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August 10, 2011
The unsatisfying (and deeply troubled) BCS system is a boon to few, while a 16-team elimination bracket could lift all of college football—all season long
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August 10, 2011

Why There Needs To Be A Playoff

The unsatisfying (and deeply troubled) BCS system is a boon to few, while a 16-team elimination bracket could lift all of college football—all season long

HISTORY MAY REMEMBER SHAMED CONGRESSMAN Anthony Weiner as having had a worse 2011 than the Bowl Championship Series. But not by much. BCS executive director Bill Hancock began the year in his familiar defensive crouch, explaining why his organization had to revise its final standings for 2010 (a miscalculation in the Colley Matrix that lifted Boise State from No. 11 to No. 10, swapping places with LSU) and why Mark Cuban's plan to fund a college football playoff would never fly. In late March, Hancock transitioned from crouch to swift backpedal, eager to put distance between his organization and one of its former BFFs, Fiesta Bowl president and CEO John Junker. This became necessary when an in-house investigation revealed that Junker had run the Fiesta Bowl like some canary-blazered Nero, apparently using its money to lavish gifts on politicians, cronies, favored employees and, first and foremost, himself.

"They know that if they want to do business with us, they need to follow the letter of the law," Hancock said. "We just will not be associated with this kind of behavior."

Yet the Fiesta Bowl was not alone. According to documents requested and secured by the gadflies at Playoff PAC, officials at the Orange and Sugar bowls had routinely abused the bowls' status as tax-exempt charities. They just weren't quite as brazen about it as Junker.

To demonstrate just how seriously it took the Fiesta Bowl's misdeeds, the BCS fined it $1 million. Then, just before the NCAA Postseason Bowl Licensing Subcommittee met with Fiesta officials to determine whether it should keep its NCAA license, Playoff PAC revealed that nine members of the subcommittee had previously participated in the bowl's "Fiesta Frolic," a three-day golf junket with some business thrown in. As Playoff PAC cofounder Bryson Morgan put it, the Fiesta Bowl was judged "by a jury of [its] former freeloaders." In a stunning turn of events (not), the subcommittee forgave the bowl and renewed the Fiesta's license (though it did impose a one-year probation).

In April, a week after 21 high-profile economists and antitrust experts sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice urging an investigation of Hancock's outfit for anticompetitive practices, news broke that Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff intended to bring an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS. And in May the Department of Justice reached out to the BCS, requesting a voluntary background briefing on how it operates. Hancock agreed, and a meeting was set for late June.

How all this unfolds could shape the course of college football. Not right away. Not this season: The current BCS system is locked in through 2014. After that, however, things get murky, and—for the vast majority of college football fans who yearn for a postseason playoff—encouraging. Who, exactly, is in favor of the status quo? Mainly the slender minority benefiting from it: those running the bowls and the commissioners, presidents and athletic directors of the power conferences that the system serves. But the BCS is losing support among the rank and file of college administrators disillusioned by the seamy Fiesta Bowl revelations and desperate to stop their athletic departments from hemorrhaging red ink. One way to do that is to stop handing over more than half the profits from their most lucrative product—the football postseason—to the bowls. And one way to do that is to put a playoff in place.

SO WHAT MIGHT A COLLEGE FOOTBALL playoff system look like? There have been numerous suggestions, but I'm partial to the 16-team-playoff plan put forward by the authors of the book and website Death to the BCS. Berths would go to the champions of all 11 conferences—yes, even the Sun Belt—plus five deserving at-large teams to be selected by a small committee of college football experts. The best teams would earn the highest seeds and play at home for the first three rounds. The title game would take place at a neutral site.

Playing the games on campus would ensure the inclusion of what is special about college football—the singular game-day environments and secular cathedrals that are its stadiums. It would eliminate one of the more embarrassing aspects of many BCS bowls: the tens of thousands of fans who come disguised as empty seats.

With a 16-team postseason beckoning, late-season battles for a conference title and the jockeying for those precious at-large bids would inject enormous significance, interest and drama into games that under the current system have zero impact on the national title. SEC fans who could otherwise care less about the Mountain West might wonder whom their team would face in the first round and suddenly find themselves rabidly interested in the outcome of, say, Air Force--BYU. Thus would a playoff enhance the value of the regular season—dramatically—rather than diminish it, as BCS acolytes would have you believe.

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