With the Big Ten athletic directors apparently giving up on the idea of on-campus semifinals (all while expressing interest in playing in December at Yankee Stadium, so very cold weather is apparently only unfair when an important game is involved), the major issue remaining for a college football playoff is the composition. The decision-makers seem to be set on a four-team playoff that involves the bowls, so the major question is whether the playoff will take the four highest-ranked teams or the four highest-ranked conference champions. Generally speaking, the SEC is seen as favoring the former because they are more likely to get multiple teams into the playoff, whereas conferences like the Big Ten, ACC, and Big East want the latter because they are less likely to get shut out under that system.
My natural inclination is to support the SEC’s position, both because I like the conference and because a playoff ought to be about the best four teams battling. There is little that’s appealing about the prospect of #2 Alabama sitting at home last December while #10 Wisconsin played on after two losses against a schedule larded down by Barry Alvarez’s usual buffet of fluffy non-conference pastries.
However, there are also reasons why a conference champion-only playoff would not be bad. From the SEC perspective, one such reason is the argument advanced by Jason Kirk, which is that SEC conference champions would see an easier path to the title. While Alabama would have been annoyed to be left out last December, LSU would surely have preferred to play Wisconsin and then the Oklahoma State-Oregon winner as opposed to Oregon or Stanford and then Alabama.
A second reason why the conference champion-only idea makes sense is that it furthers the notion of college football being a season-long playoff. Part of what makes college football unique is the importance of the regular season, the way that a narrative builds from the summer, rolls into the games, and towards a final conclusion. Every week matters in terms of determining the ultimate champion, as opposed to games functioning as mere preliminaries to get into the concluding tournament that takes on elevated importance. If the playoff takes only conference champions, then the season would have the beautiful, clean lines of a yacht. The conference regular seasons would play into the conference title games, which would act as de facto quarterfinals. The non-conference games would take on less importance, except to allow the differentiation of the conference champions (and Notre Dame), so the season would really only get kicking in late September, but it would make logical sense.
From a fairness perspective, the question is whether the most deserving teams actually win their conferences. If that is the case, then a playoff with only conference champions makes sense. If that is not the case, then the playoff has problems. For instance, last season was a good year for the best teams winning their conference crowns. LSU won the SEC because they won at Tuscaloosa. Oregon won the Pac 12 because they won at Stanford. Oklahoma State was clearly the best team in the Big XII, beating all comers with the exception of a bizarre loss in Ames. Clemson and Virginia Tech were the two best teams in the ACC and Clemson clobbered the Hokies twice, neither time in Death Valley. Wisconsin beat Michigan State at a neutral site after losing to the Spartans on the final play in a regular season, a game that was certainly within the margin for homefield advantage. In sum, each of the five major conferences crowned a worthy champion.
However, the Badgers’ prior collection of conference titles illustrate that conferences often spit out less-than-deserving champions. Wisconsin won three Big Ten titles in the 1990s and each one was schedule-aided. They won the league in 1993 based on the fact that they had been to the Rose Bowl less recently than Ohio State and benefited from avoiding 10-2 Penn State. In 1998, they again benefited from the least-recent visit rule after finishing in a tie with Michigan and Ohio State in a season in which they did not play the Buckeyes. (Ohio State was clearly the best team in the league that season and would have been a 5.5 point favorite over Wisconsin on a neutral field according to Sagarin.) In 1999, the Badgers had the best league record, but avoided 10-3 Penn State and almost certainly would have been an underdog in a conference title game against Michigan, given that the Wolverines had won in Madison earlier in the year. (Sagarin says that Michigan would have been an ever-so-slight favorite.)
While the Big Ten’s goofy tie-breakers are a thing of the past now that the league has joined modern college football by having divisions and a conference title game, even leagues with championship games can have issues. The SEC Championship Game has generally been won by the superior team (or at least a team that entered the game on a similar footing to the ultimate loser), but there is one season that stands out as a counter: 2001. That year, the SEC boasted the two teams that would have been the most likely to give mighty Miami a game: Florida and Tennessee. The Gators went 10-2 with the only two losses coming in close games without Ernest Graham. Their ten wins were all blowouts. The Vols upset Florida at the Swamp with Travis Stephens running wild and came to Atlanta to face a markedly inferior 8-3 LSU team. Both Tennessee and Florida had handled LSU comfortably during the regular season. Nevertheless, even with LSU having to play most of the game with a back-up quarterback (or perhaps because of that fact, as John Chavis did not cover himself in glory by failing to figure out how to defend Matt Mauck running a quarterback draw), LSU won the game.
It is never a good idea to make a rule based on a outlying occurrence. The SEC Championship Game has been played 21 times and only once has a demonstrably inferior team benefited from its puncher’s chance to get a crown in place of an obviously superior team. The SEC’s experience should reduce our concerns that a conference-only playoff will include teams that are less deserving than others in their own conferences. The Big Ten’s history is different, but one would expect that it will produce fewer inferior champions now that it has a title game. Thus, this little mental exercise ought to make us feel a little more comfortable with a playoff that includes only conference champions.