As my beloved University of Louisville Cardinals prepare to take on Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl tonight, I am struck by one simple fact—they shouldn't be there. Not because the football Cards haven't earned their spot—they have, and then some—but because the bowl system is an antiquated sham that should have given way to a playoff system long ago. Yes, this is a tired mantra, but it's one that's going to get some traction in the very near future, because the same corrupt kingpins of college football that set up the Bowl Championship Series cartel are finally tired of getting shorted by the system they created.
Three of the most powerful of the power conferences—the Big Ten, the Big XII, and the SEC—have been carping about how hard it is for one of their teams to go undefeated against their own "superior" conference schedules. The BCS requires a perfect record (or near to it) to get into the only meaningful bowl game—the title game—and it's just "too hard" to pull that off in one of the power leagues that created this cartel in the first place.
Effectively, we have a two-team playoff right now, and another 30 consolation games which we call "bowls." The big boys will eventually realize they are shutting too many of their own out of the championship race in exchange for a meaningless "Your-Sponsorship-Here Bowl" trip that often loses money, and expand the system.
Sixty-four of 119 Division I-A teams (about 54%) made bowl games this year, with many having no better than a 6-6 record, and some of those wins were purchased victories created by paying lower-tier teams to come in and get stomped in exchange for a guaranteed check from the host team. That's not a post-season, that's a kindergarten awards ceremony where everybody gets a ribbon. Many teams actually lose money on these bowl trips, but take them anyway to keep the boosters happy and—more importantly—get the extra month of practice that helps set up next year. If the NCAA allowed practice through the first week of January for all teams instead of just bowl teams, suddenly many of these bowls would find themselves with declined invitations.
Now, some will tell you that a four- or eight-team playoff is sufficient to replace the current system. Baloney. The only way to have a true and fair playoff is a sixteen-team affair. Why? Because it's the only way to include every Div. I-A conference champion, and still leave enough at-large spots for the big boys to reward their own.
There are 11 I-A conferences, which would leave five at-large bids. This gives every I-A team a conceivable shot at the playoffs and therefore the title. Sixteen teams restores some moral sincerity to the whole shebang whilst still giving 15 venues the chance to bid for playoff games and make a whole bunch of money. That's 15 bowls instead of 32, cutting by half the ridiculous bowl-bloat we have now now. Sounds right to me. It also maintains the integrity of conference championship races—they're the only guaranteed shots at playoffs—but gives the big boys enough wiggle room to reward true contenders who might have (god forbid) slipped up once along the way or (heaven forfend) actually improved over the course of a season. Moreover, the power teams that will win most of these games actually get extra bites at the apple, because each week they survive and advance becomes another paycheck for their athletic departments. Even under a fair system, some are more equal than others.
Sixteen games also requires four weekends of play—or roughly the whole month of December that most teams spend idle under the current system. Pass a rule that all conference championships must be decided no later than Thanksgiving weekend, then December Delerium can go toe-to-toe with basketball's March Madness. Still don't buy it? Then consider this...
If we took the 11 2006 Div. I-A conference champions and added the next five highest ranked teams under the BCS system, then seeded them into a 16-team bracket, here's what it would look like:
- Ohio State (1 - Big Ten Champion) vs. Troy (16 - Sun Belt Champion)
- Boise State (8 - WAC Champion) vs. Auburn (9 - At Large)
- Southern Cal (5 - Pac-10 Champion) vs. Wake Forest (12 - ACC Champion)
- LSU (4 - At Large) vs. Brigham Young (13 - Mountain West Champion)
- Michigan (3 - At Large) vs. Houston (14 - C-USA Champion)
- Louisville (6 - Big East Champion) vs. Notre Dame (11 - At Large)
- Wisconsin (7 - At Large) vs. Oklahoma (10 - Big XII Champion)
- Florida (2 - SEC Champion) vs. Central Michigan (15 - MAC Champion)
Of these eight games, only two are likely blowouts: Florida/CMU and Ohio State/Troy, but the likely losers are precisely the kind of happy-just-to-be-here programs that may never again get to play the likes ofthe Gators or Buckeyes, let alone on national TV (Aside: Michigan/Houston will be moderately competitive on the strength of Houston's gunslinger offense). In this list, only three teams come from outside the BCS Top 25—Troy, Central Michigan, and Houston—and all three are conference champs. The lowest-ranked at-large bid was Notre Dame, who got in under the current system based on how many fans they could get to the Sugar Bowl, so at least under a playoff they snuck in on athletic merit, rather than spending power. Under this system, Wisconsin—which went 11-1 and lost only to #3 Michigan—gets in, rather than being shafted because the BCS is forbidden from taking more than two teams from the same conference. And for you purists, the two power leagues from this season—the SEC and the Big Ten—collectively account for a third of the field, so it should be pretty easy to settle who had the better conference of 2006 by playing this bracket out.
And all of that fails to mention that we get 15 incredible games out of this bracket, with some phenomenal matchups and improbable upsets you might never see again. It's fair, it's fun, and the big boys might actually make even more money than before. Mark my words, a 16-team college football playoff is only a matter of time.