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Conference champion requirement surefire way to undermine playoff


In an interview last weekend with the New York Times, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott became the latest prominent voice to express support for a potential four-team playoff. It was more good news for anyone still skeptical that this thing might really, finally happen.

Scott also gave credence to an increasingly popular notion that said tournament should only be open to teams that win their conference championship. "So much of the passion of a move to a playoff is to see it earned on the field," Scott said. "What more clear way to have intellectual consistency with the idea of a playoff than to earn it as a conference champion."

Scott, as we've learned, is incredibly intelligent, even when he's not using fancy phrases like "intellectual consistency." He's also hardly alone in holding this opinion; former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, the BCS' original architect, told much the same thing recently.

Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe I'm on an island primarily full of Alabama fans. But this seems like a terrible idea.

I think rewarding conference champions is noble. I love the idea of enhancing the importance of the regular season. But we already had a system that did that: bowl games. If a team won the Big Ten, it earned a trip to Pasadena; if a team won the SEC, it went to the Sugar Bowl, etc. That rewarded conference champions just fine.

But if the goal is to determine a true national champion by playing out a bracket, that other stuff has to be put aside so the four best teams can take the field. Period.

If last year's field had consisted solely of conference champions, here's what a bracket would have looked like (using BCS standings): No. 3 Oklahoma State vs. No. 5 Oregon on one side, No. 1 LSU vs. No. 10 Wisconsin on the other.

Think people are ticked at the current system? Imagine the reaction to that.

"It would de-emphasize the highly subjective polls that are based on a coach and media voting and a few computers," Scott said of a champions-only field, and that's admittedly tempting. Unfortunately, fully achieving that is impossible since there are more than four conferences. A group of people -- be it poll voters or members of a selection committee -- would still have to decide the four most deserving teams regardless of the conditions, and they would still rely on some form of ranking to reach that decision.

There's a reason every playoff system in every major sport includes wild-card teams or at-large berths. It's an acknowledgement that in a given year, some divisions or conferences will be stronger than others. That's even truer in decentralized college football than in the NFL or NBA. Any rational person would say the second- (and possibly third-) best team in the SEC was stronger than the best team in last year's ACC, Big East or Big Ten. So why would we want a system that artificially elevates one of the latter at the expense of the former?

Mind you, I'm the same guy who strongly advocated last December that Big 12 champion Oklahoma State should have earned the spot opposite LSU in New Orleans instead of Alabama, which did not win its own division, let alone conference. But that was because I felt the Cowboys had accomplished more over the course of the season; I'd have felt that way if the teams' résumés had been the same but their statuses as champion and non-champion reversed.

If anything, the commissioners have made it harder than ever to place value on conference titles thanks to realignment. There are now massive discrepancies between the various leagues, both in size and in the way they crown their champions.

For example: Next season, Texas will face all nine of its fellow Big 12 members, six of which -- Oklahoma State (12-1), TCU (11-2), Kansas State (10-3), Baylor (10-3), West Virginia (10-3) and Oklahoma (10-3) -- won at least 10 games last season. Meanwhile, Alabama will face eight of 13 possible SEC opponents. The Tide get LSU (13-1) and Arkansas (11-2) but miss South Carolina (11-2) and Georgia (10-4).

It's possible that Alabama, benefitting from an imbalanced schedule, could go 12-1 and win its conference, while Texas could go 11-1 but finish second in its league to 12-0 Oklahoma. Yet Scott and Kramer would leave the Longhorns out of the playoff while including, say, 11-2 ACC champion Florida State.

That doesn't make sense.

No system will be without controversy. Had a four-team playoff with no restrictions been in place last season, one could have argued for as many as eight similarly bunched one- or two-loss teams for the fourth spot. Had there been a conference-champion requirement, there would only have been eight teams eligible for that final spot -- and one would have been 8-4 Louisiana Tech.

That doesn't make sense either.

It's unknown at this point how many other key decision-makers share Scott's opinion. (We know at least one who doesn't: Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, whose independent school holds a seat at the table alongside the 11 conferences.) But they'll discuss this angle extensively, and it's easy to see why they'd find it attractive. The commissioners represent their conferences first and foremost, and the more the bids are dispersed, the more their member schools stand to benefit.

But a conference champion restriction runs antithetical to two other key issues BCS leaders are currently addressing. For one, they're already trying to disentangle themselves from the BCS' longstanding AQ/non-AQ conference structure, primarily because it shoehorns undeserving teams into some of the most coveted bowl spots. This would possibly do the same thing, only with greater implications.

Meanwhile, Bill Hancock and Co. have repeatedly expressed concern about "bracket creep," i.e., the inevitability that a four-team playoff will produce pressure to expand to eight, then 16.

Well, there's one surefire way to make that happen: Stage a four-team playoff that includes the nation's 10th-best team.