nebraska in the Rose, about 6 weeks after Nebraska was severely beaten about the head and shoulders by Colorado (62-36), the eventual Big XII champs.
Top 4: Oregon (10-1), Colorado (10-2), Nebraska (11-1), Miami (12-0).
Thoughts: I had frankly forgotten the sequence of events that put Nebraska back into this game, but here's what I can remember:
• The team that should've faced Miami that year was Texas, but Texas choked on its dinner and lost to Colorado in the Big XII title game.
• The next team that should've been in line was Tennessee, which also choked by losing to Nick Saban's LSU in the SEC title game.
• The next logical team (I think) was Joey Harrington's Oregon Ducks, which had no title game and no real resume to speak of. So while the top-4 appears to make sense, there are 2 teams in 5th and 6th — Florida and Tennessee — who would argue for inclusion there.
• Miami was so good that year, it would not have mattered. At all.

Champion: Ohio State (13-0). Beat undefeated Miami — defending national champs — in the Fiesta in overtime.
Top 4: USC (10-2), Georgia (12-1), Ohio State (13-0), Miami (12-0).
Thoughts: The idea of having that Miami team play against Carson Palmer's USC Trojans is so potentially titillating, I'm attempting to figure out how to go back in time to make it happen. The fact that the '02 Trojans lost to Kansas State and Washington State (Washington State!!!) is nothing short of remarkable. Wazzu, by the way, went to the Rose that year (USC was in the Orange) and lost to Oklahoma, followed by Mike Price getting a job at Alabama and ... well, you remember the rest.

Champion: LSU (13-1). Beat 1-loss Oklahoma in the Sugar, after Oklahoma finished percentage points ahead of 1-loss USC, who was voted AP national champs (the last split championship in college football history, potentially).
Top 4: Michigan (10-2), USC (11-1), LSU (12-1), Oklahoma (12-1).
Thoughts: This was probably the first year that we really started on the road we're on now. There were really no teams outside of this top-4 that would really have much of a gripe, and the two bowl matchups that actually happened — USC hammered Michigan in the Rose and LSU beat up OU in the Sugar — were set up almost to perfection. Hilariously, the administration of Pres. George W. Bush invited both teams to the White House and basically dared them to scrimmage each other on the White House lawn.

Champion: USC (13-0). Beat undefeated Oklahoma in the Orange; the two teams were basically a consensus 1-2 in the polls all year, and undefeated Auburn really never stood much of a chance at jumping over either of them.
Top 4: Texas (10-1), Auburn (12-0), Oklahoma (12-0), USC (12-0).
Thoughts: Not only are all those matchups potentially enticing — Vince Young's Longhorns facing USC and Auburn's Team of Destiny facing down Oklahoma — but there's really only one potential controversy: undefeated Utah, which was sitting at 6 that year, behind 1-loss Cal. Could you see the nation rallying behind Urban Meyer's Utes and attempting to push the pollsters for an all-undefeated Final 4? Sure you could.

Champion: Texas (13-0). Beat undefeated USC in the Rose, with little to no controversy.
Top 4: Ohio State (9-2), Penn State (10-1), Texas (12-0), USC (12-0).
Thoughts: Really, outside the top-2, there's a giant logjam and I have no idea how to unjam it. The '05 Nittany Lions were 11-1, and Ohio State finished 4th ahead of 1-loss Oregon,  2-loss Notre Dame, 2-loss Georgia (the SEC champs), 2-loss Miami, 2-loss Auburn and 2-loss Va. Tech. Oregon would probably cry the loudest, since they were carrying 1 loss, and it was to USC (albeit by 30 at home). 2005 was one of those rare seasons when the top-2 were pretty clear, and if anything an upset of either Texas or USC would have cheapened things a bit.

Champion: Florida (13-1). Beat undefeated Ohio State in the Fiesta, after a national hand-wringing over whether the Gators deserved to be there over 1-loss Michigan, the team that had just played Ohio State and lost by 3.
Top 4: LSU (10-2), Michigan (11-1), Florida (12-1), Ohio State (12-0).
Thoughts: Plenty of fat to chew on from that season. 1-loss teams like Louisville and Wisconsin are on the outside looking in, and that's before we discuss undefeated Boise (way back at 8). LSU sneaked into the top-4 ahead of USC, strange because LSU finished second in the division (to Arkansas, who they beat head-to-head). USC was actually in line to play for the title, but turned in a stinker effort vs. UCLA and dropped out of the picture.

Champion: LSU (12-2). The only two-loss champion of my lifetime — the Tigers beat No. 1 Ohio State (them again) in the Sugar Bowl, after watching dominoes fall in front of them that cleared a path to the title game.
Top 4: Oklahoma (11-2), Va. Tech (11-2), LSU (11-2), Ohio State.
Thoughts: Here's how much of a mess the 2007 season was: the third-ranked team at the end of the regular season was Va. Tech, ranked only one spot behind the LSU team that had beaten the Hokies 48-7 during the regular season (and it really wasn't that close)*. Georgia (11-2), Missouri (10-2), USC (10-2), Kansas (11-1) and West Virginia (10-2) would've all had a gripe that year, and that's before we get to 12-0 Hawai'i (ranked 10th).
* As time goes by, that LSU team becomes more and more fascinating. It was probably the most talented team I ever saw, and in spite of winning the championship, you could almost argue they underachieved that season. It wasn't so much the two losses as the way they sort of drifted through games (letting inferior teams like Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee hang around and nearly beat them). But since they won the title, I guess it doesn't matter. Whatever.

Champion: Florida (13-1). Beat No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1) in the Orange Bowl, after the Sooners won a tiebreaker over 1-loss Texas — who beat them during the regular season — to the Big XII championship (the two were tied with 1-loss Texas Tech).
Top 4: Alabama (12-1), Texas (11-1), Florida (12-1), Oklahoma (12-1).
Thoughts: This is where the "conference champs only" argument would've been a big one, for obvious reasons. Conference champs USC (11-1), Utah (12-0), Penn State (11-1, a point away from being undefeated) and Boise (12-0) would all clamor for inclusion in this format over Alabama and Texas (runners-up in the SEC and Big XII, respectively). And frankly, I have no comeback here — Texas and Oklahoma were probably interchangeable that season, and Alabama was at least as good as all those teams, possibly better.

Champion: Alabama (14-0). Beat No. 2 Texas (13-1) in the Rose, with little to no argument.
Top 4: TCU (12-0), Cincinnati (12-0), Texas (13-0), Alabama (13-0).
Thoughts: To be honest, I thought I was looking at the wrong standings when I first saw this. TCU AND Cincinnati? How is that even ... I mean, really? I forgot how good both teams were that season, and if there's a quibble, it's that undefeated Boise is still sitting outside the gates, at 6 (behind 12-1 Florida State). Weren't they at least as good as Cincinnati that year?

Champion: Auburn (14-0). Beat No. 2 Oregon (13-1) in the Fiesta Bowl — once again, little to no argument over the participants.
Top 4: Stanford (11-1), TCU (13-0), Oregon (13-0), Auburn (13-0).
Thoughts: This might be the bracket that proves why a postseason tournament would work so well for fans. Imagine Stanford — Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck — facing Cam Newton in a national semifinal? Imagine Oregon's lightning-fast offense against Gary Patterson's D? Ridiculous. As for potential controversies, it's tough to see any. Wisconsin and Ohio State each had a loss, and poor Boise is still stuck outside, falling all the way to No. 10 because they lost to Nevada. Wait — so if they'd won (and this bracket existed) we could've had a top-4 of Auburn, Oregon, TCU and Boise? Now I'll never get to sleep.

Champion: Alabama (13-1). Beat No. 1 LSU (13-1) in the Sugar Bowl — they reached the game by percentage points over Oklahoma State, and only after one of those Saturdays where the whole world melted down. Needless to say, there was much bleating from around the country, and apparently we're overhauling the entire system as a result.
Top 4: Stanford (11-1), Oklahoma State (11-1), Alabama (12-1), LSU (13-0).
Thoughts: Hilariously, this could've actually ended up with 3 SEC teams in it — 2-loss Arkansas (losses at Alabama and at LSU) could've easily leapfrogged over Stanford and Oregon, but even the BCS isn't that sadistic. By the way, you would've still wound up with an Alabama-LSU final game.


Smedlin said...

Difference between a plus-one and a 4 team playoff (at least, as it's being used here) is that the plus one just moves the championship game selection to after the bowls, so it's not necessarily that the winners of two specific games will move on to a championship and it's not seeded. Meaning that it's possible that the number one team will face the number two team in a bowl, and then the choice for the championship game could be the #3 team got to play the #12 team because of bowl tie-ins. After those games, a committee (or the polls) would pick the top two -- pretty much exactly like we have now.

Smedlin said...

Difference between a plus-one and a 4 team playoff (at least, as it's being used here) is that the plus one just moves the championship game selection to after the bowls, so it's not necessarily that the winners of two specific games will move on to a championship and it's not seeded. Meaning that it's possible that the number one team will face the number two team in a bowl, and then the choice for the championship game could be the #3 team got to play the #12 team because of bowl tie-ins. After those games, a committee (or the polls) would pick the top two -- pretty much exactly like we have now.