By Paul M. Banks
When President-Elect Barack Obama appeared on CBSâ€™s 60 Minutes in November, he mentioned that he would â€œthrow his weight aroundâ€ in trying to get a college football playoff system. And yes, he obviously has much more important things to do with saving our economy from another Great Depression, solving the climate crisis, getting us out of Iraq, fixing our healthcare and education crises, and damage control home and abroad from the myriad of failures courtesy of the Bush administration, but the college football postseason is in equally dire straits. And if anyone can fix it, youâ€™d think the President of the Empire would be the guy, right?
The argument for a college football playoff reminds me of a similar argument for universal health careâ€¦for ages there has been an overwhelming demand by most people, itâ€™s the right and just thing to implement, it benefits almost everybody, but a small band of narrow-minded but nonetheless powerful interests hold us back. The big pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies spend a lot of money to pollute minds and influence congress into keeping the archaic system in place, much like the moneyed interests of the BCS -the commissioners of the Big 12, Pac 10, Big Ten, and Big East especially- keep the inequitable bowl system in place. However, there are compromises which can be made so weâ€™ll have â€œchange we can believe in.â€
-You must be 10-2 or 9-3 at worst to reach the postseason
There are currently 34 bowls which provide a slot for 68 teams. There are 120 total Division I FBS teams, so MORE THAN HALF get in? Are you kidding me? A good number of these teams went 6-6 or 7-5 and had no business in the postseason. (Minnesota and Wisconsin are two good examples) Some of these scrub bowl games, like the GMAC and International, are well after New Year’s Day (Like theyâ€™re trying to trick us into believing that theyâ€™re bowl game is important or something) One of college footballâ€™s greatest strength is its tradition, and tradition used to dictate less than 15-20 total bowls with all of them coming within a couple days of New Yearâ€™s. We can be nostalgic. Any expansion game in the past decade or so has been a toilet bowl anyway. Would anyone actually miss the Magic Jack St. Petersburg or New Mexico Bowl?
-Second-tier Bowl Games become the Football NIT
What does college basketball do with the better-than-average teams that didnâ€™t qualify for the field of 64 in the postseason?Â They grant them a place in the consolation bracket known as the NIT. We could do the same in football. The Chicago Tribuneâ€™s Teddy Greenstein disagrees. In his column â€œCollege Football Playoff Makes no Senseâ€ he wroteÂ â€œAnd the bowls outside the playoff would become practically invisible, harming the communities they support.â€
Well, thatâ€™s just too bad for the weaker bowl games and the communities like Mobile, Alabama and Shreveport, Louisiana! Maybe they just need to find other strategies for improving their local economies. How â€œvisibleâ€ is the Meineke Car Care or Texas Bowl anyway? Besides, football is a sport that markets itself as the toughest of all. And its deep historical connections to the military give the game an ethos of Social Darwinism, so why let the meek survive anyway? Top 16 go to the playoffs, next 16 go to the bowl games, the next best teams after the top 32 can stay home, work hard and hopefully say â€œyes we canâ€ next fall.
Yes, some teams will feel left outâ€¦of both brackets. There will inevitably be some unjust losers exactly like we have in the current system, but in order to make an omelet you must break a few eggs. At least we wonâ€™t have to deal with any undefeated or one loss teams left out in the cold. Also, of the four non-BCS conference teams that earned a BCS bid, three of them won. Under the new system, theyâ€™d be given the chance that they truly deserved.
-If your bowl name is a brand, youâ€™re gone!
How stupid and annoying is it to have a bowl game that is nameless other than its sponsor? If the Outback, Capital One and Chick-fil-a Bowl want to stick around, then they need to go back to referring to themselves as the Hall of Fame, Citrus and Peach Bowls. Iâ€™m actually old enough to remember the good olâ€™ days when there were zero bowls who completely sold out their moniker, and most bowls didnâ€™t even have a sponsor. I was lucky enough to cover a bowl game for the school newspaper in 1999. Unfortunately, my experience was tainted by the fact that the bowl game I attended right before the Millenium was called the Micronpc.com Bowl. Before that, it was called the Carquest Bowl, before that is was known as the Blockbuster Bowl. Iâ€™m sure no one wonders why this bowl is defunct today. And besides, if I have to write about the Papa Johnâ€™s.com Bowl, shouldnâ€™t the White Castle of pizza at least give me royalties for shameless promotion?
-Keep some of the bowls, make them playoffs
I recently had an exclusive with Lavell Edwards, the only man to ever coach a non-BCS conference team to a national title (BYU 1984). And if the status quo remains, no one else will ever share his honor. â€œI donâ€™t like the BCS, because the school I was at is not part of the BCS, and the BCS controls all the finances and itâ€™s really not the best thing for college football per say, for all college teams. But the playoff system as opposed to the bowls and all those kinds of things, I donâ€™t know. Everyoneâ€™s got an opinion on that. Iâ€™ve always liked the bowl games, and I donâ€™t know if Iâ€™d ever be in favor of a playoff system. I think youâ€™d still be having the same kind of issues as what you have now. Thereâ€™s always going to be that third team thatâ€™s left out- like Auburn was a couple years ago or Texas this year,â€ Edwards responded when I asked him his opinion on the postseason. For an ideal compromise, you could keep the bowl games, along with the conference championship games (which are played on a neutral site and sometimes act as a play-in game of sorts), and integrate them into the playoff.
Bowl Games claim to be neutral site, yet Vanderbilt, Cal, USC, Louisiana Tech and even Buffalo all played de facto home games this bowl season. Like most years, this season saw some teams with worse records than their opponents have â€œhome field advantage.â€ This must change under the new system!
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald disagrees with Barack about the need for a playoff system and I understand why he feels that way. If a new system, calling for only 8 or 16 playoff teams were in place, his 9-3 Wildcats might have been passed over. And any bowl game is MUCH better for EVERYONE involved than no bowl game (although the Eagle Bank and Motor City bowl come close). Fitz knows that he is part of a system that is anything but a meritocracy. NU had a higher ranking, better record and won a head-to-head match-up over Iowa, yet the Hawkeyes got a better bowl slot than the Cats.
â€œThe bowls have earned the right to pick anyone they choose,â€ Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips said. Thatâ€™s true, but they made their choice based on what fan-base traditionally travels better and spends more money. Yes, I know the game is played on a green rectangle which reminds us all just how much itâ€™s all about the dough, but it doesnâ€™t have to be. Phillips is regarded as one of the best in the business for many reasons, one of which is the aggressive way he marketed his program and his team for bowl placement. However, the fact that he has to hard-sell in the first place is more evidence of just how broken the current system is.
Like I said before, one of college footballâ€™s greatest assets is tradition. But you can keep traditions in tact while moving forward. One of the best examples originated from my alma mater, the University of Illinois. When superstar halfback Red Grange was done with school in the 1920s, professional football leagues were considered an abomination at worst; a pathetic joke at best. But Grange, along with fellow Illini George Halas, broke from tradition to give professional football the star power and leadership infrastructure it badly needed to establish itself. Long ago, the NFL passed up the college game to become Americaâ€™s best loved (and most lucrative) game. If the college game has a true meritocratic playoff system, maybe it can go back to holding the position in our culture that it once had.
Paul M. Banks is a contributor for NBCChicago.com and The Washington Times