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August 11, 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 11, 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

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TCU finished last season undefeated and ranked third in the country, a national-championship-caliber team denied the chance to play for the national championship. How might the Horned Frogs have fared in a playoff? After eviscerating 14th-seed UConn in the first round, then flummoxing Terrelle Pryor and No. 6 Ohio State in the second, TCU might've found itself Oregon-bound for a semifinal tilt with the second-ranked Ducks: defensive guru Gary Patterson versus offensive genius Chip Kelly. Who knows if TCU would have won that game or beaten Cam Newton and Auburn in the finale? With a playoff, we'd have found out.

Tantalizing scenarios abound. Instead of Stanford's season ending with an Orange Bowl beatdown of Virginia Tech, we might have been treated to an eventual showdown between Andrew Luck and Newton. At 11--1 since-disgraced Ohio State would have had a shot, as would an excellent two-loss LSU team. Oklahoma's Big 12 championship win over Nebraska would not have set up a dreary Fiesta matchup with Connecticut but rather a spot at the dance. The point is not just that a playoff system would match good teams—bowls can do that—but also that it would make each game an edge-of-the-seater, an elimination game with the season at stake.

EVEN IF THE BCS IS FOUND GUILTY OF ANTICOMPETITIVE practices, say true believers, the Justice Department cannot force us to adopt a playoff. What could happen instead, they threaten, is a return to the days of 1991, when (most) teams were free to make independent deals with bowls. Dan Wetzel, a coauthor of Death to the BCS, refers to the possibility of the BCS's "take my ball and go home" scenario. "It's like a five-year-old who says he's going to run away from home," says Wetzel. "Fine. Call me from the driveway." Of course, it would pain the presidents of BCS schools to surrender control of the fortunes earned by college football's postseason—as they would have to do if a playoff were implemented. (Indeed, that's the single, overriding reason we don't have a playoff this instant.) But would they really turn back the clock to '91? Would they really choose retro-anarchy that pays less over a playoff system that pays them much, much more? Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, implacable playoff foe though he may be, estimated before Congress in 2005 that a playoff could earn three or four times the money of the system then in place. That added money could be distributed among the FBS conferences.

Another objection raised by the BCS: A playoff could be illegal because it gives teams no choice in the matter. Whoever was running the playoff would be saying to teams, in effect, 1) You must play in this tournament; and 2) You can't play in another bowl. One prominent antitrust attorney describes that argument as "ridiculous." To ensure legality the tournament director would merely need to offer teams an out along these lines: We're having a playoff. You're invited. If you would rather play in the Humanitarian Bowl, please let us know as soon as possible.

If a playoff would be illegal for NCAA football, why isn't it illegal for the other NCAA sports that determine their champion with a playoff?

"I'm not an attorney," Hancock remarked, in response to Shurtleff's threatened suit. "But I know antitrust laws challenge entities that limit access, and the BCS provides access in spades."

That will come as news to the 50 teams in the five conferences that make up college football's peasantry—the so-called nonautomatic qualifying conferences. For all but two or three of the non-AQ teams, the reality is this: They have no shot at a national title. Even if Nevada had gone undefeated last season (the Wolf Pack lost only to Hawaii), there's no way it would've leapfrogged any number of one-loss teams from the power conferences. "They didn't start the season ranked high enough, and they're from a non-AQ conference," says Alan Fishel, an antitrust attorney with the law firm Arent Fox, which has been retained by the Mountain West Conference because of its desire to reform the BCS. "They were eliminated before the season began."

That reality undercuts a primary BCS talking point—the one assuring us that in a world without a playoff, "every game counts" in the regular season. Not only does every game not count, Fishel points out, for the vast majority of non-AQ schools under the current system "no game has ever counted"—at least in terms of its bearing on a team's hopes for winning it all.

Fishel has compiled a list, 22 BCS Tall Tales, a collection of alleged myths he says the organization has long perpetrated on the general public. Number 3 is "Every game counts."

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