By Joseph Beyda
The college sports powers-that-be have spoken, and they have decided that a single Final Four in late March and early April just isn’t enough.
That’s why they’re adding another one in the first week of January.
After the commissioners of the 11 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences (and separatist Notre Dame’s athletics director) met last week to decide what will become of the BCS, they finally determined to install a four-team playoff in college football. It’s unclear if the current BCS ranking system will be used to select the top four teams, but by 2014, we’re going to have a playoff, whether you like it or not.
As a good Pac-12 football fan, the first words out of your mouth should be: What about the Rose Bowl?
How existing bowls—BCS and otherwise—will be integrated into the new system still remains to be seen. One popular model is that the semifinal bowls will be determined by the conference of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams; that is, if Stanford finished first in the country (Barry J. Sanders for Heisman in 2014, anyone?), it would play in the Rose Bowl against the four-seed, and if LSU finished second, it would play in the Sugar Bowl against the three-seed.
So the Pac-12’s chance of being represented in the Rose Bowl isn’t seismically better or worse, it’s just…different. As of now, pretty much the only way a Pac-12 team isn’t included in the Rose Bowl is if the conference champion plays in the national title game and there isn’t a BCS-eligible squad from the conference to fill the void. The one exception was in 2005, when No. 1 USC went to the championship game and No. 5 Texas got the Rose-Bowl nod over No. 4 Cal (not that I have any sympathy).
Under the proposed system, a Pac-12 team would get to play in the Rose Bowl if it was ranked No. 1, and the same would be true for No. 2 as long as a Big Ten team hadn’t already claimed the bid with the top ranking. But a Pac-12 team won’t be playing in Pasadena if it finishes out of the top-two and the Big Ten does, except for the off chance that the 1-4/2-3 seedings match up perfectly to put a Big Ten and Pac-12 squad in the same game. There is, however, some talk of giving slightly lower-ranked conference champions a chance to play in the Final Four to help maintain tradition.
So, at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly offensive about the four-team playoff plan. Then again, the BCS didn’t seem all that bad before it was marred by years of controversial bowl selections.
Fairness will always take center stage, but my main concern has always gotten way less air-time than it deserves. By adding an extra game, we’re continuing down the slippery slope of extending the season further and further. What was most a 12-game schedule 20 years ago—regular-season contests and a bowl—will now be a 15-game monstrosity for two teams, who have to go through hard-fought conference title games, the semifinal bowls and the national championship.
Since the SEC became the first conference that crowned its winner with a championship game in 1992, players have consistently been asked to put their bodies on the line more frequently. The proliferation of the conference postseason, the addition of a 12th regular-season game in 2006 and the increase in the number of bowl games all contribute to wear and tear on the athletes, especially those in high-pressure situations.
Injuries add up over a career—just ask Chris Owusu, whose three concussions over 13 months nearly ended his playing time on the Farm and could sideline him permanently. And when the two teams in the national title game are asked to play nearly a full NFL schedule, the clock starts ticking much faster for a bunch of players’ careers.
At the end of the day, a four-team playoff seems like a decent compromise between the current system and larger, eight- or sixteen-team proposals. But ensuring that we crown the “rightful” national champion comes at a price, and when critics of the new system inevitably start advocating for larger playoff fields in a few years’ time, we need to keep in mind that by playing more games, we may be asking just too much of college athletes.
Joseph Beyda is not sold on the four-team playoff system just yet. Give him your own postseason proposals at jbeyda”at”stanford.edu.