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I designed this blog primarily as a place to discuss theology, and I plan to keep it that way. However, I’m going to take a short break with this post to discuss another personal passion: college football. Last summer, the college sports landscape was shaken as several teams changed conferences. This past week, the chaos almost resumed as Texas A&M threatened to leave the Big XII and join the SEC. Even though the move did not materialize, it seems likely that A&M will pursue the move again in the near future. Many other questions also remain about college sports, especially football. The NCAA is hosting a panel to discuss these issues and others, and ESPN has assembled its own panel to discuss the same issues. Should players be allowed to receive money or other benefits? Should the NCAA institute a playoff for Division 1-A? What will happen if Texas A&M does decide to change conferences?

Given all the questions surrounding college football, I’d like to propose a few answers. Before that, though, let’s begin with a few problems in the current system the NCAA is using.

  1. The NCAA allows some schools to receive preferential treatment over others. Specifically, this takes place in several areas. First, schools should not be able to create their own television networks. This past year, the University of Texas partnered with ESPN to create the “Longhorn Network.” The success of this network remains to be seen, but the problem is that Texas receives benefits that other schools in its conference do not. This is part of what has angered Texas A&M. Conference TV networks (the Big Ten Network serves as an example) are good for the conference, but single-school networks are not. Second, schools should not be allowed to only join a conference for some of the sports they offer. Recently, BYU elected to become an independent school in football only because it could sign better television deals on its own than it could as a part of a conference. Similarly, Notre Dame has long been an independent school in football only because of its TV deal with NBC. These independent schools harm the landscape of college football because they can create whatever schedule they want and they can avoid tying themselves into conference television contracts. This gives schools like BYU and Notre Dame preferential treatment over other schools. It’s bad for college football as a whole for the same reason as the Longhorn Network. Third, the NCAA should not make special rules for independent schools. If a school elects to be independent in every sport, the avoidance of conference regulations to which I previously spoke do not apply. However, Notre Dame has special rules in place that apply to no other team in the BCS. This gives schools more incentive to become independent. Not only do I think schools being independent in football only is a problem, but I also do not like the idea of independent schools at all. As a result, I believe they should be given the same rules as non-automatically qualifying conference teams. If the current BCS system is kept, independent schools such as Notre Dame should only be guaranteed a bid into the BCS if they finish in the top two spots in the BCS rankings, as this is the rule in place for non-AQ schools. If schools elect to be independent in every sport, so be it, but the NCAA should not make it easier for these schools to qualify for the BCS than they do other schools. Hopefully this equal treatment would create additional incentive for teams like Notre Dame and BYU to join a conference. Conferences are important for several reasons, and I’ll discuss this in greater detail later.
  2. Conferences are given preferential treatment without merit. Presently, six conference have contracts with the BCS to have the conference champion automatically qualify for a Bowl Championship Series game. These are the “AQ (auto-qualifying) conferences” of which I previously spoke. The problem with this setup is that the champion is guaranteed a spot regardless of how strong or weak the conference is. Recently, the Big East Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) have struggled, and their respective champions have arguably been unworthy of a qualifying spot. I will later propose a system to replace to the BCS entirely, but even if the system stays in place, this policy should change. Guaranteeing the conference champion a spot in the BCS encourages teams in AQ conferences to schedule weak non-conference opponents. If the BCS wants to guarantee automatic bids to champions of some conferences, it should come up with a conference ranking system and use this to determine which conferences automatically receive bids. I’ll discuss this more later on.
  3. Not enough guidelines exist for conferences. Presently, a conference can have as few or as many teams as it wants. The Big East only has eight teams competing for an auto-bid in college football. The Big East and 10-team Big XII do not require a conference championship game. On the other hand, the other AQ conferences have 12 teams competing for the conference title and the winning team must also win a conference championship game because this is required for conferences with at least 12 teams. This creates an unfair balance, as it is mathematically easier to win the Big East, even if the level of competition between conferences was even. On the other hand, there have been several threats of 14- or 16-team “super-conferences.” A conference of this size would be unmanageable and would really be more like two conferences competing for one auto-bid spot (and this is the reason why many argued that the proposed “Pac-16” would deserve two auto-bids). The NCAA should require teams seeking an auto-bid into the BCS (or any future system that could replace it) to have exactly 12 teams – split into two six-team divisions (ideally geographically named to prevent future embarrassment from the Big Ten) with a conference championship game. If the Big East wants to keep only eight teams competing for its football title, that’s fine, but their chance for an automatic bid should be taken away.
  4. Illegal player benefits are getting out of hand. This problem exists for several reasons. One of the main problems in college football is agents. Because they are regulated by the NFL and not the NCAA, agents are quick to follow NFL guidelines but don’t care about NCAA rules. This gives agents little accountability in the way they interact with NCAA-eligible players. Why would an agent have second thoughts about giving a player money or throwing a party that deems a player ineligible for the NCAA when the agent is only accountable to the NFL? The other main source of trouble in this area is that many players feel desperate to earn money and often find the easiest way to obtain it is through means that violate NCAA rules. But is there a solution that doesn’t cause preferential treatment? Stay tuned.
  5. One more, just for fun: Conferences should not be allowed to use numbers in their names. Presently, the Big Ten has twelve teams and the Big XII has ten teams. Not only is this confusing to people who do not follow football closely, but it’s also a generally stupid practice. Let’s rename the Big Ten something like the Midwest Conference and call the Big XII something like the Southwestern Conference. While we’re at it, even though the Pac-12 changed its name to remain “mathematically accurate” (their own words – a direct shot at the Big Ten and Big XII), if it became simply the Pacific Coast Conference this name-changing business every time teams are added and removed could be ended.

With these problems and others, here are a few ideas:

  1. Create an 8-team playoff. Let’s face it: the biggest problem facing college football right now is its inability to determine a champion. I know not everyone agrees with the idea of a playoff, but I think it is necessary for college football. I certainly don’t think it should adopt a huge (involving 32 or 64 teams) playoff system, but I think 8 teams is a good number. Here’s why. It would allow several conference champions to enter the system and allow for a couple of at-large teams. With only four teams in the playoff, it is possible that the champion of a good conference could be left excluded. And who’s to say a 1-loss SEC champion isn’t better than an undefeated Big East champion, for example? Sometimes the best conferences “beat each other up” along the way, and it isn’t fair to punish teams for that. I believe the best system is to guarantee bids to the playoff for the four conference champions of the “best” conferences (details on what “best” means to follow), guarantee bids to the two highest-ranked remaining conference champions, and allow two highest-ranked remaining teams to receive at-large bids. Teams would be ranked in a system similar to the current BCS standings. Personally, I prefer the original BCS ranking formula used in 1998 rather than the amended ranking system currently used. This formula included losses and strength of schedule in the equation and gave equal weight to human polls and computer rankings. I think this system was better than the system presently used, but either way, a system of this type is still effective in determining rankings. Conferences would be ranked in a separate conference ranking system that determines the overall quality of the conference based on combined records of conference teams and combined strength of schedule. This ensures that all teams in the conference don’t simply schedule all easy non-conference matchups to improve conference ranking. This also elevates the quality of play during the regular season, because teams will have incentive to schedule harder regular season games. It also encourages conferences to maintain quality throughout the conference and not just at the top. The eight teams selected for the playoff could play their first round games in the Fiesta Bowl, Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Orange Bowl. This enables conferences to maintain their present tie-ins to bowl games. The Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences are especially tied to this idea because of the Rose Bowl tie-in, so this would preserve this tradition and hopefully satisfy these conferences. In fact, this would do a better job than the current system of preserving this tradition, because conference champions that qualify for the national championship game do not in fact play in the Rose Bowl presently. To me, this means the current system actually destroys their tradition. My proposed system would restore this tradition. The winners of these bowl games would then play in national semifinal games to be followed by the national championship game. The sites of these games could rotate among the current BCS bowl locations, much like the national championship game does now. This would allow the present bowl structure to remain in place (a point of contingency against a playoff system for many). It would also add two additional postseason games, increasing revenue for the NCAA and schools and conferences involved in the games. I think it is a proper balance between the present bowl system and a full “large” playoff system involving 16 or more teams.
  2. Allow players to receive some monetary benefits, as long as they are equal among all players. I think the easiest solution here is video game licensing. EA Sports and other sports video game companies would jump at the chance to have real player names in NCAA video game titles. If the NCAA created an organization (much like the players’ union) that could distribute monetary benefits equally to players, it would be a mutually beneficial agreement. Much of the controversy surrounding giving players monetary benefits is that it would help “big” schools and players. This is true for some forms of monetary benefit, specifically autographs, speaking engagements, etc. But licensing agreements like this would provide an equal stimulus across the board. It would provide players an extra incentive to stay in school, because they would receive at least some money. And it wouldn’t create a competitive edge for some schools or players – the Heisman Trophy winner would receive the same amount of money as a backup defensive lineman for a mid-major school. I wouldn’t even be opposed to the idea of giving players a monetary stipend, as long as it’s guaranteed to be the same for every scholarship player in Divison I and not so high that the smaller schools can’t afford to pay it.
  3. Require conferences to be composed of exactly 12 teams in order for a team to be eligible for an automatic bid. As I previously mentioned, the champions of the four best conferences would automatically receive a playoff bid, and the two highest-ranked remaining conference champions would have received automatic bids. In order for conferences to be eligible, however, they must be composed of exactly 12 teams. This prevents the “super-conference” (which is more like two eight-team conferences with a common championship game) as well as 8-team or 10-team conferences avoiding a conference championship game. In my opinion, this blend of champions of the best conferences, conference champions with the highest team ranking, and overall highest-ranked teams makes for the best blend of teams in a playoff. You can’t argue that your team deserves a chance if they’re ranked highly because they would have made the playoffs based on team ranking. If your team won its conference but wasn’t ranked high enough, however, you also can’t argue that your team missed the playoffs because it was a harder conference and “everyone beat each other up” because the highest-ranked conferences also are guaranteed a bid. It seems to me to be a solution where everyone wins.

To explain how this playoff system might look in reality, here’s an example based on last year.

Let’s assume for a minute that all major conferences had 12 teams last year and thus qualify for automatic bids. Here were the final 2010 BCS rankings (before bowl games):

  1. Auburn
  2. Oregon
  3. TCU
  4. Stanford
  5. Wisconsin
  6. Ohio State
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Arkansas
  9. Michigan State
  10. Boise State

Let’s assume, for the sake of example only, the conference standings were as follows:

  1. SEC
  2. Pac-10
  3. Big Ten
  4. Big XII
  5. ACC
  6. Mountain West
  7. Big East
  8. WAC

The first four teams to receive automatic bids would be the champions of the highest-ranked conferences: Auburn, Oregon, Wisconsin, Oklahoma. Next, the two highest ranked conference champions (that weren’t already offered bids based on conference) would receive bids: TCU (Mountain West champion) and Boise State (WAC champion). Finally, the highest two remaining teams would receive bids: Stanford and Ohio State. The teams would then be paired in the playoffs based on conference tie-in to bowl game:

Rose Bowl: Oregon vs. Wisconsin

Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma vs. TCU

Sugar Bowl: Auburn vs. Boise State

Orange Bowl: Ohio State vs. Stanford

The winners of each game could then be seeded based on BCS ranking and play in the national semifinal.

For sake of example: (1) Auburn vs. (4) Stanford and (2) Oregon vs. (3) TCU.

The winners would play in the national championship game. It could have still been Auburn vs. Oregon, but who knows for sure?

Since this is a theological blog, I’ll be writing a few posts in the days to come on some theological connections to the current state of college football. That will come in the future, though; for now, we’ll stay focused on football.

These are just a few suggestions that could hopefully solve some of the major solutions facing college football. What do you think? What are your ideas?