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Compromises should be temporary: End the stupidity of the four-team CFB playoff

November 27, 2017
Alabama v Auburn

Kevin C. Cox

Progress in college football happens at a glacial pace. And while that's a metaphor, it's not much of an exaggeration.

I was 10 years old in 1993 when Notre Dame beat Florida State in a battle of the nation's top two teams—the so-called "game of the century"—and as an Irish fan (blame my stepfather), I was thrilled. But late in that same season, Notre Dame fell to Boston College in a last-second stunner, which threw the whole year into chaos. The voters of the AP and Coaches Poll had to decide which team was best, and after the Noles were fortunate enough to draw and defeat No. 2 team Nebraska in their bowl game—while Notre Dame beat No. 7 Texas A&M—they were crowned champs in both polls. There were a few things that struck me as stupid about this situation, even at the time:

1. Notre Dame beat Florida State. Does it get more clear-cut than that? Why did it even matter that Notre Dame lost to Boston College?

2. But actually, wait—the FSU-ND game was in South Bend. If you account for home field advantage, it means you'd expect FSU to win at home, and probably on neutral field too. So maybe the Noles deserved it?

3. Still, it was dumb that they won the "title" by the random virtue of playing no. 2 Nebraska (the Big 8 and ACC champs were set to play in a bowl game, regardless of ranking), which gave them a better final win than Notre Dame. If the Irish got to play Nebraska, and won, they'd probably have been voted no. 1.

More than anything, though, I remember thinking how stupid it was that a major American sport existed, in the year 1993, with no title game. How the hell could it all come down to voters? (Thank God I didn't know any sports writers personally back then, or I'd have passed out in a cold fury.) Just have Notre Dame and Florida State play! How hard would that be?? There was no other sport that lacked a traditional championship, and as a 10-year-old who basically only cared about this stuff, it struck me as the worst kind of cosmic injustice. Even the other college football divisions had playoffs!

Things would have to change. Right?

Yes. Kinda.

Five years later, the mathematically inscrutable BCS was formed to select two teams to play for a national championship in one of the major bowls, and later a separate game called the "BCS National Championship." This was better, but the 1993 season was instructive—even if you'd had Notre Dame and FSU play for a title, it would have left out undefeated Nebraska. And, of course, this pattern repeated, with undefeated teams being left out of title games repeatedly between 1998 and 2013. In 2003, the AP actually selected a national championship team (USC) from outside the BCS title game. Great system, right?

It was still stupid, and it persisted for 15 years. FIFTEEN $%#&$ YEARS! Remember what I said about progress and glaciers? I mean, even Obama campaigned on instituting a legitimate playoff in 2008, and couldn't do a thing about it. Then, in 2014, at long last, the BCS expanded to a four-team playoff.

Which was great. Kinda.

It's certainly been better, but again, there's a significant flaw here—quite often, a potential national title team gets left out of the mix. And depending on the results of next week's conference title games, it could very well happen this year.

In all likelihood, the winner of the Auburn-Georgia game and the winner of the Miami-Clemson game will make the final four, while the loser will not. That means that if Wisconsin can beat Ohio State, and Oklahoma can beat TCU, Alabama will be left out of the playoff.

Now, look...I hate Alabama. I want to make that clear. It would be hilarious to me if the angry, joyless tyrant Nick Saban and his crew of semi-pro ringers get excluded. But it would also be extremely stupid and unjust. Here's what Alabama did this year: They won every single game, in a really tough conference, until playing their rival in one of the country's most intense road atmospheres.

The Auburn game is not one you should expect Alabama to win! At all! It's hard to go undefeated even in a weak conference (see Clemson losing to Syracuse), and it's even harder to beat a very good rival in front of their home fans. But by the vagaries of college football, the Tide now get excluded from the SEC Championship game, which means their fate is out of their hands, which means if results go as expected, they're probably facing Penn State in some meaningless bowl game.

The main point I want to make is that the Tide could absolutely win a national title, and it's ridiculous to exclude them in a year when their resume stacks up with absolutely any other team. This is the problem with a four-team playoff compromise—it leaves out a potential champion, every single year, in a way that an 8-team playoff would not. Usually it's the Big 12 getting screwed, though an extremely good Ohio State team got the shaft in 2015. For what it's worth, it's also pretty common to see a Western Michigan-type team go undefeated and get nowhere near the playoff. And while I'm not arguing that the mid-majors of the world could actually win, isn't it kinda silly that a team could win every game and not even get a shot at the title?

It took absolutely forever to institute a flawed national title game in this sport, and then it took 15 years longer to let four teams have a chance—a limited compromise that every other sport realized was insufficient decades ago. All this despite the fact that we've known what to do for decades. Let's not wait until 2030 to make the obvious next move. Push the glacier downhill, let good sense overcome bureaucratic inertia, and expand the damn playoff.

The Second-Most Insane Sports Relic of the Week: Fighting in Hockey

I can't tell if I love or hate that fighting is actually condoned in hockey, but no matter where I come down on a given day, I will never stop thinking it's totally nuts. I mean, two vicious dudes square up, everyone moves out of the way, and the refs basically skate around them in a circle until it's over. Remember when Ron Artest charged into the stands in Detroit after some dude threw a soda at him, and was suspended for 86 games? I always think of that every time I see a fight in hockey. I think of how even a hint of physical violence is treated like the JFK assassination in all other sports, but in hockey it's an organized part of the game, which essentially means that it's encouraged.

This is another thing that will eventually, inevitably change, and people are going to be pissed. But in the meantime, I encourage all hockey players not to fight with Kevin Bieksa:

The Third-Most Insane Sports Relic of the Week: South Carolina Football Fans

Big congrats to Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers for winning at Stadium Azteca this weekend:

Was Dabo pissed? Oh yeah, Dabo was pissed. And there's no better way to end an angry football column than with an angry football coach: