Sunday, November 29, 2009

The status quo leaves something to be desired

It seems weird that in a season with six legitimate undefeated teams and national title contenders, the final month has been as anticlimactic as any I can remember. We keep waiting for that crazy upset that throws everything into chaos or the surprising loss that knocks a contender out of the race, and it's become clear that those things just aren't gonna happen.

Since the third week of the season (when USC lost to Washington), the top three teams in the polls have remained unchanged. Since Iowa lost to Northwestern, the next three teams after them have stayed the same, too. The yearly craziness that consumes late-season college football has given way to an obvious pecking order and the realization that the season will end just as everyone has expected since about three months ago: Florida or Alabama will play Texas for the national title.

I'll have no real complaints if that happens -- the goal is to get the best teams playing each other, and there's no way to argue that Texas and the survivor of the SEC championship game aren't deserving -- but it's disappointing, in a sense, that we won't get to see a "Cinderella" play for the BCS title. It's not that I have any particular affinity for Cincinnati, TCU or Boise, it's just that there's no way to know how those three compare to Florida, Alabama and Texas.

I don't think there's ever been a season in which a non-BCS school could make a legitimate claim to playing for the national championship, so it's both remarkable and incredibly inconvenient that now, in a year with THREE elite mid-major equivalents (I know Cincinnati is in the Big East, but their football history is all but nonexistent), there are also three undefeated BCS conference teams.

In 2007, Cincinnati (assuming a win over Pitt) or TCU would be headed to the national title game in place of two-loss LSU. In 2001, Nebraska's pathetic loss to Colorado in the final week of the regular season opened up a spot that was so lacking for candidates that Nebraska still was voted in to serve as Miami's sacrificial lamb. I think it's safe to say that Cincinnati, TCU and Boise would all have been welcome that year.

We'll still end up with some very good bowl games this year -- the loser of the SEC championship game will probably play either TCU or Boise in the Sugar Bowl -- but matchups like Cincinnati-Georgia Tech and Boise-Iowa really won't tell us a whole lot about the non-BCS teams and how good they really are, and there'll be something unsatisfying about finishing with, let's say, three undefeated teams.

I hate it when people look at a particular hot team and say, "See, this is why we should have a playoff," but in this case, it's true. Not a four-team playoff -- no tournament without TCU or Boise would be worth anything -- but the six-team playoff originally recommended by Brian at Mgoblog that I've supported in the past.

Let's say, just for argument's sake, that Florida beats Alabama in the SEC title game and Cincinnati beats Pitt to win the Big East. In that case, the final BCS rankings would probably look like this:

1. Florida
2. Texas
3. Cincinnati
4. TCU
5. Alabama (schedule strength would probably keep them from dropping below Boise)
6. Boise

In the six-team scenario, the top two teams earn byes (this maintains the importance of the conference title games) while the rest participate in a four-team playoff for spots in the semifinals. Your first-round games would be as follows (either at the higher-ranked team's stadium or at a bowl site):
  • Boise at Cincinnati
  • Alabama at TCU
Not bad, eh? And going on the assumption that the higher-ranked teams win, the semifinal games would be:
  • TCU at Florida
  • Cincinnati at Texas
Wow. Every team in the top six would be able to prove itself against the rest, and there'd be no doubt at the end about which team was most deserving.

I've always been a little hesitant about the idea of a college football playoff, primarily because I don't want to see a 16- or 32-team bracket where a demonstrably mediocre team gets hot and wins the national title at 12-4 or something. But when we have so few comparison points and often can't determine with any accuracy which of the top six or 10 teams is truly the best, it's irritating to have to sit and hypothesize. I can only imagine how Gary Patterson, Brian Kelly and Chris Petersen must feel.

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